School cliques don't always click

June 13, 2018 by Aniruddho Chokroborty-Hoque, University of Western Ontario

Lynne Zarbatany watches video footage of children playing with a remote-controlled helicopter. She sees some children share the remote, others grab and cling to it jealously, even a lone child sits in a corner.

Will the Psychology professor be able to help "chronically victimized kids" like the one in the corner – often ignored, occasionally picked on, yet paradoxically, still part of social circles? Her work is helping parents, teachers and counsellors better understand how groups – or peer cliques – of children interact with one another, what compels some to bully others, and develop more effective ways to prevent it.

According to Statistics Canada, one in three youth are bullied – 85 per cent of whom are bullied in front of others. A 2015 UNICEF report revealed Canada has one of the highest incidences of among the Top 29 most industrialized nations in the world.

Children who are bullied throughout their school years generally have lifelong physical, mental and financial problems. They are also often considered loners and encouraged to seek the company of peers.

But, as Zarbatany is finding out, this may not always be a good idea.

Ten years ago, Zarbatany, with colleagues Wendy Ellis and Xinyin Chen, began using a seemingly simple solution to better understand bullying – put children in a room and record their interactions.

Eight schools in Ontario – including more than 1,000 children from Grades 4-8 – participated in the study, which began in 2008 and took two years to finish. These videos, comprised of hundreds of hours, are a treasure trove of behavioural data unlike anything else in the world right now.

Zarbatany and her colleagues have spent more than eight years studying and analyzing them.

Researchers are convinced peer groups – voluntary groups of three-to-10 members who share similar interests – shape each member's behaviour and personality. But they have struggled for decades to understand how it happens.

Previously, scholars relied on surveys from parents, teachers and children themselves to "get a sense of what's going on." But survey data does not provide a close-up view of how peer groups interact with one another.

Thanks to Zarbatany's videos, researchers, for the first time, can peek into how peer groups behave with each other in natural settings, and try to understand, as an example, how group dynamics can lead to bullying. For example, Zarbatany found almost 90 per cent of victimized children in her study were in peer cliques – but they were more of social outcasts, and treated less than equals.

"Some victimized children may have been hanging on to the clique rather than hanging out," she said.

What are these children to do? Leaving cliques might seem obvious, but victimized often don't have alternative cliques to join.

Zarbatany cites the example of Alex Libby, one of the subjects in the documentary, Bully. In response to his mother's concerns about perpetrators who victimized him on the school bus, Alex asked: "If you say these aren't my friends, then what friends do I have?"

One way, she suggests, is to develop prevention and intervention programs that increase positive group interactions – self-esteem, for example – and reduce negative behaviour such as aggression and antisocial behaviour.

"Bullying is often motivated by the desire to be cool and show off to peers," Zarbatany says. "Intervention should create opportunities for kids to be cool and show off without hurting others."

Explore further: Sibling bullying makes psychotic disorders three times more likely

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