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Bullying and the Brain: Using Cognitive and Emotional Intelligence to Help Kids Cope

reviewed by Ronald B. Jacobson - September 25, 2006

coverTitle: Bullying and the Brain: Using Cognitive and Emotional Intelligence to Help Kids Cope
Author(s): Gary R. Plaford
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 1578863961, Pages: 165, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com

Like most students, I lived in fear of the small slights and public humiliation used to enforce the rigid high school caste system.  There was a boy named Marty at my school...who was beaten up daily for years.  Jocks would rip his clothes, knowing that his parents could not afford to buy him a new uniform...He couldn’t walk the halls without being called a fag, and a freshman would beat him up to impress older kids...Another kid I know was thrown through a plate-glass window by a jock when he was a sophomore.  When his mother complained to the principal, she was told that if her son insisted on dressing the way he did...he’d have to get used to being thrown through plate-glass windows...While I didn’t suffer the extreme abuse some of my friends did, I was [messed] with enough to spend four years fantasizing about blowing up my high school and everyone in it...How many kids are ostracized, humiliated, and assaulted in American high schools?...So long as some kids go out of their way to make high school hell for others there are going to be kids who crack, and not all of the kids who crack are going to go quietly (Phillips, 2000, p. 161).

This candid quote captured by Deborah Phillips explicates the terror, helplessness, and anger experienced by victims of school bullying.  While a significant portion of bullying research focuses upon rehabilitating the bully, it is important that we also seek to understand the experience of the victim, offering strategies of coping and response.  How might we help a student who is targeted daily and beaten up by his peers?  What strategies might we offer to a young woman who is forced to return home from school each day with clothes destroyed at the hands of a classmate?  How might we fortify a student who, perhaps not fitting the norm, becomes the target of peer abuse?  How might we calm the wrath of an abused student contemplating bringing a weapon to school in an attempt to end abuse and exact revenge?  These become important questions as we seek to understand and respond to the phenomenon of school bullying.

Gary R. Plaford’s Bullying and the Brain: Using Cognitive and Emotional Intelligence to Help Kids Cope is aimed at addressing such questions.  “Numerous books have been written about bullying, but most of them deal only with external intervention—those that suggest teaching students more appropriate social skills,” asserts the back cover of Plaford’s book.  This summary goes on to list important expansions that this work targets including: “internal interventions”; strategies for “monitoring and controlling bullying behaviors”; the “latest research on the brain and emotional intelligence”; new insights into managing “emotional triggers”; as well as cultivating “connections and an outward focus” among students (Plaford, 2006, back cover).

Upon reading this summary I found myself deeply interested in what Plaford’s research might reveal.  In fact, one of the strengths of the book involves the questions it raises and the fresh territory it lays out regarding bullying research.  The basic premise of the book involves the notion that paying attention to recent brain research, and connectedly, the role of emotional intelligence, will provide us with effective new strategies that might be aimed toward helping victims to cope with the devastation of bullying.  Toward this objective, Plaford begins with a brief investigation of the external interventions (educating and monitoring) aimed at bullying reduction in schools.  Here, he includes a list of the facts surrounding bullying, which must be relayed to parents, educators, and students.  From this, Plaford moves on to discuss a range of internal interventions.  In this section Plaford seeks to engage the importance of brain research and emotional intelligence, hoping to build a platform from which to develop strategies aimed at internal transformations (i.e., helping the victim to better cope and the bully to alter behavior).  Finally, Plaford closes his project by listing a range of internal intervention strategies aimed at increasing relational connections, fostering emotional dexterity, and developing an outward focus among students.  Plaford’s project is an ambitious one.

Plaford gets to the heart of the matter in Chapter 5, which is focused on “brain research,” and Chapter 6, which outlines “emotional intelligence.”  While important, these chapters are extremely short (five and six pages respectively) and contain sparse documentation.  For example, 50 percent of Chapter 5 simply involves a listing of the different functional areas of the brain.  The remaining discussion, while it is interesting and raises important possibilities, relies upon only one research source with no corroborating evidence.  The main premise of this chapter argues that right and left brain functioning is accessed differently, depending upon whether a given situation or activity is a routine or novel occurrence.  Similarly, Chapter 6 on emotional intelligence is short on sources and makes a number of weakly supported claims.  Though other chapters further delineate these topics (brain research and emotional intelligence), they also fail to engage broad research.

Hence, a main shortcoming of Plaford’s book involves a number of significant claims that are made with little or no support.  For example, Plaford asserts that “[i]f we could teach students to better manage emotions, then behavior problems would diminish.”  Basically, he continues, “if all students had a higher level of emotional intelligence [which is largely described as the ability to label emotional states], school discipline issues would drop significantly” (p. 54).  This is an important claim, yet one which is made with no real research evidence.  How do we know that managing emotions better actually reduces behavior problems?  How exactly is emotional intelligence (if we define it as being able to label one’s emotional state) linked to the issues that school discipline seeks to eradicate?  At another point, Plaford links bullying to very specific cultural activities.  In his encouragement for educators in their fight against bullying he writes:  “The message educators must get out to parents and the community is that bullying does occur in schools, and there are some factors that influence children to act this way” (e.g., wrestling, rap music, and heavy metal music) (p. 6).  Obviously, there continues to be an important debate on the role of television, video games, and music in teen violence. But here, Plaford links bullying specifically to professional wrestling, rap music, and heavy metal music, again, without citing corroborating research or offering any support to his claim.  Instead, it seems that Plaford believes that this claim is so obvious and inherently true that everyone will agree without any necessary support.  This simply is not the case.

Beyond this problem of unsupported claims, which consistently pops up through the book, Plaford does offer intriguing discussions of the role of emotional intelligence in decision making (Chapter 7), the psychological immune system (Chapter 8), and the functioning of the limbic system (Chapter 9).  These become the most compelling avenues of inquiry for Plaford’s project, offering important new ground to be researched in our understanding of and response to bullying.  For example, understanding the link between emotional states and moral decision making not only becomes important in reimagining the ways a victim may better cope with bullying, but also, perhaps, the motivations that drive bullying itself.  Moving the locus of the “decision to bully” from simple social skill deficiency or innate delinquency to that of emotional immaturity seems to open up important new territories of research.  Here, these central chapters become important.

In the quote at the head of this review, we are impacted by the deeply distressing predicament of the victim of bullying.  While Plaford raises important questions and does indeed lay out intriguing directions for future research (e.g. emotional intelligence and brain development), this book fails to provide a well-reasoned and well-supported argument toward new strategies aimed at supporting the victim or subverting the bully.  That is not to say that Plaford’s book is not worth the read.  To the contrary, the issues raised by Plaford are worth considering and, therefore, I recommend this book—not because of the solidity of its research, but because of the importance of its questions.  Plaford, though, must take the next step and support more fully (via solid research) both the questions and conclusions he offers.


Phillips, D. (2000). Exploring new directions for ending practices of male violence: Masculinity, adolescent boys, and culture.  Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Washington.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 25, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12732, Date Accessed: 5/17/2022 4:18:29 PM

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About the Author
  • Ronald Jacobson
    University of Washington
    E-mail Author
    RONALD B. JACOBSON is a Doctoral Candidate in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Washington. His main work involves the philosophical or theoretical consideration of dispositional transformation (transforming desire), specifically focused in confronting the phenomenon of bullying within schools. His recent paper, Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil: Education, Humiliation, and Learning to Be Together (Journal of Thought, Summer 2005), focuses on the issues of relational transformation and the intricacies of being human together.
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