To address bullying, we need to apply what has been learned, from observational studies of kids at play

A Nov. 7, 2020 CBC Second Opinion article can be summarized as follows:

  • In facing the onslaught of COVID-19, South Korea has excelled at application of a robust test, trace, and isolate system. New Zealand locked down quickly, then shifted to a South Korean model focused on building up testing, tracing, and isolating cases. But Australia learned the hard way what can go terribly wrong.
  • Experts say insufficient public health measures and complacency brought Canada to where we are today; quick work is required to turn things around – or at least to prevent them from getting worse.

Based on my life experiences, I’m a data-oriented person. I believe in the value of evidence and data.

Show me a stuttering treatment method that is backed up by outcomes research published in a peer-reviewed professional journal and I will have an interest in learning more about it.

Tell me about an approach to stuttering that is not backed up by outcomes research and I will consider what somebody has to say, but I will be dubious.

As the CBC Second Opinion article, which I’ve used as introduction to the current post, notes, some countries demonstrate a close coordination between the science related to COVID-19, and the governance – by which I refer to how governments mobilize (or fail to mobilize) resources to address COVID-19.

Schoolyard teasing and bullying

When we speak of governance as it relates to bullying, we are speaking about what Canadian provinces and territories are required to do, to ensure that all children are safe and protected at school.

Bullying is an issue that is of concern in schools everywhere.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has published extensive research regarding how well countries around the world are doing in addressing bullying, a public health issue affecting young people worldwide.

Canada as I recall from past research is ranked somewhere in the middle, in terms of how much bullying goes on in our schools.

On some measures such as rates of victimization by bullying, as Debra Pepler of York University has noted at a podcast referred to at a previous post, Canadian schools are in the bottom third of rich countries for our rates of victimization.

Lisa Avery of the University of British Columbia has shared with me information about a stuttering treatment approach (documented in journal articles) that is based on concepts promoted by the World Health Organization. In this approach, children who stutter learn to address, on their own, the teasing and bullying that may be directed at them. At a future post I will share information about what Lisa Avery has shared with me.

I have also learned about the use of mindfulness as a component of a classroom-based approach to dealing with teasing and bullying including of children who stutter. I have learned about the latter approach from Sadia Khan who teaches at the Peel District School Board. I will also share information about this approach at a future post.

I have elsewhere referred to an anti-bullying program, Teasing and Bullying: Unacceptable Behaviour, which Marilyn Langevin of the University of Alberta has developed. Langevin notes that it’s advisable to address bullying of schoolchildren in the context of bullying in general.

Intersection between science and governance

The intersection between what scientific research has learned about bullying, and how well that research is actually applied in practice, is of interest.

When we speak of the application, within school boards, of science-based research about bullying, we are dealing with how well governance works.

We are dealing with legislation that seeks to ensure that schools have effective anti-bullying programs in place, so that bullying does not run rampant as may happen if nothing is in place to stop it.

The PREVNet website – the acronym stands for Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network – features information about anti-bullying legislation in provinces and territories across Canada.  Schools are required under existing legislation, as I understand, to have anti-bullying measures in place.

I’ve presented several workshops dealing with teasing and bullying.

By teasing, I refer to hurtful teasing which is a component of schoolyard bullying. By teasing I do not refer to friendly teasing between good friends.

Each time I present a workshop, I learn new things – from reflections shared by workshop participants, and from what I learn when preparing for such events.

For a Canadian Stuttering Association (CSA) workshop on Nov. 8, 2020 about bullying, I’ve prepared a 15-minute video which introduces the workshop, which will be available as a  Zoom recording at the CSA website.

At the current post, I will share highlights from a widely cited 1999 research article by Paul O’Connell, Debra Pepler, and Wendy Craig in the Journal of Adolescence.

You can access the article at the following link:

Peer involvement in bullying: insights and challenges for intervention (1999)

Peer involvement in bullying: 1999 research article by Paul O’Connell, Debra Pepler, and Wendy Craig

The article does not directly deal with bullying of children who stutter. It deals with bullying in general. That’s the best place to start.

The direct observation of school playground bullying involved teams of researchers equipped with video cameras positioned at some distance from children at play. Children wore pouches equipped with wireless microphones which recorded their conversations during bullying episodes.

