Sunday, March 1, 2020

Trust as the Beginning Place

(First posted September 17, 2019 for the International Bullying Prevention Association)

Over the last five years or so, government agencies, research institutions, training organizations and more have established guiding principles for trauma-informed work, most notably the US Center for Disease Control in collaboration with the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration. While safety is usually the number one consideration, trust or trustworthiness is also found in these guiding principles.

Before the focus on trauma, however, trust was described as an essential part of strong and supportive school cultures. The solid body of research around trust has also shown it as integral to effective organizational change, successful school reform efforts, transformative educational leadership, and much more. As author Barbara Smith writes, “ the beginning place, the foundation upon which more can be built.” The purpose of this article is to explore the concept of trust from the beginning place, with the goal of finding a common understanding of trust and identifying the research-based ways to increase trust in places where our children and young people live and learn. Unlike many articles that highlight recent research, this article focuses on a few seminal pieces on trust and the work of researchers who paved the way for current research on student engagement and more.

What Is Trust?
Dr. Megan Tschannen-Moran, Professor of Education at William and Mary, has studied trust for over 20 years and defines trust this way: “One party’s willingness to be vulnerable to another based on the confidence that the other is benevolent, reliable, competent, honest, and open” (2004). Probing deeper into that definition, trust is understood as a two-fold process. Trust first involves a choice to be vulnerable to another, to acknowledge the potential for being hurt by that person. The second part of placing trust in another is perceiving that person to be of good will, genuine, accepting, and capable. Both the choice to be vulnerable to another and the perception of the benevolence of another are necessary to build trust.

Building the trust needed for healthy and supportive schools and agencies requires shifting this interpersonal concept to an organizational perspective. This is not the trust established around an institution and its purpose, rather it is relational trust, a set of interdependencies among people within the organization. Relational trust is found in social exchanges and is reflected by respect, personal regard, competence, and personal integrity (Bryk & Schneider, 2003).  To explain, respect is evident through deep listening, perspective-taking, and acknowledgment, and personal regard refers to a perceived willingness to go beyond established expectations. Competence in core role responsibilities inspires faith that desired outcomes will be realized, and personal integrity reflects a set of moral-ethical standards that guide behavior. Relational trust allows for collective decision making, shared ownership, and more. As Professors Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider  (2003) explain:  "relational trust is the connective tissue that binds individuals together to advance the education and welfare of students" (p. 45).  

When thinking about school reform, organizational change, and culture building, establishing trust should be a deliberate and transparent process. Through their research on school change, Bryk and Schneider (2003) identified several conditions that foster relational trust in schools. First, building leaders play a crucial role in strengthening relational trust by setting the standards for behavior and reflecting the respect, personal regard, competence, and integrity found in relational trust. Second, teachers must be acknowledged as the crucial element in engaging parents; in order to build relational trust with parents, they must be supported and empowered in this effort. Other conditions that Bryk and Schneider suggest are smaller school communities that allow for more face-to-face interactions with central leadership, stable school communities where staff have longevity within buildings, and voluntary association, meaning that students and their families have some school choice and school officials avoid forced building assignments.

Research on Trust in Schools
In studying the role of educational leadership on effective school change, Karen Seashore Lewis (2007), focused specifically on the importance of trust at the high school level. She was able to expand the previous work of Bryk and Schneider (2003) which focused on elementary schools and found that complex change was likely to occur in high schools where teachers had high levels of trust in their administration. These teachers noted integrity as the most important aspect for that trust. 
Among other recommendations, Lewis suggests pre-assessment and monitoring of trust levels during a change process and teacher involvement and ownership in decision making. One important finding is the need for trust within the teaching staff. She notes that teachers who do not trust each other “cannot work together effectively to create systemic change” (Lewis, 2007, p. 19).

Hoy and Tschannen-Moran (2007) studied the impact of staff trust on school culture and climate with findings that are important to consider in current trust-building efforts. First, they found that trust is spread throughout a building, meaning that in schools where teachers trust their administrators, they also tend to trust each other and to trust their students. This also works in places of distrust, where “broken trust is likely to ripple through the system” (p. 109). When thinking about both parent and student engagement, these researchers found that distinguishing the difference in trust of parents and students was impossible. In short, when teachers trust students, they also trust parents, and vice versa, leading the researchers to consider students and their families as one entity.

