Princeton University Study Proposes Peer Intervention to Combat Bullying

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By Donald Gilpin 

Five years ago last month New Jersey enacted the nation’s toughest law against bullying in schools, but enforcement of the law’s requirements and traditional anti-bullying efforts have brought only mixed results in reducing conflict in the school environment, according to Princeton Professor Elizabeth Levy Paluck. The solution, she proposed in a recent article based on a four-year research project, calls for the students themselves, particularly a small group of the most influential students, to take the initiative for intervention. 

“By encouraging a small set of students to take a public stance against typical forms of conflict at their schools,” the article contends, “our intervention reduced overall levels of conflict by an estimated 30 percent.” The study, which included 56 New Jersey middle schools, was able to identify in each setting the particular students with “outsized influence over social norms” and to enlist “the power of peer influence for changing climates of conflict.”

“We got interested in this topic,” said Ms. Paluck, associate professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, “because our lab at Princeton is dedicated to the study of conflict and violence and prejudice — and the reduction of these social problems. I have been interested in studying this problem in high schools since I was a graduate student. I always felt comfortable working in school settings, after growing up with a father who was a high school teacher and a mother who was a high school librarian.”

The research team, from Princeton, Rutgers, and Yale, wanted to test whether students they labeled as “social referents” (the most influential students) could shape their peers’ behaviors and social norms by making their anti-conflict, anti-bullying positions well known.

The social referents were not necessarily the designated student leaders nor the most popular kids, but rather the students deemed through a process of “social network mapping” to be most connected to their peers. The selected students were encouraged to promote, in their own voices, positive ways to handle conflict.

During the 2012-13 school year, the middle schools involved, according to the article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), saw the greatest drop in conflict among the teams with the highest proportion of designated influential students.

“We designed our own curriculum because current programs address problems as defined by adults,” said Ms. Paluck, “and they aren’t necessarily fitted to each individual school environment. The best way to change social norms is to have these student influencers speak in their own voices. Encouraging their own messages to bubble up from the bottom using a grassroots approach can be very powerful.”

In following up on their theory of the outsized influence of certain peers over the middle school group, Ms. Paluck and her colleagues designed their test program, called Roots, with the selected students serving as the “roots” that influence attitudes and behaviors.

They offered their program to help schools implement the state requirement that all teachers have anti-bullying training, and they chose to focus on middle schools, which were seeing higher rates of student conflict than high schools.

In order to select the most influential students for the Roots program, the researchers distributed a survey to the 24,191 students enrolled at all the schools, asking them to nominate the top ten students at their school that they chose to spend time with, whether face to face or online. The researchers then mapped each school’s social network, ascertaining the top ten percent of influencers. Common characteristics among these outsized influencers included having an older sibling, being in dating relationships, and receiving compliments from peers on the house in which they lived.

These students were invited to attend Roots training sessions, where they were provided with campaign materials — one campaign using hashtags, such as #iRespect on Instagram, another using brightly colored wristbands saying “A Roots student caught you doing something great” — to encourage students to behave in a positive manner, and were trained in dealing with student conflict. The students also held a one-day Roots Festival to promote their messages of kindness and tolerance, and in all cases it was the students who “controlled the messaging.”

“Our program shows that you don’t need to use a blanket treatment to reduce bullying,” Ms. Paluck pointed out. “You can target specific people in a savvy way in order to spread the message. These people — the social referents you should target — get noticed more by their peers. Their behavior serves as a signal to what is normal and desirable in the community. And there are many ways to figure out who those people are and work with them to inspire positive change.”

Since the article came out, Ms. Paluck and her research team have heard from many more schools that are interested in implementing the program. Many educators have written to say they are doing similar programs, based on peer leadership ideas, “and that they are glad to know that the idea has theoretical and now empirical support.”

Ms. Paluck looks ahead to further progress in developing and implementing this theory of influential peers. “In the future” she said, “we’d love to use these ideas about using influential people to change norms and behaviors for various kinds of social change — whether it’s reducing bullying or conflict, or promoting good citizenship, reducing corruption, or more. We think that targeting influential people in a community is a powerful method for behavior change, and now that we’ve learned a way to do this effectively, we’d also like to develop tools to help communities, schools, and organizations do this on their own.”