Undergrads research bullying; create modules for preservice teachers


Meghan Krein

It’s safe — and sad — to say each of us has had some sort of experience with bullying, whether it be firsthand or indirectly. That said, Natasha O’Connell and Kimberlee Franco, both elementary education students at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College; as well as students of Barrett, the Honors College, say it can be the impetus for change.

Franco recounts her experience, which occurred during her freshman year of high school. The school was in a lockdown drill and Franco was in a chemistry classroom — alone with a boy she had a crush on. “His friends began teasing me about it. It went on and on for two years until I reached senior year and stopped seeing them, which was great.” Franco says the boys found out her phone number and texted her rude and offensive messages. She was forced to block them. They also harassed her outside of class, when they’d spot her at events or a mutual friend’s home. O'Connell, who has known Franco for about eight years, helped her friend cope with the bullying.

How are teachers addressing bullying?

“I think our teacher was just focused on all of us being quiet — he was focused on the lockdown. He didn’t address the bullying.”

Fast-forward to the present: Franco and O’Connell, studying together and researching for their thesis project at Barrett. Both have aspirations of becoming teachers, “so we really wanted to implement something to do with bullying that would be helpful to society and also in our own practice of teaching.” Franco explains, “Because there are times it gets really bad and you have to teach students that it’s not always going to be this horrible. There are people who care.”

Addressing the elephant in the room: suicide, Franco continues, “If we can teach students it won’t always be this way and there are people here to support you, it will help society and being in the classroom.”

At the beginning of their research, the two found that much research exists in regard to informing teachers how to stop bullying; however, O'Connell says, “We were about to start student teaching and we had never really discussed it in our classes, beyond saying that bullying exists and it’s bad.” At that point, they knew their project would be how to teach preservice teachers to stop bullying. “We wanted them to have the skills to stop bullying before they entered the classroom,” says O’Connell.

Bullying affects society as a whole, Franco says. “The shootings that have been happening, it all boils down to kids needing to be taught empathy and how to handle the stress they’re under. If not, they just have so much hatred inside and will try to hurt others.”

“It’s difficult to draw parallels to every mass terrible situation,” O’Connell says, “but what we do know for a fact is that when bullying is happening continually, students experience very low self-esteem, very low self-concept, and they doubt themselves and view the world in ways that can lead to depression.”

Natasha O'Connell and Kimberlee Franco

Bye-bye, bystanders

After their research idea was approved by the Institutional Review Board, Franco and O’Connell developed a module for preservice teachers.

O’Connell relays one very important method in stopping bullying: upstander behavior. “An upstander is someone who witnesses bullying happening and then takes action to stop it.” Most of us are familiar with the term bystander, someone who witnesses something and does nothing. Upstander behavior, O’Connell says, can be pulling the victim out of the situation by asking him or her to grab lunch with you or talk with you in private for a minute — something direct, but subtle. It can also be just making sure the victim is OK and the behavior doesn’t continue.

Juliet Hart Barnett, associate professor at MLFTC and the students’ thesis director and faculty honors advisor says, “Research tells us that targeting the bystander and giving them the tools and encouragement to intervene as upstanders is our most effective strategy to stop bullying. Natasha and Kimberlee have developed practical, research-based steps for teachers to model and encourage upstander behavior with their own students. Their useful and easy-to-follow module comes at a critical time when there is a growing national awareness of the negative and long-term consequences of bullying and when many schools lack the needed resources to implement a comprehensive school-wide program.”

Ineffective methods

Many schools begin talking about bullying in upper elementary, O’Connell says. “That’s when they discuss it because they assume that’s when bullying happens. But it happens at younger ages, too.” O’Connell says it’s very important to begin teaching empathy at younger ages, due to this reason — and it isn’t being done, yet.

O’Connell says that a lot of schools implement a bullying week or have a bullying night. “They’ll discuss bullying for that one time and not address it for the rest of the year.” Franco and O’Connell believe this is a grave error. “In our research and what we included in our training module is the idea that bullying needs to be talked about frequently: daily, weekly and as often as possible so that students become familiar with the concept and know how to stop it,” says O’Connell.

Another ineffective strategy schools use, O’Connell says, is to have a zero-tolerance policy, which is the idea that anyone involved in bullying is punished. The pair’s research found that this policy causes students to be afraid to be upstanders in fear they’ll get in trouble. “This is wrong,” O’Connell says, “If you’re standing up for a person who is being bullied, you need to be commended for that. That’s a fantastic thing.”

“All students have a right to feel safe at school,” Barnett says, “Each student and educator has a role in making school a safe and considerate environment that fosters learning and beneficial social-emotional relationships. Natasha’s and Kimberlee’s research can empower teachers with the tools they need to foster a school climate where bullying is not tolerated.”

Age matters

With younger kids, physical bullying is the main concern, O’Connell says. “You might see kids shoving each other out of the lunch line. They’re not as verbal at this age so they act out physically.” As they get older, name-calling and teasing set in, she says, and then around middle school kids start to form social groups. “They’ll use their status and friend groups to manipulate social situations.”

Franco’s and O’Connell’s research was funded through the Center for Biology and Science in Barrett and the two presented their research at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It’s the largest science convention in the world and held in Austin, Texas. In addition, the pair currently has a research-to-practice article co-authored with their director that has been accepted for publication and aims to inform teachers nationally, and even globally.

In May, Franco and O’Connell will graduate and go on to teach in their own classrooms, which will be either elementary or middle school science. They both plan to attend graduate school. “We want to expand our research and really see how we can make a change,” says O’Connell.