To be more precise, certain children had pouches with microphones inside of them. Other children wore placebo pouches, without a microphone. In that way, all the children were running around with pouches and after a while, the presence of the pouches was ignored by the children on the playground.

The abstract for the article notes that the research looks at the role that peers play during bullying episodes on the school playground as examined from a social learning perspective.

I will start with some excerpts (I have broken a longer piece of text into shorter paragraphs) from the abstract:

Fifty-three segments of video tape were examined. Each segment contained a peer group (two or more peers) that viewed bullying on the school playground. Peers were coded for actively joining or passively reinforcing the bully, and for actively intervening on behalf of the victim.

On average, four peers viewed the schoolyard bullying, with a range from two to 14 peers. Averaged across all episodes, peers spent 54% of their time reinforcing bullies by passively watching, 21% of their time actively modelling bullies, and 25% of their time intervening on behalf of victims.

Older boys (grades 4-6) were more likely to actively join with the bully than were younger boys (grades 1-3) and older girls.

Both younger and older girls were more likely to intervene on behalf of victims than were older boys.

The results were interpreted as confirming peers’ central roles in the processes that unfold during playground bullying episodes.

The article discusses the results in terms of the challenges posed to peer-led interventions. “Peers’ anti-bullying initiatives,” the authors note, “must be reinforced by simultaneous whole-school interventions.”

Power differentials

I have noted in my 15-minute video that a power differential, between a child who bullies and a child who is bullied, is a key component of a standard definition of bullying. I’ve also noted that according to some observers, in some cases bullying may occur without a power differential.

The article describes the general context of the research:

The problem of bullying is systemic, extending beyond the bully and victim. Like other forms of aggression, bullying unfolds in a set of social contexts: the dyad, the peer group, the playground setting, and the school environment. The focus of the present analyses is on the peer context in which bullying unfolds.

At this post, I will focus on just a few points related to the topic of power differentials. A key point from the article reads:

Power differentials in the bully-victim relationship can accrue through many means – one is having a group of supportive peers backing the aggressor.

At this post I will focus on the conclusion of the article. Before I address the conclusion, I will say a few things.

There’s extensive research about public attitudes about stuttering, as I have noted at previous posts related to the work of Kenneth St. Louis at West Virginia University.

One of the key things that has come out of that research is that just explaining what stuttering is about – that is, just by sharing facts about the neurological foundations of stuttering – will not change attitudes.

On the other hand preliminary evidence, from public opinion research, indicates that when people who stutter share their stories, we can actually change attitudes.

After I retired from teaching in 2006, for many years I spoke once a year to primary and elementary students at a school in Toronto. One year, I also visited a school in Brampton, presenting the same talk to a series of classes of students at the school library, throughout the course of a school day.

At these events, I would tell my own story as a person who stutters and read a children’s book about a child who stutters. My talks at a Toronto school were usually in the mornings before morning recess. At recess time, when my talks were concluded, often students from the class in question would speak to me in the hallway and say they found the talk of interest.

Among the stories I would share is the story of when, in my teens or early twenties, I picked up the phone one day intending to speak to someone about something. After twenty seconds or longer (I have no idea how long this took) of trying to say “Hello” I hung up the phone. I spoke with the students about how that felt: “Here I was, at the beginning of my life. I pick up the phone, and I can’t even say ‘Hello'”.

On occasion I would also tell the story of how in high school a friend suggested I run as a candidate for student council president. Even though I stuttered severely in those days, I took up the challenge. I prepared a speech and rehearsed it endlessly at home. I made two speeches in the school auditorium, speaking each time to hundreds of students.

Given the prior rehearsal and given that on this occasion I was able to coordinate my breathing with the process of speech production, I spoke fluently from start to finish, to the amazement of the audience, and to my own amazement. When the speech was over, there was a moment of silence followed by a huge round of applause. I won the election. Sometimes when I have told the story, the students would break into a round of applause. They could relate to the story.

I will close with a quotation from a 1999 Journal of Adolescence by Debra Pepler and two of her graduate students, Paul O’Connell and Wendy Craig:


In summary, our analyses of the observational data confirm that peers are substantially involved in playground bullying, whether as active participants or as bystanders who are unable or unwilling to act pro-socially. During bullying episodes, 75% of peers’ time is spent in ways that may provide positive reinforcement to the bully and do not help the victim.

