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What the School-to-Prison Pipeline Has to Do With Bullying

How we can change bullying behavior with early interventions.

Key points

  • Research shows a direct correlation between frequent childhood bullying and the criminal justice system.
  • Anti-social, rule-breaking behaviors at 8-years-old are a reliable predictor of adolescent anti-sociality.
  • Only two anti-bullying programs are effective, according to an independent assessment.

A longitudinal study done in Finland published results in 2007 that showed a correlation between boys who frequently engage in bullying and criminal conduct later in life. It begs the question: how can we stop frequent bullying in childhood to protect children from the school-to-prison pipeline?

While there are two established anti-bullying programs deemed “effective” by independent assessors who look at evidence-based results, to date, a brain health coaching program has not been designed or applied.

Longitudinal study in Finland

The Finnish study defined bullying as a component of an antisocial, rule-breaking pattern of behaviour. With a focus on 8-year-old boys, the researchers discovered that an early onset of antisocial behaviour was a reliable predictor of adult anti-sociality.

Researchers learned that aggressive trajectories or pipelines in childhood are associated with future antisocial and even criminal behaviour in later adolescence. Considering the seriousness of the issue, interventions in childhood to transform bullying behaviours need to be applied. As the authors of the study conclude: “Early crime prevention that focuses on bullying should be one of the highest priorities in child public health policy.”

In the study, approximately 2,600 boys were assessed in terms of bullying at age eight (along with their parents and teachers) and then were assessed again in adolescence in terms of criminal conduct. The specific criminal conduct they used as a measure were violence, property theft, drunk driving, and drug offences.

What researchers learned was that criminal conduct was frequently correlated with those who engaged in bullying. Frequent bullying was a “red flag that something is wrong and intensive preventative or ameliorative interventions are warranted.”

They found that boys who engaged in frequent bullying, and their victims, some of whom also went on to engage in frequent bullying, manifested a “high level of psychiatric symptoms.” This group was only 8.8 percent of the population, but they committed 33 percent of the offences in adolescence during the years from 16 to 20. Could interventions in childhood have been effective?

Anti-bullying programs

In 2022, the Illinois Criminal Justice Authority published a paper that reviewed anti-bullying programs with an eye to which ones actually worked. Only two, “Steps to Respect,” and “Positive Action,” passed muster with the assessors.

“Steps to Respect” is a prevention program that offers training to schools, staff, families, individuals, and peer-groups. It aims to raise awareness, encourage social responsibility, and teach social-emotional skills that all contribute to the reduction of bullying behaviours. Evaluations using a randomized control design in 2005 and again in 2011 found it to be effective in reducing bullying by approximately 30 percent.

“Positive Action” is also school-based, focusing on elementary and middle-school kids. Like "Steps to Respect" it strives to foster positive environments through social-emotional skills grounded in classroom curriculum. It provides further resources to mental health professionals to support students requiring more intensive intervention. A matched, randomized control trial showed a 41 percent reduction in bullying, 31 percent in substance use, and 36 percent in violent behaviours when compared to students in control schools.

I would like to propose a third program that applies research on the correlation between frequent bullying and criminality and puts it in the encouraging and empowering context of neuroplasticity. Students and their parents need to know that the school-to-prison pipeline could be changed on a cognitive level with a school-to-career pipeline.

Alexandra Kock/Pixabay
Source: Alexandra Kock/Pixabay

School-to-career pipeline

Starting in Middle School, students can do a project where they try to find a job advertisement looking for someone who bullies, is anti-social, harms others, breaks rules, etc. If they cannot find that job opening, then it should start to sink in that the practices they now repeat in childhood are not only shaping their behaviour, but also their brain. It’s difficult to unlearn repeated behaviours.

Isn’t school all about launching a satisfying work life and being able to earn a living? Isn’t that why it’s mandated for students? Then keeping a focus on what jobs are seeking, including leadership positions, is a helpful guide to encourage children and youth to realize bullying conduct is not only unwanted in the work world, but also can lead to committing crimes.

Imagine how shocking, and thus motivating, it would be for students and parents to learn that frequent bullying may be laying down a pipeline toward the criminal justice system. Once that concerning link has been established, schools could offer an evidence-based program that harnesses neuroscience to show how to halt this preventable trajectory.

With even the most basic understanding of neuroplasticity, namely the brain’s ability to change in response to environment and practice, students could realize they do not need to default to bullying behaviours. They can choose to replace those destructive neural networks with healthier ones. They can practice replacing anti-social behaviours with social-emotional intelligence.

What fires together wires together

Students should know this mantra and be able to repeat it at will. It’s a powerful reminder that what they commit deliberate practice to, whether it’s bullying or being empathic, is going to wire into their brains. They practice learning a language with this understanding. They practice music and sport with this understanding. It's time to make sure they understand that it also, arguably with far higher stakes, applies to how they treat others.

To fire up and wire in healthy, caring behaviours, students would need as much practice as they get when they’re learning algebra or social studies. It’s not a quick fix. The brain learns by repletion at timed intervals, so they would need to practice, make errors, be encouraged to try again, take a risk, do their best, have support, and be corrected until a set of bullying practices was replaced by a default to empathic, compassionate practices.

Alisa Dyson/Pixabay
Source: Alisa Dyson/Pixabay

Then, have students search job advertisements with an eye on whether or not they are looking for candidates that have social-emotional intelligence, act with empathy, demonstrate an ability to get along with everyone, and are sensitive to diversity and inclusion.

Students need to learn that if they default to bullying, they may need help and support. If families and schools are aware that bullying is often accompanied by a “high level of psychiatric symptoms” mental health should be addressed by professionals.

When students recognize that bullying raises a red flag about the well-being of the perpetrator, then it’s vital for schools to ensure that they are there to offer guidance and intervention. An awareness of the association of bullying with psychiatric symptoms removes the power from the bullying child, and instead indicates that there is a serious weakness manifesting as anti-social behaviour that needs to be addressed as quickly and effectively as possible to protect both the perpetrator and victim.

The overarching goal of a brain health coaching program is to provide students with more informed choices about how they will shape and wire their brains for healthy lives with peers and colleagues in the present and future, at school, and in their careers.

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