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New intervention program reduces bullying in early childhood

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Wed, Mar 9th 2016 02:30 pm

Eight-week intervention developed by UB researchers fits easily into preschool curriculums

By the University at Buffalo

Physical and relational bullying can happen among children as young as 3 to 5 years old, but the results of a new study suggest a relatively short intervention program recently developed by researchers at the University at Buffalo can lead to significant reductions in some of these behaviors.

The study, published in a special edition of the journal School Psychology Review, is one of the first to examine and identify multiple types of bullying behavior in early childhood.

The intervention is called the Early Childhood Friendship Project (ECFP). It's an eight-week program using puppets, stories and activities appropriate for preschoolers that can easily be folded into existing curriculums.

"Our goal is to eventually give this program away to all those qualified to implement it," said Jamie Ostrov, an associate professor in the UB department of psychology and lead author of the paper with Stephanie Godleski, now an assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and UB graduate students Sarah Blakely-McClure, Lauren Celenza and Kimberly Kamper-DeMarco.

The current study grew out of previous research involving the ECFP that demonstrated how its implementation reduced different types of aggression and peer victimization broadly at the classroom level.

"We needed to show that the program worked to change the individual child's behavior," said Ostrov, an expert in subtypes of aggression who served as a panel member for the uniform definitions of bullying at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "We also expanded the study at the request of teachers, adding two weeks that addressed additional social skills and emphasized sharing, helping and including other children."

While the previous research focused on general aggressive behavior, the follow-up closely examines bullying behavior.

"All bullying is aggression, but not all aggression is bullying," Ostrov said.

"Bullying's starting point is aggressive behavior," Ostrov added. "But what makes bullying a subset of aggressive behavior is a power imbalance, where, for example, one child is older, physically bigger or more popular than their victim. That's followed by either repetition of the unwanted and intentional behavior or a fear the behavior will repeat itself."

The study developed a new measure that helps assess bullying behavior in an age group where it wasn't previously thought to exist. It also expanded on its predecessor by examining different types of bullying, including relational bullying.

"This is a form of social exclusion that uses the threat of the removal of the relationship as a means of harm," Ostrov said. "It's occurs when a child might say to another, 'You can't play with us,' or 'You're not my friend anymore.'"

The ECFP is added to a preschool class's circle time. It's a 10-minute puppet show that emphasizes a different theme each of the eight weeks. The puppet presents a developmental problem the children are likely to encounter and asks their help to solve the problem.

Interventionists are also in the classroom about three hours a week, reinforcing and praising positive behaviors. The children, meantime, are also looking for these behaviors and reporting when they see others doing good things.

The program concludes with a graduation.

"We're seeing a significant effect for relational bullying that's quite notable - and it doesn't require a lot of time," Ostrov said. "You can go into these classrooms and, with minimal interaction with the kids, see relatively big returns on your investment."

In fact, researchers found the program so effective that, at the conclusion of the study, they went back to deliver the intervention to the control group, which initially did not have the ECFP in their classroom.

"We saw from the first study that this was effective and we wanted all the children to receive the intervention," Ostrov said. "It wasn't ethical to say, 'You're in the control group so you don't get anything.' "

Ostrov said the ECFP is manualized with detailed instructions and, though much of the program's material might be occurring in some environments, it's not specifically packaged to target bullying behaviors.

"We still need more work before we can export this on a larger scale," Ostrov said. "But fundamentally, it won't require a lot of training and it can be done with one teacher in the classroom."

The Early Childhood Friendship Project offers preschoolers eight themes that can lead to significant reductions in physical and relational bullying. 

The Early Childhood Friendship Project offers preschoolers eight themes that can lead to significant reductions in physical and relational bullying.

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