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Psst! Anti-Bullying Program Quiets Playground Gossip, Study Finds

Recess whispers about who has "cooties" abound on elementary school playgrounds, but encouraging other students to reject this early gossip can protect its victims from social isolation and more severe bullying later on, a new University of Washington study finds.

In a randomized controlled study published in a special issue of School Psychology Review, researchers found "malicious gossip" dropped 72 percent after elementary schools instituted an anti-bullying program, Steps to Respect, that encouraged bystander students to stand up for ostracized children.

Karin Frey, a research associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, led a team that surveyed student beliefs about peer interactions in the fall and later in the spring. At the same time, the researchers digitally recorded observations of 610 3rd- through 6th-grade students in six Seattle-area schools for 10 weeks in the fall and 10 more in the spring.

Researchers found while teachers noticed students who verbally or physically attacked other students, they could not identify students spreading malicious rumors, even though playground gossip was "semi-public in nature" and gossip sessions often lasted a while. "A student or students would speak negatively about a third party that was not among the listeners," the researchers noted. "Group members would laugh, gesture, or look 'meaningfully' in the direction of an isolated, unhappy-looking student."

The anti-bullying program included teacher training and lessons for students on ways to respond when they witness gossip or other abuse, as well as ways for targets of rumors to respond without retaliating with additional rumors. In the spring, after the program began, researchers noticed only about a quarter of the gossip observed in the fall semester: 234 fewer instances of gossip for each class of 25 students, and 270 fewer instances of a student being targeted for rumors. Steps to Respect is a three-year program, so the researchers will continue to study its long-term effectiveness.

The study adds to growing evidence that bullying is a school-wide "ecology," involving not just the bully and victim, but onlookers who enable the bullying, adults that ignore the problem, and even the victim and friends who may escalate a bad situation.

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