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October 24, 2002 Friends may be the best defence against childhood bullying



Art by Shannon McKinnon. Shannon has an undergraduate degree in painting and drawing from the University of Calgary, and is finishing a psychology degree at Concordia. She hopes to become an art therapist.

by Frank Kuin

Putting a greater emphasis on the value of friendship in elementary schools may help protect vulnerable children from being bullied, says William Bukowski, a professor of psychology at Concordia.

Friendship might serve as a “powerful protective factor” for children who are at risk of being victimized, said Bukowski, who is currently engaged in a comparative research project in Canada and in Colombia to test that theory.

Although bullying is a universal problem, cultural circumstances in different countries may shed light on the extent to which communal values such as friendship play a role in dealing with the issue, he argued.

Bukowski is a specialist in the impact of peer relations on development. “It ap-pears that kids who are at risk of victimization, such as withdrawn kids, experience less victimization if they have a friend. The project we are doing is trying to find out the extent to which friendship will perform this function.”

Bukowski has been working with school children at four elementary schools in the Montreal area to map their individual and group relations. Through questionnaires and teacher ratings, he has collected insights into the extent to which pupils ascribe to communal values or individual ones.

Now he is collecting comparable data in the northern Colombian city of Barranquilla, in co-operation with his research associate, Luz Stella Lopez of the Universidad del Norte of the South American country.

By comparing the group dynamics and instances of bullying in both settings with findings about their respective emphases on communal and individual values, the researchers hope to be able to draw conclusions about the “moderating” effect of friendship.

“We’re trying to find out if victimization is rooted in the same group processes in a different culture as it is here,” Bukowski explained after a busy week of field research in Montreal.

Due to the cultural differences of the two countries, “the peer group is perhaps more strongly organized” in Colombia, he said. “Allegedly, there’s more emphasis on people trying to fit together into a single group in Colombia than here in Canada, where things might be more strongly based on individuals.”

In a communal society, people may not feel as free to express some of their negative emotions, out of fear that this would be upsetting to the group, he explained. On the other hand, people may care more about other people’s happiness rather than just their own.

“This is a fun question to address,” Bukowski said, identifying as the biggest challenge “trying to understand something about the dynamics of the group and why it results in bullying behaviour.”

Moreover, it has an obvious practical side, because the value system of the group may be the most easily changeable factor when it comes to dealing with bullying.

While victims of bullying may suffer psychosomatic consequences for the rest of their lives and a bullying problem sours the learning environment for the entire class, it has turned out to be difficult to deal with the issue by tackling the bullies directly or by trying to change the victims.

“It is probably easier to increase children’s value placed on friendship than it is to change individual characteristics,” Buk-owski said. “The idea is that the importance of friendship as a value could be heightened through emotional procedures in school.”

Indeed, schools might want to place more emphasis on a fourth ‘R’, in addition to the traditional ones of reading, writing and arithmetic, he said — the fourth ‘R’ being relationships.

“Most kids already take moral and religious education in school. Having some sort of friendship component to those courses would probably be a good thing.”