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Conflict at school drops when students take the lead

by Lindsay Jolivet Jan 22 / 16
Image above: Students show the bracelets they’ve received for positive behaviours, such as listening and including others. Credit: Elizabeth Levy Paluck

The best way to reduce bullying and conflict in schools could be to involve the experts: the students.

An animation of the Roots Curriculum logo

CIFAR Fellow Elizabeth Levy Paluck (Princeton University) and her colleagues tested a new approach to reducing conflict that put kids in charge. The researchers chose a small group of students at each of 56 New Jersey middle schools and had them take a public stand against conflict.

The approach, called the Roots Curriculum, reduced the number of conflicts reported to school administrators by almost a third over the course of one year compared with schools that were not using the curriculum. It worked out to 683 fewer conflicts across all of the schools.

“We think that’s a pretty significant drop if you think about the amount of time that each of those incidents might consume in a classroom,” Paluck says.

If you estimate that each incident takes about two hours out of a child’s learning and homework time, for discipline such as visiting the principal’s office, detention and disruption, Paluck says, Roots gave more than 1,300 hours back, a few days per school on average.

The researchers attribute the success of their approach to the students, because they have a deep understanding of their social spheres at school. They understand the right language to use, and they can navigate the complexities of influencing their peers without damaging their social status. That is, without coming off as lame.

“You can do all your ethnographic research on Instagram and figure out what the words are these days, and what the phrases are, and you’re still going to be a step behind these students. They really know what’s going on in their schools,” Paluck says.

The students selected to spread the word about stopping conflicts were chosen at random. Researchers looked at the social networks of the schools, and found that students who were most effective at stopping bullying were also the most influential in the social network. They weren’t necessarily the most popular kids, or those with the most friends, but they were the students that others chose to spend time with the most.

The students at each school chose the problems that bothered them most and decided how to stop them. For example, some said they wanted students to stop calling each other “gay,” and others wanted everyone to be welcomed to tables at lunch time. They made posters, distributed bracelets for friendly behaviour and walked around asking students how they were doing, among other approaches.

Some students really embraced their new jobs as “change makers,” says Hana Shepherd (Rutgers University), study co-author with Paluck and Peter Aronow (Yale University). She cites one example of a student that teachers would have described as a troublemaker.

“She started looking after the younger students in the group during the school days, jumping in when she saw they weren’t doing well. She seemed to take a lot of pride in being part of the group and by virtue of her charisma, made the students around her take the group’s posters and activities seriously,” Shepherd says.

A submission box asks students, “What would you change about your school?”

Very few of the incidents that took place during the study were bullying as legally defined in the state of New Jersey, which means someone in a higher-powered position picking on someone with less power. Instead, the researchers were interested in conflict more broadly.

“The everyday kinds of harassment, just getting into fights with one another, name-calling, back and forth between peers is quite common,” Paluck says. “That is the stuff that makes students uncomfortable to go to school, feel worried and stressed about their relationships. And so we care about that quite a bit.”

Shepherd says students involved in many conflicts could also be marked as problem students by their teachers. They might not learn as well, which could affect their success later in life. The findings show a promising new avenue for reducing conflict given growing concern about bullying and little evidence that programs driven by adults are working.

Some of the schools involved in the study are still using the Roots Curriculum, which is available online. Next, Paluck says, she plans to test whether teachers are good at identifying the most influential students, because it isn’t feasible for schools to carry out social network mapping every year.

Paluck says she workshopped the ideas behind this experiment with other CIFAR fellows, which helped to develop the project.

“Our colleagues in CIFAR are not just social network experts but they are experts in the study of behavioural motivation. Sociologists, economists, other psychologists were all there to help me discuss these ideas for how we were not just designing the intervention but then how we were analyzing the data and how we were collecting the data.”

The paper was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.