The final study highlighted here is The Colorado Trust (2008) study. The report Build Trust, End Bullying, and Improve Learning describes the impact of a school and community bullying prevention initiative that touched the lives of over 50,000 students. The report cites increases in academic achievement and highlights the critical role of adults in effective bullying prevention. With particular attention to the impact of trust, however, students reported the importance of teachers and administrators showing genuine concern about student issues and being knowledgeable about and appropriately responding to issues of bullying. These students self-reported the aspects of trust that Bryk and Schneider (2003) describe: respect, personal regard, competence in roles, and integrity.

Final Thoughts
Before the current focus on trauma-informed approaches, there was ample research confirming that the most successful school reform efforts have evidence of strong relational trust.  In these efforts, trust will be found across school buildings and will be identified within student populations, across the school and district staff, between schools and their parents, and so on. Building trust is a deliberate and transparent process that requires continuing monitoring and adjustment. By looking at trust as the beginning place, it remains a part of the foundation of all efforts to improve the health and well-being of students and their families.
Bryk, A.S., & Schneider, B. (2003). Trust in schools: A core resource for school reform. Educational Leadership 60(6):40-45. Retrieved from
The Colorado Trust (2008). Build trust, end bullying, improve learning: evaluation of The Colorado Trust’s bullying prevention initiative. Retrieved from Denver, CO:
Hoy, W., & Tschannen-Moran, M. (2007). The conceptualization and measurement of faculty and trust in schools (pp. 87-114). In W. Hoy and M. DiPaola (Eds.) Essential ideas for the reform of American schools. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
Louis, K.S. (2007). Trust and improvement in schools. Journal of Educational Change, 6(1), 1-24. Retrieved from
Tschannen-Moran, M. (2004). Trust matters: Leadership for successful schools. Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.

More Information
Social Media Director, International Bullying Prevention Association (
Advanced Trauma Practitioner and Trainer, Starr Commonwealth (
Student Safety and Well-Being Consultant, Oakland Schools (Waterford, Michigan)
Licensed Trainer and Certified Practitioner for the International Institute for Restorative Practices (

Twitter: @jemmuldoon

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

A New Lens for Bullying Prevention

Bullying behavior remains prevalent in American schools and a persistent problem for students. The results of two surveys given every two years help to explain this prevalence. First, results from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (2007-2017) show the rate of bullying as stable over the past decade for high school students, with about 20% of students reporting being bullied on school property (Center for Disease Control, 2017). The second survey, the National Crime Victimization Survey (2005-2015), includes all secondary students and allows for a break down of bullying data by grade level. According to the results of this survey, students in grades 6-8 report higher incidents of bullying when compared to high school students (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016). The following chart shows bullying frequency by grade levels 6-12:

Why does bullying remain a stable and unacceptable issue for young people, especially for middle school students, despite our best efforts, proven practice, solid research and more?  Perhaps the barrier to reducing bullying is the type of lens through which we view bullying behavior and our prevention efforts. To explain, the most effective research- and evidence-based bullying prevention programs are comprehensive and systemic approaches. While building strong and supportive school cultures is essential in bullying prevention, bullying is a complex social issue. Considering adolescent neurological and social development may bring a wider lens for understanding bullying and might provide new insight into this pernicious issue for young people.

Neurological Development and Social Dominance
In his 2015 book “Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain,” Dr. Daniel Siegel explains four qualities of the adolescent brain: novelty seeking, increased emotional intensity, creative exploration, and social engagement. The social engagement feature inspires young people at a psychophysiological level to strengthen their peer connections and to develop new peer relationships. As Siegel explains, there are positive and negative results from this intense social feature. The positive results are strong social connections that will lead to greater well-being and happiness. However, the disadvantages to enhanced peer connectedness is adolescents isolating themselves from adults, rejecting adult knowledge, and engaging in behaviors that pose greater risk to them. Siegel explains this separation from adults during adolescence as a process “vital for our survival” (p. 27). However, while the new relationships are taking precedence in adolescents’ lives, the continued adult attachment will ensure healthy social development as adolescents create their own communities.

