Psychology professor seeks to reduce the harmful effects of bullying

Aug 01, 2014

When Patricia Schacht, associate professor of psychology, offered a senior-level seminar at North Central College called “Bullying,” all 20 spots quickly filled. So she opened a second section, which filled just as fast. An expert in child development and parental behaviors, Schacht is finding an insatiable demand for information on the topic of bullying and its prevention, her topic of scholarly research.

“It’s such a hot topic today,” she says. “Schools have formulated anti-bullying policies but they’re not working. But it needs to change, as we hear about kids committing suicide as a result of bullying.”

According to Schacht, there’s a word for that now: “bullycide.” And cyber bullies are just as damaging to their victims as those in the halls at school, she adds.  

Schacht is focusing her research and publishing on the victims of bullying and how they can be better supported by their parents and teachers, which hasn’t drawn as much interest as bullying behaviors. During the past two years, Schacht surveyed 500 area schoolchildren in grades second through fifth about their families and peer experiences.

Schacht will use the results to design a prevention program aimed at educating parents about how to help younger elementary children with coping skills they can use in middle school. She may consider developing a children’s book and other ways to help parents and teachers better understand how to support victims. “Ultimately the goal is to stop it before it starts. But if it’s happening, children need better ways to cope with it,” she says.

“Another important factor is a child or adult who supports them in some way,” Schacht continues. “Negative outcomes of bullying drastically decline if the victim has at least one buddy—whether it’s an older child, a sibling or even a parent who understands what’s happening. If the child doesn’t feel alone, they’re more likely to problem-solve.”

Of the North Central students enrolled in her two campus seminars, about 75 percent identified themselves as “bystanders” who witnessed bullying but didn’t participate. “But just one person stepping forward can be so beneficial,” Schacht adds.

Assisting Schacht is psychology major Michaela Vilim ’16. “One of the reasons I’m so interested in this project is I’ve seen how bullying is affecting the boys I babysit and it is honestly very upsetting,” she says. “I am hoping to do more research of my own. As a student studying psychology and neuroscience, I am fascinated by the behaviors of people.”

In addition, Schacht worked on her research with Rachel Garthe ’12, who helped with data collection and is now pursuing a doctorate in developmental psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. 

Schacht is one of nearly 50 faculty members who received grant funding from North Central College for conducting 2014 summer research, including laboratory work, writing and publishing, developing new courses and conducting seminars. Twenty-nine students received stipends to work with faculty on research projects this summer.