Sunday, January 5, 2014

How Can we Prevent Bullying in Schools? A Critique of Boston Public Schools Saturdays for Success Program – Elizabeth Cavagnaro

Youth violence, or bullying, is a widespread problem in the United States and has received increased attention in recent years.  Bullying is an important public health issue, as it can result is physical injury, social and emotional problems, and leads to an increased risk for mental health problems, including depression and anxiety (1).   In an effort to prevent bullying in schools, 49 states, including Massachusetts, have passed anti-bullying legislation (2).  In response, Boston Public Schools (BPS) has enacted a program called Saturdays for Success to try and address this issue (2).
Saturdays for Success is an eight-week program run at the Boston Public Schools Counseling and Intervention Center on Saturday mornings to provide support, education, strategies to help students prevent bullying.  Saturdays for Success is used as an alternative to suspension for students who are identified as bullies or at risk for becoming a bully and referred by administrators at their schools.  Administrators also refer students who are victims of bullying or at risk of becoming victims.  A student who is considered a bully or a victim (or at-risk of becoming a bully or a victim) completes an assessment when he or she enters the program and has an initial meeting with a counselor.  The counselor then creates a personalized counseling plan designed to meet that student’s needs. This program also recruits peer leaders, students considered “bystanders” who may or may not have witnessed a bullying act.  Bullies, victims, and bystanders go through this program together, participating in group discussions, role playing activities, and working towards a long term project, such as putting on a play or participating in a charity walk.  The eight sessions Saturdays for Success are designed to help students recognize different forms of bullying, provide skills to help bystanders intervene in bullying situations, assist bullies in becoming more empathetic to their victims and in managing anger, and help victims to be more self-confident and assertive (3).
Critique #1: Mandatory Participation
A weakness of the Saturdays for Success anti-bullying program is that students’ involvement in the program is not a choice.  Students who are involved in bulling are required by their school administrators to attend Saturdays for Success.  Though it is meant to be an alternative to suspension, requiring students to attend this program as a response to breaking the rules is, in essence, still a punishment.  Though participation is not really a punishment for victims of bullying, students are still selected by school administrators to participate in the program; they are not joining through their own free will.  In contrast, students who are selected as bystanders in this program are not required to participate.  However, they are recruited by those running Saturdays for Success, so the decision to join is not without coercion.
By requiring or requesting students to be involved in the anti-bullying program, Saturdays for Success is not allowing students an opportunity to make the decision to participate on their own, and, thus, students are not making a commitment to the program or to the associated anti-youth-violence message.  As Dr. Robert B. Cialdini describes in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, people are more likely to honor and maintain a belief or attitude when they make a commitment to it.  This is because people have an innate desire to be consistent, or appear to be consistent, with statements or decisions that they have made in the past (4).  If a student makes the active decision to join an anti-bullying group, they are much more likely to consistently stand up against bullying.
Forcing students to participate in Saturdays for Success can be viewed as a threat to a student’s freedom.  When a person’s freedom is threatened, he or she experiences psychological reactance, which motivates them to immediately restore their freedom (5).  In order to have a restored sense of freedom, one often feels the need to exercise his or her freedom be doing the opposite of what is asked (5).  In this case, the freedom of students involved in this intervention is threatened, as they are being told that they have to attend a program on Saturdays to learn how to prevent bullying activity.  As a response, students will try to regain their freedom by doing the opposite of what is asked of them during these Saturday sessions.  Students are likely to rebel and engage in the behavior that they are told not to do, which sabotages the goal of the Saturdays for Success anti-bullying intervention. 
Critique #2: Individual Level Approach
Saturdays for Success puts a significant amount of focus on changing behavior at the individual level.  For instance, the program mainly targets “at-risk individuals” and allocates a lot of resources to one-on-one counseling and small group sessions.  These sessions utilize the Health Belief Model, which is an individual level model.  The Health Belief Model suggests that a person will engage in a behavior if a person perceives that he or she is susceptible to a health problem, the problem is severe, there are benefits to doing the behavior, the barriers are low, and they have self-efficacy (6).  Saturdays for Success uses this model by trying to educate students about each of these factors to try and influence their behavior.  By being selected for this program, students are being told that they are susceptible to being a bully or to being bullied.  While there are certainly aspects of the sessions describing the severity of bullying and the benefits and barriers of not engaging in bullying, most of the sessions seem to be designed to focus on providing students with self-efficacy.  Self-efficacy is achieved when a person believes that he or she has the ability to take action in the behavior (6).  Saturdays for Success dedicates several sessions to teaching student how to recognize bullying, how to intervene when you witness bullying, how to be assertive when bullied, and how to redirect anger to prevent yourself from bullying.  These sessions help provide students with necessary tools, so students can feel as though they have the ability to prevent bullying, and, according to the Health Belief Model, will engage in the behavior of resisting bullying.  
