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June 09, 2011

Can bullies work with other children on collaborative tasks?

Murphy, S., & Faulkner, D. (2011). The relationship between bullying roles and children’s everyday dyadic interactions. Social Development, 20 (2), 272-293.

The authors of this study were interested in the ways that children interacted on a task which required them to work together in pairs. Of particular interest were differences in these interactions depending upon the roles that children in those pairs play in bullying situations. The roles of interest here were
  • ‘Defenders’ are those young people who intervene when they see bullying taking place, either directly or by telling a teacher
  • ‘Bullies’ are those young people who initiate or take the lead in bullying others
  • ‘No role’ are those young people who are not in the above roles, and neither are they involved in any other direct way with bullying (e.g. as a victim or as someone who supports the bullies).

One hundred and forty two 6- to- 9-year old children took part. They were first nominated by each other as belonging to specific bullying roles, and children also said how they most liked playing with. Of these 142, a subgroup of 68 took part in further collaborative tasks. These tasks were completed in pairs, and the pairs were different combinations of the three groups of interest: bullies, defenders, and those children with no role. The collaborative task involved children completing a computerised shopping game, and several measures were taken here including: how many moves were made (fewer was better), possession of the computer mouse (degree to which this was shared), and verbal communication.

Defenders: These children were less likely to disagree with their task partners than were bullies, and they more often tried to explain instructions and to give information. They were also assertive and confident enough to give direct guidance on how to complete the task, are were unlikely to simply disagree with their partners in an unhelpful, unconstructive manner.

Bullies: These children tended to disagree with partners more, and this was more often of an unsupportive nature where the disagreement was presented as final. They were also less likely to give helpful explanations and tended to give fewer instructions guiding their partner’s efforts. However, the authors note that it is also interesting that bullies did not make more demands and nor did they express negative feelings anymore than other children. Bullies also did not control the mouse any more than other children. So, children identified as bullies by their peers were not constantly being unhelpful and obstructive (as might have been expected) – rather, they seemed to lack some positive skills (e.g. giving helpful explanations) which defenders were able to more routinely demonstrate. The authors also note that the bullies’ behaviours may reflect difficulties they have in planning tasks and behaviours more generally (known as an executive function problem).

Non-role children: These children are those who are not consistently involved in bullying in any single role. The results reported here suggest that these children were able to change how they behaved when working with different children, and that they used strategies which were unlikely to challenge the possible dominance of bullies – that is to say, bullies may seem to be socially important and have lots of influence in the peer group (certainly at this age) and so non-role children deferred to them. Specifically, they took charge less and told bullies what do so less than they did when working with defenders or other non-role children.

I found this paper really interesting. There are a number of anti-bullying interventions which incorporate social skills training, and this work suggests that such work may be particularly useful for children who bully – though, of course, helping those children to act more collaboratively on an academic task may not necessarily mean they are more collaborative or helpful in social situations.

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