C4R LogoSchools typically deal with bullying by creating policies, training teachers, and then implementing programs for students. A new study by researchers from Princeton University, Rutgers University, and Yale University in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that a better approach might be to start with the students themselves.

Researchers focused on groups of influential students at 56 New Jersey middle schools, having them use social media such as Instagram, print posters, and colorful wristbands to discuss positive ways to handle conflict in their own words. The researchers wanted to see if these socially influential students, or social referents, would have an increased effect on their school climate and the social norms and behaviors in their schools. These students were not necessarily the most popular kids school-wide, but rather students who demonstrated influence within a smaller group of peers.

Over the course of a year, middle schools that engaged these social influencers saw a 30 percent reduction in student conflict reports. Most importantly, researchers found that the greatest reduction in conflict was among those student groups with the highest proportion of social influencers, supporting the idea that these key students can help shape school climate and student behavior.

Key to this approach was identifying the students with the most social influence through student social networks. As researchers noted, when adults choose student leaders, they tend to pick the “good” kids. The leaders identified through social network mapping had some overlap with those that adults would have picked, but also identified students not picked by adults but who were those whose behavior is most noticed by their peers.

To find these social influencers, researchers had each student pick the top ten students at their school who they chose to spend time with, either in or outside of school, face-to-face or online. Using this data, the researchers mapped the school’s social networks and invited a sample of students to participate in an anti-bullying program. Not all of the students were the key social influencers, allowing the researchers to separate the effects of the program from the social influence factors.

Students who were invited to participate in the program were not required to do so, but more than half did so regularly. The students took the materials supplied and customized them to fit the messaging campaigns that they designed themselves. The results were a 30 percent reduction in disciplinary reports for those schools using this approach, providing a significant savings of time for students, teachers, and administrators since resolving a single conflict can take up to an hour.

PTA’s Connect for Respect program provides an opportunity to bring this research into your school’s anti-bullying efforts. A key part of the program, as noted in the adult leader guide, is building a Connect for Respect team and working with student leaders. PTA’s that work to identify socially influential student leaders and invite them to participate in the program can have a significantly greater effect on improving their school’s climate.