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Researcher's work promotes school climate change

  |   Kristen B. Morales   |   Permalink   |   Alumni,   Research

There's a lot that goes on in a school beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Schools today provide meals for kids who might otherwise go without. They become the access point for social services, with staff on the lookout for signs of homelessness or abuse. Schools are also a melting pot of community programs working to stem violence, keep kids from dropping out, increase college access, or provide tutoring—not to mention extracurricular activities and the life lessons that take place in the halls every day.

We ask a lot of our schools. And, says Catherine Bradshaw (M.Ed. '99), if we can buttress all these initiatives to improve school climate and reduce bullying, there's a greater chance of success all the way around.

"We're not taking a curriculum approach, but rather looking at the conditions for learning—what are the conditions we can create to help children? What kinds of challenges do they have or do they receive threats, physical or emotional? This can be distracting for kids. And it's hard for even the best teachers to get through this," says Bradshaw, professor and associate dean for research and faculty development at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education. She is also a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where she works with the school's Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence.

Through extensive research and organizational involvement, Bradshaw specializes in evaluating and designing school- and community-based prevention and intervention programs for children that will help reduce bullying and create a more positive atmosphere.

"We're promoting positive behavior and different strategies in what we now call the field of prevention science," she adds. "Sometimes it's about programs or sometimes it's about adapting a particular program. There's a lot that goes on in school, and we tend to underestimate its impact."

Beyond bullying

The idea of "positive behavioral interventions and support" has its roots in behavioral theories and interventions. But what started several decades ago as programming aimed at individual behavior has, over time, evolved into a more holistic approach to assessing and improving school climate and addressing related concerns like bullying.

The idea, says Bradshaw, is to make interventions sustainable. By educating students, teachers, and staff on bullying prevention techniques, they feel empowered to step in and diffuse situations before they become larger.

Bradshaw's interest in violence and mental health, and their effects on children, goes back to her time as an undergraduate student at the University of Richmond. She did a series of internships in juvenile justice settings while studying for her B.A. in psychology. She knew she wanted to continue her work in this capacity, which is why she chose the University of Georgia College of Education's Department of Counseling and Human Development Services for her master's degree.

"We had started the Juvenile Counseling and Assessment Program, and Catherine came to get her clinical experience there," says Georgia Calhoun, one of Bradshaw's professors while at UGA. "She began to work with children and adolescents who had been adjudicated delinquent."

The master's program focuses more on clinical skills rather than research, says Calhoun, but Bradshaw quickly proved that she was more than capable of taking on high-level research projects. Calhoun recalls Bradshaw embracing Friday not necessarily because it was the end of the work week, but rather because it was a chance to go home, relax—and dive into some data.

"She was so excited about doing research with this population. She was very, very, very good at this," Calhoun adds.

In particular, Bradshaw began investigating the concept of narcissism in juvenile offenders. First she was part of a team looking at the male population. Then she did a similar study on female aggression. Later, as a master's student, she presented her findings with Calhoun at a conference in Germany.

Calhoun knew Bradshaw would be a perfect fit for a research-focused doctoral program. "I remember sitting on the picnic benches outside of Aderhold; she was considering our counseling psychology program or another program that let her focus on her research," says Calhoun. "I said, 'You need to focus on research, which is your passion.' She was so incredibly good at it."

That led Bradshaw to Cornell University, where she was part of the Developmental Psychology program. It was about that time—the early 2000s—when a wave of school shootings hit the United States. Bullying was one of the factors identified as a cause, and a debate ensued over whether it was more isolated or part of a broader fabric of school climate. "And then I was also wondering how a school recovers from that, and I was thinking about school climate and how students really connected to the teachers and each other and how those are sources of support," Bradshaw says.

It was a pivotal moment in the evolution of her research.

"That was really where I directed a lot of my learning about the factors that contribute to not just rare instances but also the everyday challenges—how some kids are able to bounce back from it and some don't," she adds. "And how a school can create a positive learning environment."

While at Cornell, Bradshaw studied under James Garbarino. Now a professor at Loyola University of Chicago, he is an expert in what causes violence in children, coping mechanisms, and rehabilitation methods. He has written more than a dozen books on violence and its effects on children.

At Cornell, working with Garbarino, Bradshaw refined her research on narcissism. It's a theme that has wound through her work ever since, he says.

"Catherine was one of the best students I ever had the privilege to work with as her doctoral committee chair—or in any capacity," says Garbarino. "'Compensatory' narcissism is a theme that finds expression in school shooters and 'regular' youthful violent offenders. When she was a student, we talked a great deal about an 'ecological' perspective on schools, and that message stayed with her, and she has developed it in important ways."

Research for the future

Now at the University of Virginia, Bradshaw works with several colleagues and school districts to create and implement programs on different levels. Grant-funded projects range from surveying school climate across Maryland to working with the Baltimore City Police Department on youth violence prevention. She has created programs for schools and districts and has adapted programs to new age groups.

"I think people have become a lot more aware of how issues of climate and the need for prevention support in schools are impactful and potentially sustainable if we make the right kind of investments," says Bradshaw. "School shootings, for example, have highlighted the impact of mental health services and community support. It's not just for the kids in these schools, but others in the community who respond to these events."

While her programs are often created as part of specific grant projects, she says she tries to disseminate her findings to as wide an audience as she can. The broader scope of her work aims to improve public health, she says, and if she can share information through webinars, data tools, and concrete examples of what works, it benefits the greater good. "We are sharing tools electronically with the schools so not only can they look at the literature about the kids in that study, but we also have schools saying, 'Oh, I want to learn more about what I can do in this climate.' So, some of the tools we've developed very much have the end user in mind."

Through her continued connection to Johns Hopkins, Bradshaw's work spans several states. More recently, she has received some funding to work around areas of equity and inclusion, teaching teachers to work with students from diverse backgrounds. She also feels it's important that her work scale up or down, and as a researcher she believes it's important to consider faculty development and how these topics can be applied to a post-secondary audience.

Some of this work came into play last year when white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville clashed on the University of Virginia campus. It became an opportunity to engage faculty and students in discussions around inclusion and microaggression.

While bullying still exists at schools, a study Bradshaw authored last year showed signs of improvement—for example, about 13 percent of students responding to an anonymous survey said they were a victim of bullying in 2014, compared with nearly 29 percent a decade earlier. New strategies, such as those developed by Bradshaw and her colleagues, are among the reasons for the decline.

Even so, Bradshaw says, we all can do our part to support positive behavioral interventions. This might include training parents and educators to recognize warning signs, creating interventions and supports to combat bullying, and taking into consideration how early bullying can take root.

"There are certain challenges that I think we as a society face around disparity and access to screening," she says. "Looking through a prevention lens, is there a way we're training people to intervene? Are there lost opportunities along the way? There are so many different aspects to choose to pursue; I could have easily chosen to focus on juvenile justice. But I was led to think a little earlier in the trajectory—what can we do to stem the tide just a little bit?"

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