If looking at bullying behavior from an adolescent neurological development lens, we understand that bullying might emerge in adolescent communities without healthy adult attachments. Trusted adults provide continued guidance for healthy individual and social behaviors for adolescents. Using this lens, adults make concerted efforts to model and teach children and young people that bullying is an unacceptable and harmful behavior while also supporting their efforts to create strong peer communities. As we know, bullying cannot flourish in strong and supportive communities.

In addition to considering neurological development in bullying prevention efforts, it is also important to include a framework for social structure and power. Adolescents learn who they are in context of their environment. They learn not just self-awareness and self-management, but have a growing understanding of who they are in their peer groups, schools, families, and society. Every social group has power, and a power imbalance is at the root of bullying behavior.

Dr. Patricia Hawleyan evolutionary developmental psychologist, explains how children learn social dominance, which may lead to a better understanding of why bullying behavior occurs and how it emerges from social structures (Hawley, 2015). Because humans think in hierarchies, it is natural for them to organize socially in hierarchical fashion. Hawley’s research with children 4-5 years old shows how children organize as a group, documenting how those who assumed dominant positions were those who were also able to control resources. Those children who exhibit a more coercive type of dominance engage in aggressive control. Interestingly, these children engaging in more aggressive control want peer approval, yet they also avoid close relationships. Even in early childhood, strong and healthy leadership engages in prosocial behavior that serves both the individual and the community. She summarizes what children learn about social power this way: “You can get what you want in a social group while being nice to others. As a consequence, they will accept you, support you when you are in need, and help you achieve your goals” (Hawley, 2015, p. 835).

The imbalance of power manifested in bullying behavior stems from the belief that resources are finite, that people are not equal, and that shared power will never result in individual satisfaction. Hawley offers a different way to look at social dominance. By modeling and teaching prosocial behavior as a way for children and adolescents to achieve both individual and community goals, bullying might be viewed as an ineffective method of meeting individual needs and a behavior that weakens the strength of the community. Hawley also suggests that adults play the pivotal role in instilling prosocial behaviors and helping children understand the power of community. These ideas can become a part of the foundation of the K-12 experience; students are empowered through prosocial behavior and a community mindset.

An Alternative Way to Approach Bullying Prevention
By using a lens that takes into account the complex social nature of adolescents as well as their unique neurodevelopmental stage, bullying prevention can be viewed in a new way. Adults act on this new understanding, providing continued guidance in helping adolescents develop those strong and healthy relationships needed to thrive. By modeling, instilling and strengthening prosocial leadership qualities, educators are helping students create their own communities which brings them a stronger sense of belonging. When school leaders approach bullying behavior with this same mindset, all prevention efforts begin with cultivating and strengthening safe and supportive school environments.

Bullying prevention efforts should meet young people where they are. It is in this place where the social and emotional harm of bullying is healed and the sense of community is restored. It is also in this place where the solid research- and evidence-based bullying prevention programs become more impactful, and schools are finally able to reduce the unacceptable and persistent rates of bullying, especially at the middle school level.


Center for Disease Control (2017). Youth Risk Behavior Survey: data and trends report 2007-2017. Retrieved from Washington, DC:

Hawley, P. H. (2015). Social Dominance in Childhood and its evolutionary underpinnings: why it matters and what we can do. Pediatrics, 135.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). Percentage of students ages 12-18 who reported being bullied at school during the school year, by type of bullying and selected student and school characteristics: Selected years, 2005 through 2015. In Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, School Crime Supplement (SCS) to the National Crime Victimization Survey (Ed.), Digest of Education Statistics (August 2016 ed.). Washington, DC: NCES.

Rutledge, P. (2011). Social Networks: What Maslow Missed. Retrieved from

Siegel, D. J. (2015). Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Misdirection in Bullying Prevention

First posted August 12, 2019 for the International Bullying Prevention Association

A new school year brings the opportunity to renew and strengthen bullying prevention efforts. Before implementation, however, it is important to identify what is already in place and reflect on how effective these programs and strategies have been. This is especially important, as some of the traditional ways of approaching bullying prevention result in more damage to the school culture and to students themselves.

