Your Health

Sense of belonging: An effective antidote to bullying

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With statistics revealing that 25% of U.S. schoolchildren experience bullying at some point, creating a sense of belonging can mitigate the negative impacts by promoting a feeling of connection with school, peers, community and family.

School districts have multiple resources and strategies in place to prevent bullying, yet the National Center for Educational Statistics reports that 1 in 4 American children experience bullying at some point during their schooling, and 1 in 2 LGBTQ children. The U.S. Department of Justice revealed that 160,000 children daily skip school for fear of being bullied.

The impacts of school bullying have been well documented: substance use, mental illness and suicide. The impacts affect the bully, the bullied and bystanders and witnesses. Criminal and violent behavior can occur as a consequence of bullying – 12 in 15 school shooters in the 1990s allegedly were bullied.

Research by the University of Missouri’s College of Education is providing new insights into the most effective strategies to prevent bullying in U.S. schools.

The key factor associated with reduction in bullying behavior is a sense of belonging. Children who feel a connection to their school, peers, community and family are less likely to engage in bullying behavior. The commonly used approach of “zero tolerance,” including suspension, expulsion, civil and criminal fines, and even incarceration, has shown to be limited in its efficacy.

The study found that children who feel that they “belong” in their family are much less likely to bully or be bullied. Parents who engage with their children are a key asset in preventing bullying behavior from commencing. Parents who spend time asking specific questions of their children’s school life are pivotal in preventing bullying.

The school and the parents need to establish a partnership to prevent bullying before it starts. Principal researcher Christopher Slaten reported that children can swing from being a bully to being bullied – contradicting the previous assumption that the role of bully was fixed.

According to Slaten, positive parenting and a school approach focused on praising empathy, nurturing and communication lay the foundation for a bullying-free community.

Poor social and communication skills are strong predictors of bullying behavior, so schools and parents should focus on developing such skills and ensuring that each child feels valued and loved.

The benefits of children feeling like they belong extend to academic, physical and psychological aspects of the child’s life. Belonging leads to greater academic success, increases motivation and mitigates students’ anxiety and depression.

Rita Hitching is a local researcher and teacher who writes on teen brain development. She aims to help teens understand themselves by using the latest neuroscience data to explain how the teen body and brain develop and publishes the explanations on her website,

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