I think what has been most helpful is my understanding of child development, particularly during early adolescence. Middle school is a really hard time for most kids. They are going through significant physical and cognitive changes with puberty, and as they move from small and supportive classrooms to these larger and less supportive middle school settings, their social worlds are kind of turned upside down at a time when they place A LOT of importance on social relationships. On top of all that, there is a big jump between elementary and middle school in terms of academic demands. Kids now have to change classrooms, take their subjects with different teachers, be much more independent in their academic work, and complete more homework. Even something as simple as finding your locker or keeping a planner can be very anxiety-provoking for middle schoolers.
By helping teachers understand how hard this transition can be, I think they are able to have a little more patience and understanding with their students and structure their classrooms in ways that ease their students into this new environment.
How are children’s home environment, academic environment, social circles, and individual characteristics interacting with each other in modern society now? Is the increasing influence of peer-interactions and decreasing impact of parental role-modeling affecting children at a younger age than ever?
I was trained in a developmental science perspective, which stresses that multiple factors work together to impact development over time. This means that individual, home, school, and environmental factors are all linked with one another, so that a change in one can bring about a change in another, in positive or negative ways. This is why you often see a student with academic difficulties also demonstrating behavioral problems, difficulties making friends, and possibly a chaotic home life. The good news is that by intervening in one area, it is possible to reorganize this whole system in positive ways. The work I have done with middle school teachers operates under this assumption, that by creating a positive academic and social environment for sixth graders, hopefully we can help them through this transition and promote healthy adjustment. In terms of the influence of peers, research has demonstrated that some of these dynamics occur as early as preschool, but there is really something special about early adolescence. This is when you begin to really see adult influence decreasing and peer influence taking center stage. Early adolescents want to be accepted by their peers very badly, so much so that they will prioritize popularity over other areas such as academic achievement, friendships, and other pro-social behaviors.
I noticed you are tackling the issue of bullying as experts and concerned parents alike are working to bring it to the forefront as a real adversity children face and not just a “rite of passage.” Thank you for that, as a parent of two myself. Your approach angles toward teacher involvement; can you expand on this and how it may help address and minimize bullying in the schools?
My philosophy is that in order to stop bullying, you really need to understand how bullies and victims fit within their broader social networks. Rodkin and Hodges (2003) have a wonderful article describing considerations that school professionals need to have when addressing bullying. For a long time, psychologists portrayed bullies as lacking social skills and being rejected by their peers. Whereas this may be true for some kids, many bullies are actually considered quite popular and are very socially skilled.
These are the kids that may be disliked for their behavior, but are still considered popular and thus have a lot of influence over others. The challenge for teachers is to either (a) minimize the negative influence that these kids can have, or (b) try to find ways to have them use their influence in positive, rather than negative ways.
In order to do this, teachers must first be aware of the social dynamics of their classrooms (i.e., attunement). This includes knowing who the bullies and victims are, but also understanding which kids hang out together, who the popular kids are, and who the isolated kids are. By understanding these dynamics, it is my belief that teachers can make more informed decisions and structure their classrooms in ways that bring about positive peer relations and a reduction in aggression and bullying.
In your career, what has been your biggest obstacle and how did you overcome it?
It can be very difficult to recruit teachers and other school personnel to participate in research. They already have so much on their plate, and researchers are constantly inundating them to participate in their studies. It is really important to build trust and relationships with these people first. Like any organization, schools have their own culture and politics and it is important to fully understand them. I never want to come into a school and force something upon them that just doesn’t work with their values.
What would the layman find most surprising about your research?
I think the idea that positive change can occur at any time in a child’s life. There is a common misconception that if academic and behavioral issues are not addressed in early childhood, then a child is “doomed” and there is nothing we can do. Granted, early childhood is a critical period for development and early intervention services are invaluable when they are available; however, the notion that our development is “fixed” beyond that point is just not true. This is why I love studying the developmental period of early adolescence. With all of the physiological and cognitive changes going on during this period, early adolescence represents a period where development is malleable. This means that even if a child has been on a negative trajectory, here is a period where we can really affect change and turn things around.
With all the funding in the world, what would be your white whale of research? Is there something you are secretly curious about but haven’t had the chance to explore yet?
There is so much I would love to research! I think the first thing that comes to mind is issues surrounding restorative justice for juvenile offenders. This is particularly important in North Carolina, as we were the last state to pass a law that would prevent juveniles from automatically being tried as adults. I think many states take a punitive approach, which we know just isn’t effective. I would rather see resources go toward providing mental health services, education, and vocational training.
What advice would you give to a student thinking of specializing in your field?
School psychologists can take on any number of roles and work in any number of settings. I encourage prospective students to talk with school psychologists working in various settings, including schools, mental health clinics, universities, and private practice.