In 2016 the National Academies of Sciences released the report Preventing Bullying Through Science, Policy, and Practice that included “Nonrecommended Approaches” to bullying prevention. Despite no evidence of their positive effects and compelling reasons why they should be avoided, some of these bullying prevention approaches are still commonly found in schools and communities. Some of this misdirection in bullying prevention include zero tolerance, giving advice only, expecting bystanders to solve the problem, implementing piecemeal efforts, and implementing peer-only resolution.

First, zero tolerance policies and other harsh, punitive consequences are ineffective. Zero tolerance became a term to describe how states were responding to drug-related crimes in the United States in the 1980s (Skiba, 2000). Conventional wisdom at the time mistakenly argued that showing no tolerance for drug-related crimes, meaning no leniency and no second chances, would reduce drug use.

Educational policymakers began adopting a zero-tolerance stance for aggressive behavior in schools, and many schools adopted policies where students were expelled for involvement in any type of fighting. While zero-tolerance policies are ineffective and disproportionally affect students of color in general (ACLU, 2008), these types of harsh and punitive consequences are also ineffective in preventing bullying behavior. First, students who are expelled are denied the school experience altogether. This non-restorative approach ignores the need for belonging, damages the school community, and more. Furthermore, with this harsh approach, school staff might be reluctant to report students who need intervention, not exclusion and punishment. Students might also be reluctant to report bullying behavior, because of the fear of retaliation. Finally, no research supports “suspension and other exclusionary tactics” in preventing bullying; instead, evidence points to these responses as bringing “increased academic and behavioral problems” for young people engaging in bullying behavior (National Association of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016, p. 221).

Giving advice only, another misdirection in bullying prevention, may be more harmful than doing nothing at all. Adults are the first line of response; and so, bullying must be addressed by adults first. They establish and enforce policies that address bullying behavior and should be the ones to intervene in a bullying situation.

Stan Davis and Charisse Nixon (2013) surveyed 13,000 American students and asked them the most effective ways to confront bullying behavior. Students reported that traditional advice from adults, such as demanding the behavior to stop or sharing with the aggressor how it makes the targeted young person feels, is perceived as making an already-bad situation worse. Teaching canned response statements makes the assumption that social-emotional skills and strategies are adequate in both the person engaging in bullying behavior and the person being targeted.

One particular ineffective piece of advice, fighting back, gives the mixed message that physical aggression is a viable response. It must be avoided. That advice translated into action may “escalate the level of violence,” bringing more harm to those involved (NAS, 2016).

Third, expecting bystanders to solve the problem is problematic and irresponsible. As Barbara Coloroso (2016) has suggested, the bystander role is complex, holding varying degrees of complicity in bullying. Again, adults must be the first line of response in a bullying situation. The power imbalance that separates bullying from other acts of aggression needs adult intervention. Children and young adults can learn to identify power structures and understand social injustice, and they will need guidance for this learning. One way to engage the bystanders is with a proven intervention approach implemented, guided and monitored by trained adults (NAS, 2016). When the school has implemented a proven intervention approach, not only is bullying reduced, but peer rejection is lessened (Waasdorp, Bradshaw, & Leaf, 2012). Bystanders alone cannot solve the bullying problem.

The fourth misdirection involves implementing piecemeal efforts. Motivational speakers, special assemblies, PTA meetings, and other simple, short-term solutions are often used in schools as bullying prevention strategies. Students, staff, and parents may report being entertained, inspired, even moved by these events. Unfortunately, little evidence exists that they affect bullying behavior in schools (NAS, 2016). Motivational speakers, awareness raising assemblies, focus days, and other piecemeal efforts should not be held as isolated events. Furthermore, because they do not take into account differing student needs in the schools, schools should avoid large group assemblies on sensitive issues presented by an outsider. Finally, without adequate staff preparation and investment in the event, students are left more vulnerable than they were before the assembly.

