A Brock University study halted by the pandemic is back on and is surveying Catholic school students and families to see how pandemic restrictions have impacted bullying behaviour. Register file photo

Catholic schools taking part in bullying study

  • December 3, 2022

A Brock University research team is renewing its five-year school bullying investigation launched in 2017 that was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The project is titled, “Reconceptualizing bullying: strengthening the foundation for measurement, research, interventions and policies,” and is led by Professor of Child and Youth Studies Tony Volk. The research is adding a new post-pandemic dimension, studying if or how pandemic restrictions have impacted bullying behaviour.

Volk and his colleagues, including Brock Associate Professor of Psychology Andrew Dane and Queen’s University Professor of Psychology Wendy Craig, appear to have found a way to turn the hindrance of a lengthy hiatus into a boon. 

“The nice thing about the pause is that it gives us a chance to see what happens when there is a big interruption in kids’ social relationships,” said Volk. 

“We know from research that other colleagues have done is that bullying decreased during the pandemic, and that is most certainly because every social behaviour for adolescents — going to parties, dating, etc. — dropped down. 

“This gives us an interesting opportunity to see what occurs when you reset things and they start up again. Do we see the same pattern emerging as before? Or do some of the behaviours that fell off during the pandemic kind of stay low?”

Before the pandemic ground Volk’s work — and society — to a halt in March 2020, he and his team surveyed 1,000 Grade 5,7 and 9 students and their families in the Niagara and Hamilton Catholic school boards.

Each survey featured three questionnaires. The first asked each student if they have ever been bullied or have themselves bullied other students. The second queried students about their personality traits, goals and who of their peers they consider a friend. The third question asked students and their parents to identify the bullies, the supporters of the bullies and defenders of the victims in the classroom.

According to a Brock University press release detailing the project, “information gathered will enable the research team to form sophisticated line graphs that map out groups of friends, bullying networks and how these two networks relate when superimposed on one another.”

Such evaluation is expected to provide a greater understanding of the relationships, patterns and dynamics that promote bullying, said Volk.

Volk said he his team chose the Catholic school environment for this project because the value system of Catholic schools appealed to him.

“We had previous success at Brock University working with the Catholic board. And the Catholic boards’ mission and ideals — not to say the public board isn’t concerned about bullying — but the Catholic boards’ mission statement about promoting morality and positive behaviour were things that made it very easy for us to sit with this and work with them.”

Lee Ann Forsyth-Sells, superintendent of education for the Niagara Catholic District School Board (NCDSB), and Christine Battagli, the NCDSB’s consultant for research, assessment, evaluation and reporting, said the board was keen to cooperate with Volk’s team. 

“The main objective of the research collaboration is to understand how children and adolescents can learn to use prosocial strategies, such as cooperation and leadership skills, instead of coercive strategies like bullying, to achieve key social and personal goals,” wrote Forsyth-Sells and Battagli in a joint email to The Register

They also expressed gratitude to the partnership providing expertise that “support the system priority to foster inclusive, equitable and safe school communities where all are welcomed and ‘called by name.’ ”

Volk’s project is funded for two more years. The students who began in Grade 5, 7 and 9 are now in Grades 8, 10 and 12. In 2023-24, the researchers will have an opportunity to glean data from the students heading off to postsecondary institutions via online conferencing. 

A fall survey has been completed and the team will follow up in the spring, fall 2023 and spring 2024 before compiling a final report. 

Revelations have already been unearthed over the first three years of the research, said Volk.

“It’s interesting that when we look at personality traits that predict being a bully, some people thought maybe it was low empathy and the ability to feel other people’s feelings. Other people thought maybe it was being angry, but that also isn’t a big predictor of bullying. Bullying is a deliberate act, not a responsive one. It turns out the biggest predictor of bullying is being selfish and arrogant,” said Volk. 

“People who think more of themselves than others, who don’t put others before them. I don’t want to say that is unique to Catholicism, but it is certainly something I find vibes with the messaging that being humble and willing to care for others is the best predictor of not bullying.”

When the report is finalized and shared with NCDSB, the board’s mental health lead will disseminate it to social workers, child and youth workers and school mental health advocates.

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