According to researchers at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Rutgers University, and Yale University, the best way to handle bullying and school conflict among students isn’t by setting rules from on high, but encouraging students to influence each other in positive ways.
A one year study in 56 New Jersey middle schools showed that influential students, referred to as social referents or social influencers, have a greater impact on the issue than adults do.
These influencers are not necessarily the most popular kids in school, but those who are most connected with their peers. By making it well known that they are against bullying and conflict, they can influence their peers to reduce instances of these kinds of interactions. The schools in the study saw a 30% decrease in reported conflicts, which is a pretty solid reduction.
The trick lies in leaving the definition of such conflicts to the students, instead of defining bullying or social conflict by adult standards. Reducing such conflict is important to teachers, administrators, and parents, but issuing orders about what is and is not considered appropriate seems to meet with little improvement. Worse, it’s possible, and likely, that forms of bullying can fly under the radar, if administrators are convinced that they know what bullying looks like. And of course, it can only be enforced if these incidents are witnessed by staff are reported to them.
Students are more likely to speak about these issues with their peers, and those peers are more likely to be able to influence the issue, guiding students away from conflict. The study only saw a 30% drop in such incidents, but those were only reported incidents–and only during one school year. Such a program would need to be implemented anew each year as new students enter a school in order to keep up momentum.