Psychology students launch mentoring program at Erie Day School

Program hopes to mitigate peer mistreatment and bullying
A Penn State Behrend student discusses bullying-intervention methods with students at Erie Day School.

Kimberly Cook, a 2013 graduate of Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, works with students at Erie Day School. Penn State Behrend psychology majors visited the school for six weeks this spring, teaching students how to most effectively handle bullies.

Credit: Penn State Behrend

As adults, we tend to think we know what’s best for kids. We’ve been there, done that. And we know how to handle bullies. Or do we?

Few escape high school unscathed by the effects of some type of bullying. Many carry bully baggage into adulthood, sporting emotional scars made worse by well-meaning adults who advised, “Just ignore it and they’ll leave you alone.”

Ignoring it didn’t work then. And it doesn’t work now.

That’s a fact backed up by three years of research conducted by Charisse Nixon, associate professor of psychology at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, and her Maine-based colleague, author and bullying expert Stan Davis. Their Youth Voice Project, the first large-scale effort to ask kids which prevention and intervention methods are actually helpful, reveals that ignoring bullying often only makes it worse.

Armed with that knowledge, Nixon and three psychology majors – Kimberly Cook, Alyson Eagle and Jennifer Slane – started a mentoring program at several Erie-area schools, where undergraduate psychology students are teaching effective strategies to reduce peer mistreatment.

“The mentoring is a vehicle to change young people’s attitudes and behaviors based upon the data,” Nixon said. “It’s practice based on solid research.”

It’s also a valuable hands-on learning experience for Penn State Behrend psychology students, who, this spring, under the supervision of Nixon and Erie Day School principal Karen Tyler, spent an hour a week for six weeks engaging Erie Day School students in activities designed to develop mutual respect, openness, empathy and teamwork skills – the building blocks for a kinder generation.

“We focus on teaching these traits because then the children can work together and get to know one another,” Eagle said. “Familiarity breeds kindness and empathy. Kids are less likely to mistreat someone they know well.”

The program already is having an impact, Tyler said.

“The sensitive conversations, role playing and collaborative interactions better equip our students to support one another and make positive choices when coping with both verbal and nonverbal peer aggressors,” she said.

Eagle, Cook and Slane graduated in May but trained several Penn State Behrend students to continue their work this fall. Nixon hopes to expand the mentoring program into other schools.

“We’re not trying to stop bullying, but change the whole culture around it,” she said.

A lofty goal, perhaps. But Nixon isn’t daunted.

“We’ll just take it one child, one class, one school at a time,” she said.