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Bullying: A Call to Action for an Education in Emotions

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Last week, two Florida girls aged 12 and 14 were arrested and charged with felony counts of aggravated stalking for allegedly bullying their schoolmate Rebecca Sedwick. After a year of malicious verbal attacks both online and off, including instructions to "Drink bleach and die," the seventh grader ended her own life by jumping from a tower in a cement factory.

Despite anti-bullying programs in almost every school district, bullying rates around the country aren't budging. The response seems to be an unfortunate turn toward law enforcement. The two Florida girls will be processed in the juvenile court system, while Michigan just proposed a law to sentence bullies to 90 days in jail, and other state policies require schools to report bullying episodes to the police.

But do bullies belong behind bars? Do threats of imprisonment deter them?

No. Although most anti-bullying programs emphasize raising awareness about the problem and enforcing clear consequences, a growing body of research shows that this punitive approach doesn't work. As we arrest and arraign, bullies continue to act on aggressive impulses and their victims continue to suffer and even contemplate suicide.

The reason is straightforward: few children possess the skills to manage their impulses and regulate their feelings. Yet these skills -- the skills of emotional intelligence -- can be taught. And it is youth aged 12 to 14 who most need to learn it.

Puberty remodels the developing brain, and children in that age group grow especially sensitive to their social surroundings. Brain imaging studies show that there is more activity in the emotion regions of the brain at that age, with greater activation in the presence of peers, compared to both younger children and adults. This probably explains the fact that young teens can make worse or more dangerous choices when their decisions involve social interactions or strong emotions.

Children can learn to step back in the heat of the moment, examine their own feelings and those of others, name those emotions, and decide how to respond in a way that reflects their best selves. These skills are readily imparted in a classroom setting, and studies have found that in school such lessons improve the social atmosphere and boost academic achievement. Once children learn to recognize and manage their feelings -- including socially destructive impulses -- then behavior problems, including bullying, decrease. Moreover, children feel better, enjoy better social relations, and develop improved social problem-solving skills.

Alongside decades of research on how emotions work and how we can effectively handle them, these findings are a call to action for educators, policy makers, and mental health professionals. Every teacher preparation program should include formal instruction in child development and emotional intelligence, and all schools should be required to have an evidence-based social and emotional learning program.

We don't punish infants for not knowing how to talk or walk; we support them as they learn how. Similarly, we shouldn't be jailing children who lack the skills they need to navigate their inner lives and social worlds. We should teach them those skills. And the learning goes beyond the child: Families, teachers, and administrators, too, can be trained to spot signs of emotional dysregulation or misguided social arousal that may lead to in-person bullying or an abuse of social networking.

For Rebecca's family, and for all families who have been through a similar experience, bullying is a heartbreaking, almost unimaginable horror. We owe it to these families to intervene in ways that are effective. Threats and punishment don't work. Anti-bullying campaigns that stop with "awareness" and "consequences" don't work. But we know what does. Social and emotional learning is the only way to turn this trend around.