Finally, peer-only resolution is dangerous and should be avoided for several reasons. First, while adults wish for students to have solid social-emotional skills and strategies, that process of developing them occurs under the guidance of a trusted adult. More importantly, and as stressed previously, bullying is separated by other conflicts because of the power imbalance. Peer mediation and conflict resolution provide no benefit in resolving a bullying situation (NAS, 2016). Adult intervention is needed to erode the power struggle between students. The vulnerable and targeted youth must not be left alone to resolve a bullying situation with those engaging in the aggressive behavior. This cannot be stressed enough. Conventional wisdom such as “they will work it out” and “this is natural peer conflict” erodes any progress in preventing bullying and in protecting the most vulnerable children and young people.

It is important to note that some of these nonrecommended approaches may be critical components of a systemic and comprehensive bullying prevention effort. However, none of these implemented in isolation will be sufficient to reduce bullying problems (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2017). Other policies, such as zero tolerance, “should be immediately discontinued” (NAS, 2016, p. 295).

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
-Maya Angelou-


American Civil Liberties Union (2008). Dignity denied: the effect of “zero tolerance” policies of students’ human rights. Retrieved from

Coloroso, B. (2016). The bully, the bullied, and the not-so-innocent bystander: From preschool to high school and beyond: Breaking the cycle of violence and creating more deeply caring communities. New York, NY: William Monroe Paperbacks.

Davis, S., & Nixon, C. L. (2013). Youth Voice Project: Student Insights Into Bullying and Peer Mistreatment. Champaign, IL: Research Press Publishers.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2016). Preventing Bullying Through Science, Policy, and Practice. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Doi: 10.17226/23482.
Skiba, R. J. (2000). Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence: An Analysis of School Disciplinary Practice Indiana Policy Research Center. Retrieved from

US Department of Health and Human Services (2017). Prevention at School. Retrieved from

Waasdorp, T. E., Bradshaw, C. P., & Leaf, P. J. (2012). The impact of schoolwide positive behavioral interventions and supports on bullying and peer rejection: a randomized controlled effectiveness trial. Archives of Pediatrics Adolescents Medicine, 166(2), 149-156.

