dolphin training
Hamid Elbaz / PEXELS

Ever since the anti-bullying movement began over two decades ago, it has amazed me that few professionals seem to realise that the solution lies in the simple principles they learned in basic psychology courses.

Instead, they have embraced a complex approach, developed by recently-deceased Professor Dan Olweus, that requires the entire school community to be involved in protecting students from bullying.

I am happy to have discovered an exception, Jennifer Hancock, author of a well-titled book, The Bully Vaccine, while perusing the workshop offerings of a recent major bullying conference. I decided to contact her for an interview. Here is the result.

Izzy Kalman: What is Humanist Learning Systems and what is your role in it?

Jennifer Hancock: Humanist Learning Systems (HLS) is the company created to teach how to stop bullying using behavioural techniques known as operant conditioning, specifically the “extinguishing a behaviour” protocol. We now offer online professional and personal development programs for groups and individuals, and specialise in humanistic leadership and behavioral-based anti-bullying programs.

IK: Though you teach a psychological approach to behaviour change, you don’t have a typical academic background in psychology. What prepared you for this work?

JH: I apprenticed as a dolphin trainer in college at a dolphin language cognition research facility in Hawaii. I learned operant conditioning techniques as a practical skillset in addition to the book learning on the subject. Basically, I’m an animal trainer and know how to extinguish unwanted behaviour in animals — including humans.

IK: Fascinating! How do you apply this knowledge to teach kids to stop being bullied?

JH: I actually don’t. In order to help kids, I need to teach parents how to use this technique so that they can teach it to their kids and support them through the process. Kids need to know what to expect during the process or they won’t succeed.

Most parents are at work. Every two years, most workers are subjected to a two-hour anti-harassment training that teaches them, It’s against the law, don’t do it, and nothing else.

I thought, what if we hijacked the required harassment training and inserted the needed information about how to make harassment/bullying stop? It would accomplish two things. First, it would help improve workplace culture, Second, it would teach parents the science they need to know to help their kids.

IK: And what is that science?

JH: The way to extinguish a behaviour is to remove the reward. This is what adults commonly advise: ignore the bullies and they will go away. What the adult is really trying to say is, “Remove the reward and this will cause behavioural extinction.”

Except… that it won’t. “Extinguishing a behaviour” is considered the hardest of the techniques to make work correctly. Not only will you not get to extinction, you will actually make your behaviour problem worse. In laymen’s terms, if all you do is remove the reward for a bully, you will make the bullying worse!

In addition to removing the reward, the behaviour needs to be reshaped. This is something that happens over time.

Kids need to know what happens after they remove the reward. And what happens next is that the bully will likely escalate their behaviour. It means that what you just did, the bully did not like, so they do it more. But because most kids aren’t told to expect this, what kids learn is, “I did what I was told, I removed the reward, and it made the bullying worse, not better.” The omission of this information makes kids think that the approach failed and that the parents don’t know what they are talking about. This is not what we want to see happen.

If you tell kids, “I want you to do this and when you do this, the bully should respond by doing this other thing,” that means it’s working and you are now in control. It changes how kids understand not only the bullying dynamic, but also what they need to do to regain control of the situation.

This is why it’s so important for parents and other adults to learn this. They need to support kids over time and through this process until it’s complete. I know I can’t be there for a child in real-time. But the parents and other adults can and should be. That is why I focus on adults and have materials for kids designed to be used by adults to help the kids in their lives.

IK: At what point did you get involved in combatting bullying?

JH: I had written a book about Humanism for kids and their parents called, The Humanist Approach to Happiness. As I was doing publicity for that book, there were a number of high-profile suicides caused by bullying. One of the podcasters that interviewed me asked me what I planned to do next, and I had a couple of ideas.

One was to write down how to stop bullying using the “extinguishing a behaviour” protocol from behavioural science. One of the hosts said, “We need you to do that one. Prioritise that. Teach people how to stop bullying.” So, that was my next book and it changed my life and the trajectory of my career.

I was very pleased with the reception. It was clear that I explained the science well because people who read the resulting book, The Bully Vaccine, would come back and start telling me how they could now see the dynamics I talked about playing out around them in many of their interpersonal relationships or conflicts. That people could extrapolate the science to novel situations told me that I had done a good job of explaining the science of behaviour elimination and how behaviours are shaped and conditioned.

IK: What kind of reactions do you get to your approach to bullying?

JH: I truly believe that this approach should be standard, but when I talk to people in the field, it’s not only not standard, it’s not even considered. All the work seems to be on prevention and awareness. I was even told once that the Association of School Psychologists wasn’t interested in a behaviour elimination approach because they want to focus on prevention.

I once gave a presentation for my local crisis counseling group, and the counsellors all told me, you just explained to me why what my client did worked. I was like, “What?! You all have degrees in psychology! I should not be teaching you how to make behaviours stop!” It freaked me out. It still freaks me out.

I do not want to be the only person teaching this. This should be standard.

IK: Well, now you know you aren’t the only one, and, yes, this should be standard!

Izzy Kalman is the author and creator of the website and a critic of the anti-bully movement.