Cognitive-Behavioural Instruction Combined with Parent Training
A cognitive-behavioural (CB) approach1 combined with parent training is the best way to promote positive change in high-need students who are having peer relationship problems. CB intervention focuses on decreasing problematic behaviours (such as aggression, impulsivity) and increasing positive behaviours (such as social skills, problem solving). Instruction which focuses on behaviour or cognitions alone is not effective with these students. A cognitive-behavioural approach is rooted in the belief that thoughts, feelings and actions are connected. Behaviour is linked to thinking and beliefs, which are based upon experiences. Therefore, both the experience and interpretation of the experience can be altered.
Teachers can help students monitor their thoughts and learn how thinking influences their behaviours and feelings. Adults in the school can teach young people how to identify dysfunctional thoughts and beliefs (e.g., victims deserve to be bullied; girls like it when boys snap their bras; gays are unnatural) and replace them with more realistic and positive ones (e.g., I can control my behaviour; I can stand up to a bully; I know where I can get help).
Students can be taught how to problem solve during group activities (e.g., when conflict arises in a game), and monitor and change their own behaviours. ‘Teachable moments’ can be seized by adults in the school to prevent harmful behaviours (e.g., when a teacher observes social manipulation or exclusion in a group of female peers, s/he intervenes by identifying the bullying, giving a clear message that it will not be tolerated, and supporting the victimized student). Thus, intervention focuses on both the student’s external social environment and internal learning processes.2
Concrete strategies such as those defined in Aggression Replacement Training (Goldstein et al., 1989) or Linda Baker and Sandra Scarth’s work (2002) should be followed.3 These include:
Using positive (rewarding or reinforcing to student) and negative (unpleasant or undesirable to student) consequences to shape a student’s behaviour. Positive consequences increase the likelihood that a given behaviour will reoccur and negative consequences decrease the likelihood that a given behaviour will reoccur. In the end, a student’s own perception determines whether a consequence is rewarding or unpleasant. Consequences must be immediate, fair, consistent, and individualized (zero tolerance policies do not meet the last three criteria). For example, consider the case of a principal who sees a large group of students cheering on two male grade seven students involved in a physical fight. After breaking up the fight, the principal learns that one of the boys has been bullying the other for the past month. The victimized student finally fought back on this day. After meeting with each boy individually (along with parents), the principal gave an in-school suspension to the student who bullied and required that he and his parents participate in family counseling with the school social worker. The victimized student and his parents were provided with support from the school guidance counselor.
Changing the behaviour and social interactions a student witnesses. Students are most likely to copy and learn from peer and adult models who are respected, have status, are perceived as realistic and natural, and are rewarded for their behaviour. For example, teachers can provide powerful messages to bystanders in a bullying incident by intervening in an authoritative and calm manner to support the victimized student and deal with the student who bullied. Students can use similar strategies by refusing to be a bystander, intervening safely, and getting help from an adult. It should be noted that when adults and peers fail to intervene when students are harmed, or intervene inconsistently, they are also conveying strong messages supporting anti-social behaviour.
Social problem solving
Changing a student’s response to problems such that a different set of consequences occurs. Adults and peers can use proven strategies to help high-risk students think about how to see situations in constructive ways, stop to think about a problem and solve it in practical steps, generate options to process the benefits and drawbacks of the options, and develop pro-social values (e.g., consideration for the needs and rights of others). Students who are frequently involved in victimization and/or aggression often have faulty methods of problem solving. CB strategies can teach them how to identify the problem, assertively communicate the problem, generate solutions, evaluate possible solutions and select one, take action on the chosen solution, and evaluate the outcome.
Cognitive restructuring and self-management
Changing how a student interprets their past, current and future events. These strategies are most beneficial for older children and youth. They involve helping students identify and change thinking patterns linked to anti-social behaviour and use self-monitoring/self-talk (self-statements used to help student slow down, assess problem, and monitor reaction to it) to correct faulty thinking. Many high-risk students have thinking patterns that distort perceptions (e.g., all or nothing thinking, jumping to conclusions, blaming, magnification or minimization) and justify aggressive behaviour (e.g., exerting power over others gets you what you want, false pride, victim blaming).
Role playing and social action activities are good examples of how teachers can facilitate the translation of new knowledge on bullying and victimization into actual behavioural changes in the classroom. Many studies have found that the best anti-bullying and harassment curricula will not result in a decrease in victimization or harm perpetration in a school unless students are given regular opportunities to practice in real-life situations.4
It is unlikely that CB instruction alone will result in significant changes in student behaviour unless it is combined with a parent training component. Early parental mismanagement of children’s behaviour (failure to get children to comply with limits and rules) can be a contributing factor in the development of bullying behaviour. Ongoing, inappropriate parental demands, children’s noncompliance, and children’s avoidance of parental demands through aggression can result in a coercive family process.5 Parents can be successfully taught to change coercive patterns of interaction by reinforcing and supporting pro-social behaviour in the home. For young children, problematic behaviours are ignored and “timed-out”. Parents are taught to identify, define, and observe problematic behaviours of their own and their children. They are then taught how to use behavioural techniques through observation, practice and review.6 There are several good workbooks and programs available for parents.7