Julie E. McDaniel-Muldoon, PhD

Monday, August 12, 2019

(A Sense of) Safety First

Since the 1950s, American schools have been engaging in safety preparedness, beginning with fire drills, evolving into additional emergency protocols, and finally with active shooter training. Unfortunately, no evidence exists that these measures bring any improvements in the sense of safety. As Dr. Daniel Siegel (2015) explains, students need to be “seen, safe, and soothed, in order to feel secure” (p. 145), and these needs will not be met by current school safety practices alone. As collective wisdom considers the emotional and social impact of these safety measures, it is important to note that for more than a decade, US students have been reporting how many of them miss school because of safety concerns. Karyn Purvis and her colleagues remind us, there is a difference between being safe and feeling safe: “Felt safety, which has to be determined by each individual, includes emotional, physical, and relational security” (From The Connected Child).  It may be time to reconsider what is meant by school safety and to determine what our children and young people really need in order to feel the sense of safety required to thrive in school and beyond.
School Safety: A Perennial Issue for Some
Since 1999, the Center for Disease Control's Division of Adolescence and School Health (CDC/DASH) has surveyed over four million US high school students on health behaviors that contribute to physical, social, and emotional problems. One of the questions addresses students’ sense of safety: “During the past 30 days, on how many days did you not go to school because you felt you would be unsafe at school or on your way to or from school?” From 2007-2017, 5-7% of US high school students have reported not going to school because of safety concerns. These troubling results have remained stable with no statistical difference across a decade.
Looking deeper into the 2017 results, females have significantly more safety concerns than males, and Black and Latino students have more safety concerns than white students. Additionally, LGBTQ+ students have significantly higher safety concerns than non-LGBTQ+ students.  In a classroom of 30, two students stay home at least one day a month because they are afraid before, during, or after school.
The Neurobiology of Feeling Safe
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is often held up as a framework for acknowledging both physiological and psychological needs in schools, especially with regard to safety. The premise is that basic human needs must be fulfilled before social, esteem, and self-actualization needs are considered. At the base of human needs are physiological needs, such as food and shelter. The next level of needs is focused on safety and security. This need for safety can be met with limits, consistencies, routines, and predictability. From there, efforts can be made to fulfill the needs for self-esteem and self-actualization. Using this model, schools might easily simplify the safety needs of their students and mobilize all adults in the schools to play pivotal roles in meeting these needs.
However, as Patricia Rutledge and others note, this understanding is too simplistic, because it fails to take into account the prerequisite for social connections at every level of the hierarchy. While it may not be included in current discussions, Maslow’s original model sets preconditions that do indeed recognize the social environment. The freedoms to speak and to defend one’s self are noted as preconditions, as are honesty, justice, and order in groups. Maslow (1943) asserts, “These conditions are defended because without them the basic satisfactions are quite impossible, or at least, very severely endangered” (p.384).  According to Maslow, then, a healthy social environment is an imperative for meeting individual needs, including safety needs.
Considering the impact of the environment on individuals, Steven Porges (2017) explains feeling safe as a neurobiology in his Polyvagal Theory.  The neurobiological responses to relationships and to the environment determine whether humans feel safe, and these instinctual responses take precedence over a cognitive determination of safety. Porges challenges the traditional structural ideas of safety that focus on physical measures as they may have no impact on the feeling of safety. In other words, the environment determines whether or not people feel safe, and feeling safe may not be based on logic or fact. Porges advocates a shift in thinking about safety that is a simple thought: it matters how people treat one another.
The Polyvagal Theory also asserts that feeling safe is the natural state of the brain. In this state, humans are connected and fully present. Because the brain perceives no risk, it is open to new learning. “Safe states are not only a prerequisite for social behavior, but also for accessing the higher brain structures that enable humans to be creative and generative” (Porges, 2017, p. 50). This theory suggests that all learning, academic and social-emotional, must happen in a perceived safe environment. As a by-product, then, in tending to the neurobiology of feeling safe, student achievement is likely to increase, as evidenced by several researchers who have seen the relationship between strong school communities that prioritize social-emotional learning with increases in student achievement (See the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, 2019; Hagelskamp, Brackett, Rivers, & Salovey, 2013, among others).
A Sense of Safety First
Rather than considering security measures and drills alone, improving school safety should focus on increasing the sense of safety, which happens within a healthy school environment. While physical safety measures are an important part of all safety plans, students feeling safe at school is not the same as an adult declaration that a school is safe.  When students feel safe at school, they are more willing to engage in prosocial behaviors and their brains are ready to take in new information, be it academic content or social-emotional learning. Most importantly, when the focus is on students’ feelings of safety, it is possible to reduce the concerning numbers of students, especially Black, Hispanic, and LGBTQ+ students, who miss at least one school day every month because of safety concerns.

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (2019). Research: SEL Impact. Retrieved from
Center for Disease Control (2017). Youth Risk Behavior Survey: data and trends report 2007-2017. Retrieved from Washington, DC:
Hagelskamp, C., Brackett, M. A., Rivers, S. E., & Salovey, P. (2013). Improving classroom quality with the RULER approach to social and emotional learning: Proximal and distal outcomes. American Journal of Community Psychology, 51(3-4), 530-543.
Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-396.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). Percentage of students ages 12-18 who reported being bullied at school during the school year, by type of bullying and selected student and school characteristics: Selected years, 2005 through 2015. In Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, School Crime Supplement (SCS) to the National Crime Victimization Survey (Ed.), Digest of Education Statistics (August 2016 ed.). Washington, DC: NCES.
Porges, S. W. (2017). The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative
Power of Feeling Safe. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
Purvis, K. B., Cross, D. R. & Sunshine, W. L. (2007). The Connected Child: Bring hope and healing to your adoptive family. In. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.
Rutledge, P. (2011). Social Networks: What Maslow Missed. Retrieved from
Siegel, D. J. (2015). Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.

Julie E. McDaniel-Muldoon, PhD
·        Social Media Director, International Bullying Prevention Association (
·        Student Safety and Well-Being Consultant, Oakland Schools (Waterford, Michigan)
·        Advanced Trauma Practitioner and Trainer, Starr Commonwealth (
·        More information:
o Email:
o Twitter: @jemmuldoon

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Bullying Prevention as a Trauma-Informed Approach

Article #4 of the IBPA Trauma Series
First posted July 12, 2019

In using the lens of trauma, the effects of bullying are better understood for their widespread impact on all involved in a bullying situation. This lens then allows for a systems-level approach to bullying prevention through trauma-informed practices.