Effective interventions that involve the peer group will need to have two components. First, it is important to raise peers’ awareness of individual responsibility and increase empathy for the victim. Second, it is necessary to provide effective intervention strategies for children, and to encourage them to withstand the dynamics of the peer group. In combination, these strategies might mobilize the silent majority to act against playground bullying.

Interventions targeting the peer group in anti-bullying programs must be reinforced by simultaneous broader systemic initiatives. Whole-school approaches which involve students, teachers, school administrators, and parents might successfully challenge existing social conditions that tolerate, and inadvertently promote, bullying and victimization within the peer context.

What is a key point from the conclusion? It is this: Power differentials can take many forms, when it comes to bullying. Some children are keen to intervene when they see bullying happening. If a school (or any other institution) has a culture of bullying where bullying runs rampant, the would-be intervenor may be hesitant to intervene because the school or institution may not be there to support such an intervention.

On the other hand, if a school or institution has a protocol in place for dealing with bullying – if it has, in other words, a viable anti-bullying program in place – then the would-be intervener will be much more at ease about stepping forward and confronting the bully – either directly, or by privately informing a person in authority, such as a teacher, that a particular individual has been bullying some other student or students. When there’s an effective anti-bullying program in place, the power differential is on the side of the intervener; it is no longer a situation where the person who bullies is likely to have the edge in power.

As I have noted in previous posts about the Toronto District School Board and the Peel District School Board, on occasion the person who bullies in a school system may be a person in authority such as senior official. In some cases, what is at play is a group of senior officials engaged in collaborative aggression.

Such a situation – which may involve the launching, by senior school board officials, of defamation lawsuits against people who wish to speak out about specified concerns; declaring that certain trustees are speaking out of order at board meetings; banning of certain individuals – who wish to speak out about topics such as anti-Black racism in schools – from school property; or arranging for the laying of what subsequently turn out to be unwarranted criminal charges – can be addressed, so long as a viable and robust protocol is in place.

In cases I have outlined previously, the Ministry of Education has stepped in with the intent of straightening things out.

When systemic and structural issues that are associated with particular power differentials at school boards are at play, such underlying issues must be addressed – methodically, comprehensively and in a manner that is strongly data-driven.

Technical details regarding video cameras and wireless microphones

Details regarding the remote microphone system and camcorders used in the above-noted observational research are available in a 1995 Developmental Psychology article by Debra Pepler and Wendy Craig:

A Peek Behind the Fence: Naturalistic Observatiions of Aggressive Children With Remote Audiovisual Recording

Of related interest:

Peer Exclusion in Preschool Children’s Play: Naturalistic Observations in a Playground Setting

This 2012 Merrill-Palmer Quarterly article by Suzanne Marie Fanger, Leslie Ann Frankel, and Nancy Hazen outlines use of wireless microphones among preschool children.

As discussed at a previous post, it may be noted that Marilyn Langevin of the University of Alberta among others has published results of observational research involving preschool children who stutter, who may be subjected to negative attitudes and exclusion during play with peers.

Linguistic anthropology

I have learned much of value from reading analyses of bullying where the analysis in formulated in the language of linguistic anthropology.

Such an approach, a form of discourse analysis, entails detailed study of what is actually said – how the words are strung together and how body language and gestures are used to augment a message, as phrases and sentences are formulated in dialogues involving children at play – in the course of schoolyard bullying and other activities that take place at recess time.

Such an approach to analysis serves as an excellent complement to the kind of observational research that Debra Pepler and colleagues have conducted in Canada.

Some posts that focus on linguistic anthropology and related topics include:

Linguistic anthropology features a close study of schoolyard games of stance, status, and exclusion

Video-based analysis of bullying and violence: Marjorie Harness Goodwin (2006) and Randall Collins (2008)

Goodwin (2006), Bartra (2014), and Filion (2015) offer insights of relevance to community self-organizing

Aside from addressing bullying, Marjorie H. Goodwin (2006) focuses on collaboration and political agency

Marjorie Harness Goodwin (2006) argues that more longitudinal studies are needed regarding gender differences in bullying

Ethnography, journalism, filmmaking, and screenwriting

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