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Putting a Stop to Bullying

Anti-bullying research indicates a need for earlier intervention

New research from the University of Kansas shows that students transitioning to middle school show evidence of declines in cognitive empathy, whether they displayed bullying behaviors or were a victim of them. Cognitive empathy is defined as the ability to take another person’s perspective.

The findings that a majority of students in the study’s sample reaching middle school age showed a decline in cognitive empathy indicate that fourth and fifth grades would be an ideal time to focus on social and emotional growth in students and work on developing empathy skills to help prevent bullying behaviors, the research argues.

Co-author Anne Williford said the findings show how important it is to focus on cognitive empathy as well as social and emotional learning skills for students in fourth and fifth grades. The transition to sixth grade often corresponds with a transition to a middle school, which requires young students to negotiate new social hierarchies, social structures, friendships and numerous other changes. Focusing on social and emotional learning skills such as cognitive empathy, friendship development and conflict resolution could help prevent bullying behavior before students enter middle school and help students make a more successful school transition, Williford said. Research has long shown middle school as a period when bullying behavior routinely increases. Such prevention would be valuable as bullying has been shown to negatively affect learning outcomes as well.

“The findings suggest that maybe this decline in cognitive empathy occurs, then empathy proceeds to increase later in life as studies have shown,” she said. “We’re starting to view late elementary school – fourth and fifth grades – as an appropriate time to introduce interventions that encourage students to think about others’ perspectives and help support successful transitions to middle school. And we think it could be a good time for educators to introduce activities to support cognitive empathy development.”

Previous research has shown that students develop more empathy later in their academic careers. This study was among the first to view empathy during late childhood and early adolescence as well as during the transition to middle school. It suggests the importance of preparing kids for a successful transition.
“At the end of the day, I think this shows the importance of addressing the development of social and emotional learning skills to support students’ behavioral and academic success and their successful transitions to new school environments,” Williford said


Additional Research & Resources

The above study is part of a larger body of research on bullying prevention

Visit Kansans Against Bullying Project website for additional research. This site is sponsored by the Kansas State Department of Education and is a project under the School of Social Welfare's Center for Children & Families.

General Information and Resources

For Parents

  • Books like "Understanding the experiences of a victimized child: Appropriate responses for parents, peers, and school social workers."

* Williford, A. (2014). Understanding the experiences of a victimized child: Appropriate responses for parents, peers, and school social workers. In C. W. LeCroy & E. Anthony (Eds.), Case Studies in Child, Adolescent, and Family Treatment (2nd ed). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

For Teachers, Administrators, and Mental Health Providers

The Important Role of Adults in Bullying Intervention: Recommendations for Developing Effective Training Protocols by Anne Williford, Ph.D.

Publications on what teachers can do to improve the classroom climate as it relates to bullying by combining student-level interventions and teacher training is forthcoming.

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