The foundation of trauma-informed practices is a safe and supportive school community where students have a strong sense of belonging. Dr. Caelan Soma and Derrick Allen of Starr Commonwealth have developed 10 steps for creating trauma-informed schools. 
  1. Provide school-wide childhood trauma awareness and understanding of how trauma impacts children’s learning and behavior. Any person can help students thrive when they understand the impact of stress and trauma on learning.
  2. View trauma as an experience rather than an incident or a diagnostic category. When bullying or any traumatic event occurs, it marks the beginning of an experience that may last for months or even years.
  3. Believe the link between private logic and behavior. Private logic is described as the way individuals view themselves, others, and the world around them. Based on this logic, they act according to that perception.
  4. Establish the experience of physical and emotional safety. We must ensure that students experience hope, empowerment, choice, security, structure, and consistency to build resilience.
  5. Foster connections. Students who feel connected to their school are more likely to stay in school, have strong attendance, and achieve at higher levels.
  6. Prioritize social and emotional skills. Among the most important of these skills is self-regulation: it provides the foundation for self-development, relationships, and learning.
  7. Promote play. Research confirms that unstructured play improves concentration, problem-solving capabilities, and more.
  8. Collaborate with families and community. Bullying, like all traumatic experiences, tends to isolate the individuals who need connection more than most. Family and community partnerships are essential components of safe, supportive, and effective schools.
  9. Support staff. Whether it is a bullying situation or another type of trauma, school professionals hearing details about or witnessing a traumatic event are susceptible to vicarious trauma. Self-care is an essential practice for trauma-informed practitioners.
  10. Collect and share outcome data. By collecting baseline and outcome data on culture, behavior, attendance, and more, schools are able to show the impact of trauma-informed practices.
A traumatic experience such as bullying is experienced at the most instinctual and sensory part of the brain. Trauma interventions, then, happen at both the systems level and with the individual. While trauma interventions must be conducted by trained professionals, there are activities and strategies that any adult can do with children and young adults to help heal trauma effects while also building resilience. Sensory-based, mind-body activities have proven their effectiveness, like those found here:

The Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reminds us that all trauma-informed practices must adhere to the following principles, rather than to a prescribed program:
  • Safety
  • Trustworthiness and transparency
  • Peer support
  • Collaboration and mutuality
  • Empowerment, voice, and choice
  • Cultural, historical, and gender issues

Julie E. McDaniel-Muldoon, PhD
Social Media Director, International Bullying Prevention Association (IBPA)
Student Safety and Well-Being Consultant, Oakland Schools (Waterford, Michigan)
Advanced Trauma Practitioner and Trainer, Starr Commonweath
Twitter: @jemmuldoon

For more information:
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN)
The Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative’s (TLPI) 
Starr Commonwealth

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Viewing Bullying through the Lens of Trauma

Article 1 of the IBPA Trauma Series

Originally posted June 27, 2019

In August 2017, the US Department of Health and Human Services released Bullying as an Adverse Childhood Experience on its site. This fact sheet calls for all involved in bullying prevention efforts to have a strong understanding of trauma, to see the relationship between trauma and bullying, and to develop a shared vision of how bullying prevention might become a part of trauma-informed practices. 

What is trauma?
Trauma is an experience that leaves a person feeling hopeless or helpless, perceiving a tremendous loss of safety and fear for survival. The details of a traumatic event itself are not important; instead, the focus must be on the way people experience the event.  When the brain perceives threat to safety, whether that threat is real or imagined, the most instinctual part of the brain (often called the reptilian brain) goes into survival mode. This powerful automatic response is often categorized as “fight”, “flight”, or “freeze”. Survival mode reduces cognitive and emotional capacity. 

In this survival mode, the body is in a state of hyper-arousal: where heart-rate is accelerated and emotions are unregulated. Additionally, stress hormones (such as cortisol and adrenalin) are released. What makes this most concerning in children is that the surge in these hormones over an extended period of time may cause damage to a still-developing brain.

