Witkow researches role peer groups play in how kids respond to bullying

by University Communications,

Does the ethnic diversity of adolescents’ peer groups affect their ability to cope with bullying?

Professor Melissa Witkow is determined to find out.

“Bullying is in the news all the time, and yet so much of it goes unreported,” says Witkow, who teaches psychology at Willamette University. “It’s a big problem.”

In 2012, Witkow received more than $81,000 of a larger $550,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to investigate the issue.

With the funding, she’s working with fellow researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of California-Davis to better understand how social environments and peer groups may help sixth-graders develop effective coping responses to bullying.

They hope to use the findings to create research-based intervention recommendations for schools to follow.

“Most kids say they’ve experienced or witnessed some kinds of bullying,” Witkow says. “I think this topic is really important from a societal perspective.”

Collecting data

The team began surveying students last year, asking them questions about their well being, victimization experiences and how they deal with the experiences.

When complete, the nationwide team will have polled 960 students during a series of five visits.

“Things change over the course of a week or a month, so we get right in there and ask what’s happening now,” Witkow says about the survey methods.

“One hypothesis is that kids in diverse friendship groups will have a bigger variety of coping mechanisms at their disposal. Because not all victimization experiences are the same, this will allow them to fit their strategy with the specific experience.”

Several students have helped Witkow with her research, including Nicolette Rickert ’13. Her goal is to learn how sixth-graders view ethnicity and to see if the ethnic makeup of a school influences how they responded to bullying.

Although more time is needed to review the results — totaling 70 pages per student— Rickert says she’s greatly enjoyed the research process.

“We came up with new ideas and ways of looking at things,” says Rickert, who majored in psychology. “This project confirmed that this is what I want to do.”

Laura Cullen ’15 agrees, adding that she appreciates how Witkow enabled her and the other student researchers to fully partake in the data collection and entry.

“This research will hopefully help us understand why some kids are able to cope with bullying better than others,” says Cullen, a psychology major. “Professor Witkow genuinely wants to give us research opportunities and to see us succeed.”

Professional Experience

In addition to involving themselves in every aspect of the study, Witkow says her students will have opportunities to share what they learned at professional conferences.

“For students who want to go to graduate school, this has given them a taste of what to expect,” Witkow says. “These students have done a fantastic job. We need more of these kinds of opportunities for them.”

Rickert, herself, says the opportunity to work with Witkow has been invaluable, giving her a leg up when she pursues her graduate degree in developmental psychology.,

“I’m sad about leaving here, but I’m excited to go to grad school,” she says. “Working with professor Witkow has really prepared me for the next step in my life.”