While Saturdays for Success meets the requirements of the Health Belief Model, there are several limitations to the model that are not addressed.  Research has shown that the Health Belief Model has a low predictive capability, which indicates that there are other factors influencing behavior that are not included in the model (7).  Just because a student knows that bullying is wrong and has been given the skills to prevent engaging in an act of bullying, does not mean that he or she will behave that way.  For instance, the Health Belief Model does not consider social factors.  This model also fails to account for balance between giving up short-term benefits for potential long-term gains (7). As an example, a student may know the benefits of disengaging from bullying, but may choose to bully for a short-term benefit (e.g., releasing anger), even knowing that they are sacrificing a long-term gain (e.g., being more widely liked).
Critique #3: Adult Driven
A third weakness of the Saturdays for Success anti-bullying program is that the intervention is designed and implemented by adults.  All aspects of the program appear to be based on decisions made by adults, and not the students who are participating in the program.  For example, school administrators decide which students should be involved in Saturdays for Success and intake counselors determine how the counseling will be designed for each student.  In addition, specialist counselors lead sessions that were designed by the creators of Saturdays for Success.  There does not appear to be any room for the students to take charge of the design of this program. 
The risks associated with bullying and the strategies that can be used to prevent bullying are important messages.  However, because they are delivered by adults to adolescents, it may not be well-received.  In Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Dr. Robert B. Cialdini asserts that people are more likely to listen to people that they know or like.  One important factor contributing to how much we like the messenger is how similar their lifestyle, background, and traits (both physical traits and personality traits) are to the audience (4).  Adults do not share many of these characteristics with adolescents, so students are less likely to listen to the anti-bullying messages when they come from adults. This difference in experiences and traits between students and adults can also increase psychological reactance.  When a messenger does not have similarity to the audience, the audience will find the message as threatening to their freedom and it will not be effective (5). 
In addition, because adults design and implement all aspects this intervention, students do not develop a sense of ownership with the program.  When people develop a sense of ownership or possession over something, they tend to have more positive attitudes about it and feel a sense of responsibility for the entity (8).  In Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely explains that, once a person has a sense of ownership over something, he or she places more value on the item or group than they otherwise would (9).  Because students do not develop a sense of ownership with Saturdays for Success, they do not put as much value on the program or on the mission statement as they might otherwise.
Proposed Intervention
In order to address the issues identified with Saturdays for Success, an intervention with a very different approach to preventing youth violence could be used.  This program, called “STAND UP”, would be a movement in which middle-school aged students would be empowered to join and is centered on standing up to bullying.  When a student joins STAND UP, they are asked to sign a pledge, declaring that they will not participate in bullying and that they will intervene whenever they see other students engaging in any bullying activities.  Students are also given some merchandise with the STAND UP logo on it when they join the group, such as a t-shirts that only group members have, water bottles, or stickers that they can put in their lockers and on their notebooks.  Initial recruitment would be open to all students, but would target students who are known to be in the center of different social circles.
STAND UP would have some teachers that act as advisors to help supervise and guide the group members, but the organization would be completely student-run.  Throughout the school year, students would work together to plan and execute a variety of activities to help spread the group’s “stand up to bullying” message.  For example, students might design shirts with anti-bullying messages for group members to wear and to give away to students that participate in STAND UP activities.  They may also write, direct, and perform plays for their classmates and for students in younger grades.  These plays could portray to the audience how to recognize when someone is being bullied and how to intervene when they see bullying occur.    
Defense of Intervention #1
By giving students an opportunity to decide to participate in STAND UP on their own, this intervention allows students to make a commitment to the group and to the anti-youth-violence message that it supports.  In order to appear consistent, people are more likely to honor and maintain a belief or attitude when they make a commitment to (4).  By asking students to sign an anti-bullying pledge, participants are making a public commitment to stand up to bullying.  In addition by wearing or displaying the STAND UP logo, students are publicly declaring that they support anti-bullying.  Once this commitment has been made, a person faces personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that stance (4).  Therefore, if a student makes this active decision to join STAND UP and publically commits to standing up to bullying, then they are much more likely to actually intervene in a bullying situation.
In addition, when students join the STAND UP movement, they are doing so under their own freewill.  This poses no threat to the student’s freedom, so psychological reactance is not experienced; students do not feel the need to regain their freedom by doing the opposite of what is asked.
