The End of Bullying and
Dr. Bruce Perry’s, “6 Core Strengths"
Forgive me for not writing more but we have been transitioning into bigger and better things. So anyway, Dr. Bruce Perry is an inspiration to me, even though I was investigating peer victimization and violence long before his first publication. He has the support and encouragement of a university and his organization but let me suppress my resentment to share some of his insightful research, analysis, interpretation and responses.
What Dr. Perry has done is to pull together some basic bricks in the foundation of child/human development as they have been identified in his study of violence, the results of exposure to violence and the response to violence. He identified a hierarchy that needs to be in place in order for children to resolve the issues and crises that occurs when they are exposed to or victims of violence. I am going to apply these strengths to the phenomena of peer victimization/bullying [from here on I will refer to peer victimization as bullying – same same]. Perry found that 1) attachment, 2) self-regulation, 3) affiliation, 4) attunement, 5) tolerance and finally, 6) respect are the building blocks of resilience and defenses in the face of exposure to violence.
He and I both believe that exposure to violence is insidious but so is the effect on the individual. Garbarino found in his research that people face “risk factors” but also have “buffers” that seem to balance out the effects of exposure to violence but these strengths seem to be present in people who deal positively with the exposure. Some future research, as was suggested to me a decade ago, is to clearly define what “violence” is to each individual. Some people might have built-in qualities or resilience and others might learn them in a positive environment devoid of violence. So let’s get into the strengths and their relationship with bullying:
Mary Ainsworth and her “strange situation” experiment provided evidence that attachment types are extremely important to the healthy development of children/people. Erikson also found that developing trust in the perception that a supportive caregiver will be there if you need something is integral to the development of that attachment. Freud and Piaget also weighed in on the notion that infants and young children need positive attachments to caregivers. Perry, in light of his research on the effects of violence, found that positive attachments are keys, or “cornerstones,” of everything he proposes in his theory. Attachments to caregivers and the positive reciprocation of attachment and care by the caregiver, contributes to the development of empathy. Empathy is the filter that can keep a person from victimizing others or, bullying. When you can feel the support and love from someone and you can feel the love and support for someone, you are less likely to victimize them. A great deal of the lessons teaching this quality comes from modeling the behavior as a caregiver.
When a person can feel for another person [empathy] there is a moment between “impulse and action” that is the basis of self-regulation and this is a key component to preventing bullying. We know from bully research that often the behavior that leads to victimization isn’t thought through, it is an impulsive behavior. If we can teach children to put a thinking space between the impulse and the action, we can prevent bullying. The thought we can put into that space is how the action might impact other people and how they might feel if the roles are reversed. This takes conversation and role play – it isn’t instantaneous.
When people feel cared for and can care for others, and take time to consider the feelings and experiences of others in their interactions they can begin to create and nurture relationships with others. Maslow referred to this behavior as developing a sense of belonging. That behavior leads to affiliation and when children feel isolated they can lash out on the groups that they perceive shun them or individuals at whom they can vent their anger, frustration and lack of power because they have a perceived strength over the target. That isn’t to suggest that all bullies have low self-esteem or lack of self-worth, because research shows that isn’t true. However, even someone like the star athlete who bullies or the popular princess who bullies, may be doing so to protect their position in the eyes of their peers – it could still be insecurity. It is important to develop and foster affiliation between classmates, schoolmates and workmates. I have seen schools use “Buddy Benches,” for example, this one at a tiny little school in Montana, for those who need someone to sit with during recess or lunch.
Also, a former student of mine, Tony Whipps, used a class-wide incentive program, that he modeled for the children, which rewarded and encouraged children to go and sit, talk and interact with class, or school, mates who were alone during lunch, recess, class time or even after school. It is a wonderful addition to the curriculum and has paid off in stronger affiliations. These affiliations bring everyone into a caring environment and this can prevent bullying.
When a person feels connected to others and empathy with a certain degree of security that they will be cared for and can care about others, they start to become aware of the needs, strengths, interests and value of others. If a person begins to recognize the needs of others then the perceived power differential that is a component of bullying is eliminated. The awareness of others and their needs echoes Erikson’s theory that we are influenced by our peers and this helps guide us in our social interactions. Help-seeking (and giving), connections and cooperation can all come out of this strength. We can help children develop this by asking and responding honestly to questions they have about others – this can help them recognize similarities and differences in others and how the person is similar and different from others. We often suppress the recognition of the differences – for example, when children ask about the wheelchair a person is in – parents will shush them, rather than discuss the differences and identify the similarities. Remember hearing, “I’m racially sensitive, I don’t even see color?” Well, the studies of cultural competence researchers has determined it is important to see color, value the backgrounds and experiences of individuals and stay open to diversity. That develops attunement and contributes to empathy and decreases the possibility of developing bullying behavior.
I think this one is mislabeled but the point is that the individual who develops empathy, trusts that people care and they care about people, develop a sense of belonging within groups and recognize the needs, values, interests and strengths of others will foster a sense of acceptance of those differences in the individual. That is a long path but someone developing this sense of tolerance and acceptance has been solidifying building blocks of those strengths for years. Two points about this process: it might explain why intolerant people stay intolerant. It isn’t an overnight process – and, the identification of differences in others can result in a sense of a perceived power differential. Diverting from that conclusion is the role modeling and discussion that a caregiver has with the individual. But this conclusion can also be come to by the individual by the development of the previous strengths, for example, attunement and self-regulation.
Finding value in the differences of others leads to the development of respect in oneself and for others. Perry wrote that it leads to the appreciation of the worth of yourself and others. In that sense of respect, a person is less likely to victimize others. But I think it also leads me to the belief that, a victim can’t be victimized if they do not allow another person to demean them. That is a difficult place for a teenager to be in because they are, as Erikson found, very susceptible to the opinions of peers. But, if they get to the place where the appreciate everything they have and allow negative comments and remarks bounce off of them then they will be less likely to react dramatically to the criticism. In addition, the research and advocacy into bullying has focused on activating bystanders to intervene. If a person has these core strengths, it is more likely they will step in when they see someone demeaned, or shunned from a group.
In conclusion, that comprehensive perspective, that is, seeing the necessity and big picture of Perry’s 6 core strengths, is really the crux of this article. The core strengths are keys to ending bullying by all the participants involved including the target, the bully and the bystanders. If a sense of security in relationships that are built and mutually respectful affiliations are developed followed by awareness and respect for others created by those cornerstones, then bullying is less likely to develop. Teachers, parents, caregivers, really all adults and young adults, are role models and facilitators for the development of these core strengths.