Leading voices in bullying and social emotional learning issues

Dorothy Espelage jokingly says she hasn’t slept since 2011. When she mentions what she has been up to the last four years, you begin to believe her.

Dorothy EspelageShe has 60 publications to her credit in the last two years. She regularly attends Congressional briefings on topics related to bullying and other social emotional learning (SEL) issues. She served on the governor’s task force, which led to many amendments to the State Schools Act in Illinois. Much of her work—especially on bullying—has been used at the federal level.

“I have redlined and contributed to most of the bills that have related to bullying and gangs,” she says. “I consult directly to Congress, to the senate, the American Psychological Association comes to me, the Institute of Medicines held a conference and I was there. Our research has informed a lot of bills.”

Her research has also kept her busy. Right now she is working on:

  • A series of randomized clinical trials evaluating SEL programs (her team started with 41 SEL lessons for middle school students, and are following those students through high school to see the impact)
  • A K-5 SEL pilot involving about 1,700 students and including online bullying prevention training for teachers
  • A text intervention program in which 7th and 8th graders receive four or five texts a day on social emotional issues related to bullying

One of the nation's leading voices

Espelage is one of the nation’s leading voices on bullying. The Gutgsell Professor received a Lifetime Achievement Award for Prevention from the American Psychological Association in 2013. Her research has also made significant inroads in the areas of homophobic teasing, sexual harassment, dating violence, and gang violence.

She is one reason the College of Education is known as a national leader in social emotional learning. But she is far from the only reason.

Carrying on the work of Phil Rodkin

Her former colleague, Philip Rodkin, passed away in 2014, but two of his PhD students, Marina Serdiouk and Handrea Logis, are carrying on his work, part of which is studying how peer group dynamics and teaching practices affect bullying and victimization.

Our research suggests that teachers who are attuned to the identity of victims and make direct efforts to reduce status inequality among children have classrooms with lower levels of victimization.”Marina Serdiouk

“Our research suggests that teachers who are attuned to the identity of victims and make direct efforts to reduce status inequality among children have classrooms with lower levels of victimization,” Serdiouk says. “Interestingly, we found that teachers who are generally responsive and emotionally supportive to all students do not have classrooms with lower victimization.”

Phil RodkinSerdiouk and Logis are also carrying on Rodkin’s work in studying the bully-victim relationship.

“We found that in general children tended to pick on less popular peers, except when bullying happened between boys and girls,” Logis says. “When boys bullied girls, they tended to pick on girls who had the same popularity levels as they did. In general, bullies and the kids they picked on tended to name each other as someone who they liked least to play with. However, when girls bullied boys, they also tended to name each other as friends. Thus, bullying is not one size fits all. Rather, who is bullying whom matters.”  

Serdiouk and Logis take a multifaceted approach to bullying, exploring individual-level and contextual factors. Their results, Serdiouk says, can inform programs for teachers to use effective strategies for managing classroom social dynamics.

Bullying, a predictor of sexual harassment and teen-dating violence

Bullying, Espelage says, is a great predictor of sexual harassment and teen-dating violence. In another of her studies, she tracked 1,300 students from 5th and 6th grade who are now in high school.

“We were able to show a causal link that shows that kids who come from highly conflicted families are more likely to be angry, more likely to use alcohol and drugs, more likely to bully, and bullying is pretty darn stable when it predicts sexual harassment in eighth grade and predicts teen-dating violence in high school,” she says. “Bullying doesn’t just happen in a vacuum. We have to address it K through sixteen, and we have to address it developmentally.”

Espelage says she is the only researcher in the country pushing for sexual harassment research in middle schools. She speaks to another factor that sets the College of Education apart in its approach to social emotional learning.

“I don’t know of any other researcher in any other college of education who’s doing both epidemiological research to identify and stay abreast of risk and protective factors that should be targeted in interventions, and then evaluating those risk and protective factors, and then adapting the interventions,” she says.

It pays off when I hear clinicians and teachers say 'I use your stuff, thank you so much for putting the gender discussion back into aggression, thank you so much for breaking down the silos. Because it's not just bullying, it's not just sexual harassment, it's teen-dating violence too. This is a life course of these kinds of behaviors.’ Dorothy Espelage 

Standing out through translational research

“You can point to a number of colleges of education where there are bullying researchers,” she continues. “What makes us unique is that we engage in truly translational research. I’m not just doing research for the sake of research.”

It’s that translational research that most fulfills Espelage.

“We do the most rigorous work and we improve upon it and we do longitudinal studies and we look at culture and context and we translate it,” she says. “That’s most fulfilling. That, and being with the kids in the schools and working with the teachers and empowering them.”

At the end of the day —if Espelage’s day indeed ends—she says her hard work is worth it.

“It pays off when I hear clinicians and teachers say ‘I use your stuff, thank you so much for putting the gender discussion back into aggression, thank you so much for breaking down the silos. Because it’s not just bullying, it’s not just sexual harassment, it’s teen-dating violence, too. This is a life course of these kinds of behaviors.’ When I hear that, that’s cool,” Espelage says.

Follow Dr. Dorothy Espelage on twitter @DrDotEspelage.