Defense of Intervention #2
STAND UP is a school-wide program that utilizes group level models.  By using a group level model, bully prevention may reach more students than Saturdays for Success reaches and has the potential to have a larger impact on the youth violence problem.  It is more effective to try to change behavior on the group level than on the individual level.  Behavior is influence through group dynamics because people tend to learn and take cues from those around them and are surrounded by social pressures to conform (10).  STAND UP takes advantage of these group dynamics because, rather than selecting student who need intervention, membership is open to all students and the anti-bullying messages and activities are spread throughout the school.  When people are aware of what other people are doing, it can be a social nudge that changes their behavior (10).
There are a few different group level models use in the STAND UP movement, including Social Networking Theory.  Social Networking Theory suggests that a person’s behavior can be predicted by examining his or her social network (i.e., the relationships with friends, family, classmates, groups, etc.) and understanding how behavior is spread through these networks (11).  If STAND UP can encourage students from a variety of social networks to join the program, then this behavior will likely spread across the members’ social networks and more students will join the group and/or engage in the anti-bullying movement.
Similarly, STAND UP also seeks to utilize the Diffusion of Innovation Theory, which is the idea that a behavior gains momentum over time and diffuses throughout a specific group.  The theory suggests that a behavior begins with a few “innovators” who adopt a behavior early, and then, as it catches on, the behavior spreads through early adopter and then through the majority (12). Participation in a behavior will catch on slowly, until the “tipping point,” the point at which the behavior takes off, is reached and then the behavior will spread through the majority (13).  To use this model, STAND UP needs to encourage students who are considered innovators in the school to join the group, which will encourage more and more students to join and adopt the anti-bullying behavior.  The design of this program allows for this phenomenon to occur, as students are able to join whenever they want to.  Using a group level model, such as this one, has the potential to influence the behavior of a lot more people than an individual level model.
Defense of Intervention #3
STAND UP is a program that is completely led by students.  Though there are adult advisors who supervise the students and provide suggestions and guidance, the students are in charge of deciding what activities the group engages in and how to get their anti-bullying message out to others.  The program is designed to encourage students to be the messengers of the “stand up to bullying” point of view.  For example, students are encouraged to develop and perform plays to deliver the messages associated with STAND UP to other students in the school.  This is a more effective approach than having a program that relies on adults to spread a message because people are more likely to believe people when they have a similar characteristics or backgrounds (4).  When students ask their classmates to stand up to bullying, the classmates are more likely to listen because these students deal with the same social pressures and are more similar to them.
Students choose, plan, and execute the anti-bullying activities that STAND UP engages in, and, as a result, group participants will feel a sense of ownership and responsibility to the group and to the message.  A person’s sense of ownership is linked to the amount of effort that he or she puts into it (8).  By asking students to spend their time working hard to put on these activities, their sense of ownership to the group is increased.  As previously discussed, a person puts more value on something when he or she feels a sense of ownership with it (8).  Therefore, the students put more importance on anti-bullying and are more likely to engage in anti-bullying behavior.
Boston Public Schools created the Saturdays for Success program to address the widespread problem with youth violence in the United States.  Though anti-bullying is an important issue, the Saturdays for Success program has several weaknesses that could be evaluated and modified to increase the effectiveness of the program.  First, the intervention should reconsider the practice of mandatory intervention, as it does not give students the opportunity to commit the program and threatens students’ freedom, potentially causing psychological reactance.  Secondly, Saturdays for Success uses a flawed individual level model to attempt to change behavior.  Third, this anti-bullying program is completely adult driven, which can also cause psychological reactance and doesn’t allow students to feel a sense of ownership over the program.  It is recommended that, instead of Saturdays for Success, Boston Public Schools consider utilizing a program such as the fictitious STAND UP movement.  This movement empowers students to join and commit to the anti-bullying cause, utilizes group level models to change behavior and has the potential to reach more students, and is completely student-run, giving the students a sense of ownership.  As this paper describes, the STAND UP movement would be an improvement to the currently used Saturdays for Success program to address the bullying problem in Boston’s public schools.
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2.   Boston Public Schools: Focus on Children.  Anti-Bullying Resources. Boston, MA: Boston Public Schools.
3.   Elgee J, Storey K, Dash K, Slaby R, and Donnelly E. Saturdays for Success Program Guide: A Bullying Intervention and Prevention Program for Students. Boston, MA: Boston Public Schools and Education Development Center, Inc., 2011.
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10. Following the herd (Chapter 3). In: Thaler RH, Sunstein CR. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008, pp. 53-71.
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13. Introduction. In: Gladwell M. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2000, pp. 3-14.

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