The researchers then invited 22 to 30 students from each intervention school to participate in the Roots program. Many of the students shared certain characteristics, such as having an older sibling, being in dating relationships, and receiving compliments from peers in their houses.

“This cluster of characteristics suggests that these students are hooked into more mature social patterns in their lives and at schools,” Dr Paluck said. “Earlier dating is one indicator, and an older sibling suggests they have more exposure to older students with a more mature vocabulary, perhaps making them savvier communicators. Receiving compliments on their house was a way for us to evaluate their socioeconomic background.”

The selected students could choose whether to attend the Roots training sessions; more than half came regularly. The researchers provided customizable print and online materials for the anti-bullying campaign, and also trained the students in dealing with student conflict.

“We wanted to distinguish ourselves from other school campaigns by letting students lead the messaging efforts. We even wanted the aesthetics of the program to look different,” Dr Paluck said. “So we put a lot of value into very clean sharp designs and bright colors. We gave them the templates to work with, and they controlled the messaging.”

Some of the campaigns the students launched included an “#iRespect” hashtag on Instagram, popular colored rubber wristbands, and a one-day Roots festival that unified the schools’ attention and energies.

After a year, the schools participating in the Roots intervention saw a 30% reduction in disciplinary reports, a large difference from the schools not participating in the intervention. Because each conflict can take up to an hour to resolve, this amounts to hundreds of saved hours for the schools.

“Our program shows that you don’t need to use a blanket treatment to reduce bullying,” Dr Paluck said. “You can target specific people in a savvy way in order to spread the message. These people—the social referents you should target—get noticed more by their peers. Their behavior serves as a signal to what is normal and desirable in the community. And there are many ways to figure out who those people are and work with them to inspire positive change.”

Reference

Paluck EL, Shephard H, Aromow PM. Changing climates of conflict: A social network experiment in 56 schools. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 2016; doi:10.1073/pnas.1514483113.