The effects of childhood trauma on adulthood is a relatively new area for research; however, studies confirm that the trauma experienced by children/young people has long-lasting social, emotional, cognitive, and physical effects into adulthood. This impact is no less than the Post-Traumatic Stress diagnosed in veterans of war or first responders in devastating natural disasters.

What is the relationship between trauma and bullying?
A traumatic experience brings feelings of hopelessness and helplessness; the same feelings as those targeted by bullying behavior. The important distinction between bullying and other acts of aggression, the perceived or real imbalance of power, is at the heart of what constitutes bullying as a traumatic experience. 

Exposure to a childhood traumatic event can cause some children to exhibit harmful behavior that can last into adulthood. For example, the original ACE's Study documented 10% of females and 15% of males with high incidents of childhood trauma that became perpetrators of domestic violence in adulthood. The trajectory for those engaged in bullying behavior into adulthood is equally concerning. Bullying researchers Dan Olweus and colleagues found that males who engaged in aggressive behavior and are identified by age 8 are more likely to be convicted of a crime and have a serious criminal record in adulthood. We know that hurt people hurt people, therefore, childhood trauma intervention may be the key to ending this cycle of violence.

No matter if directly or indirectly involved, the impact of a traumatic event can be found in anyone. A bullying situation similarly affects everyone involved: the perpetrators, the victims, and the witnesses. Looking through the lens of trauma, bullying is viewed as the complex experience that it is.

Julie E. McDaniel-Muldoon, PhD
Social Media Director, International Bullying Prevention Association (IBPA)
Student Safety and Well-Being Consultant, Oakland Schools (Waterford, Michigan)
Advanced Practitioner and Trainer, Starr Global Learning Network

For more information:
SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network
Starr Global Learning Network and the National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children (TLC):

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Effects of Childhood Bullying into Adulthood

When the Center for Disease Control named bullying an "Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE)" in 2017, it validated the 30-year effort examining the long-lasting effects of childhood bullying into adulthood. The research efforts have suggested these principles: bullying is prevalent, being a target of bullying has a multi-symptom, negative impact, and the impact of being a target is long-lasting. Professors Patricia McDougall and Tracy Vaillancourt reviewed the literature in order to determine how far the negative impact can reach and which effects have the deepest impact.

The researchers selected 17 prospective studies to review. Prospective studies take a population and look at effects of over a long period of time, and so these studies looked at the effects of painful childhood experiences, including bullying, into adulthood.  The following are some of the findings:

  • Mental Health. McDougall and Vaillancourt found a "direct" pathway between childhood bullying and mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, that extend into early adulthood, with one study showing effects into mid life. The researchers also found "indirect" pathways, youth who had experienced bullying and who had described themselves as depressed or having low self-esteem were likely to be much more depressed in late adolescence and early adulthood.
  • Peer Support. Children who have a strong network of friends are less likely to feel the long-lasting effects of bullying. For children who had few friends during the bullying but more friends later, the impact of the bullying was shorter lived. 
  • Adult Support. When children were bullied and also reported high support from parents, they were less likely to report depression, behavior problems, and emotional problems later. The support of the teacher is critical, especially when children report low parental support. When children who are being bullied also report high levels of emotional support from teachers, the potential for emotional and behavioral problems is reduced later on.
  • Self-Evaluation. When children perceive themselves as victims and report high levels of threat, they are likely to experience more bullying victimization and increasing depression into adolescence. Several studies have shown that poor self-worth in children who experience bullying leads to self-blaming that can last into adulthood, opening the door to adult victimization.
The researchers concluded that "the strongest candidate" to interrupt the pathway between childhood bullying and long-lasting effects into adulthood was a strong support network of peers and adults. Parental support may have a bigger impact on younger children, and older children need a strong network of peers and a trusted teacher at school. They also suggest adults can buffer the effects of bullying by helping children and adolescents build coping skills and by supporting them in developing positive self-worth and healthy peer relationships. 

Bullying is not a rite of passage and does not have to be a life sentence. Parents and teachers have the ability to stop an undesirable pathway for children and adolescence.

"Every child deserves a champion 
- an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection 
and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be." 
~Rita Pierson

Trust as the Beginning Place

(First  poste d  September 17, 2019 for the International Bullying Prevention Association) Over the last five years or so, governm...