Professor studies coping responses to bullying through NSF grant

Willamette University psychology professor Melissa Witkow has earned $81,461 of a larger $545,999 National Science Foundation grant that will allow undergraduates to join her in researching adolescent bullying.

The grant from NSF’s Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences will help Witkow, three Willamette student assistants and collaborating researchers at two other universities investigate how social environments and peer groups may help sixth-graders develop effective coping responses to bullying.

“I have a general interest in the ways in which adolescents experience peer relationships at school,” Witkow says about her work. “We hope to learn what coping strategies are most effective when students experience victimization, as well as whether the social context — including the ethnic composition of an adolescent's friendship group — impacts an adolescent's coping strategies.”

The Willamette research team will collaborate with Amy Bellmore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Adrienne Nishina at the University of California-Davis.

During a two-week period, Witkow and her students will collect data from Salem sixth-graders regarding their well being, victimization experiences and how they deal with the experiences. At the same time, Witkow’s collaborators will collect the same type of data for Wisconsin and California sixth-graders.

While this part of the project will only take two weeks, Witkow and her team will spend many months preparing for the data collection and then many years analyzing and publicizing the data.

Willamette students will be involved with every aspect of the study, including collecting and analyzing data. The NSF grant also helps pay for students to travel to professional conferences to present their work.

“This is a fantastic opportunity for students to gain research experience, whether for graduate school admission or to see whether research is something they are interested in continuing as a career,” Witkow says.

Witkow hopes their findings will be used to inform interventions for victims of bullying.

“Unfortunately we know that bullying is part of the peer-relations experience for many adolescents,” Witkow says. “It is critical that we can find ways to help reduce the suffering of those who do experience bullying.”