Date of Award

2012

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

School

School of Exercise and Health Sciences

Faculty

Computing, Health and Science

First Advisor

Professor Donna Cross

Second Advisor

Dr Julian Dooley

Abstract

Peer relationships within the school environment are one of the most important determinants of social and mental wellbeing for adolescents and as such, schools have become increasingly aware of the prevalence, seriousness and negative impacts of bullying behaviour. The transition from primary to secondary school provides both challenges and opportunities as many adolescents undergo transition while experiencing environmental, physiological, cognitive and social changes as part of the adolescent development process. This is also a period during a student’s school life when their risk of being bullied is higher than at other times.

The aim of this study was to use longitudinal data to examine bullying experiences and their temporal association with other problem behaviours, social and mental health during the transition period from primary to secondary school. The findings from this research will facilitate the development of empirically grounded recommendations for effective school policy and practice to help reduce the bullying experiences and enhance the social and mental health of adolescents who are transitioning from primary school to high school.

Longitudinal data collected during the Supportive Schools Project (SSP) were used to address the aim of the study. The SSP project recruited 21 Catholic education secondary schools in Perth, Western Australia, and tracked 3,459 students from the last year of primary school (Year 7) to the end of the second year of secondary school (Year 9). The SSP aimed to enhance the capacity of secondary schools to implement a whole-of-school bullying reduction intervention. Students completed a self-administered questionnaire on four occasions that allowed for a longitudinal assessment of their knowledge, attitudes, and bullying experiences during the transition from primary to secondary school.

This research comprised four stages. The predictive relationship of bullying perpetration and victimisation and the future level of involvement in other problem behaviours were explored in Stage 1 of this research. Stages 2 and 3 investigated the direction and strength of the relationships between social and mental health factors (e.g., loneliness at school, connectedness to school, peer support, safety at school, depression and anxiety) and bullying victimisation during early adolescence, and determined the most critical time to focus school-based social health and bullying intervention programs. Stage 4 investigated the social health predictors and mental health outcomes of chronic victimisation over the primary to secondary school transition period.

Six research questions were tested as part of this research and are reported in a series of five peer-reviewed publications. The first research question, (Does the level of bullying involvement predict level of engagement in problem behaviours?) was addressed in Stage 1. Results from Stage 1 found high correlations between cyberbullying and traditional forms of bullying, and found levels of traditional victimisation and perpetration at the beginning of secondary school (Year 8) predicted levels of engagement in problem behaviours at the end of Year 9. Cyberbullying was not found to represent an independent risk factor over and above levels of traditional victimisation and perpetration for higher levels of engagement in problem behaviours. Stage 1 results highlighted the importance of reducing the frequency of bullying prior to and during transition to lessen the likelihood of future involvement in bullying and other problem behaviours. Knowledge of the temporal relationships between social and mental health and bullying experiences over the transition period may allow for early intervention to address bullying, which in turn, may lessen the likelihood of involvement in other problem behaviours. These results from Stage 1 led to Stages 2 and 3.

Stage 2 addressed the relationship between social health and bullying experiences, answering Research Questions 2 and 3 (What is the temporal association between peer support, pro-victim attitudes, school connectedness and negative outcome expectancies of bullying behaviour and perpetration-victimisation over the transition period from primary to secondary school?; What is the temporal association between social variables such as connectedness to school, peer support, loneliness at school, safety at school and victimisation during and following the transition period from primary to secondary school?). Stage 3 involved examining the temporal relationship between mental health and victimisation addressing Research Question 4 (What is the temporal association between mental health and bullying victimisation over the transition period?). The significant reciprocal associations found in the cross-lag models between bullying and social and mental health indicate social and mental health factors may be both determinants and consequences of bullying behaviours (Stages 2 and 3). Based on the magnitude of the coefficients, the strongest associations in the direction from victimisation to the social health variables occurred from the beginning to the end of Year 8, suggesting these relationships may already be well established for some students by the time they complete primary school. Reducing students’ victimisation in Year 8 may, therefore, protect students from poorer social and mental health outcomes during the first and subsequent years of secondary school.

Understanding the social health predictors and mental health outcomes of those chronically victimised over the transition period led to Stage 4 of this research. Stage 4 answered Research Questions 5 and 6 (How do social variables such as connectedness to school, peer support, loneliness at school, and safety at school predict class membership in bullying victimisation trajectories over the transition period?; Can class membership in bullying victimisation trajectories predict mental health outcomes such as depression and anxiety?). Using developmental trajectories of victimisation during and following the transition from primary to secondary school, adolescents were assigned to non-victim, low, increasing and stable victimisation groups. Adolescents with poorer social health were more likely to be in the increasing and stable victimised groups than in the not bullied group. Students in the low increasing victimised group had poorer mental health outcomes than those in the stable and not bullied groups. Unexpectedly, the impact of victimization onset at the start of secondary school had a greater impact on mental health than prolonged victimisation beginning at an alternative developmental stage. The results of Stage 4 reiterate the importance of intervening to reduce bullying prior to and during the transition period.

There are limitations which may affect the validity and generalisability of these research findings. Threats to the internal validity of this study include data collection methods, selfreport data, measurement limitations, and attrition. The causal links and trajectory groups were studied over a relatively short, but critical, social time period consisting of immense social growth and development of social skills and relationships. For some students, the associations studied may have been well established prior to their involvement in the study.

These findings collectively suggest that by secondary school bullying behaviours and outcomes for students are fairly well established. Prior to transition and the beginning of secondary school appears to be a critical time to provide targeted social health and bullying intervention programs. The results of this study have important implications for the timing of school-based interventions aimed at reducing victimisation and the harms caused by long-term exposure.

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