Psychology professor Wendy Hoglund was completing her undergraduate degree at the University of Victoria in 1997 when 14-year-old Rena Virk was murdered in Victoria at the hands of two peers. “It became a very salient issue, and got me thinking about bullying and the fatal consequences of what can happen,” recalls Hoglund. A number of high-profile youth suicides and events such as Columbine followed a few years later, which then led Hoglund to focus her research career in the area of children’s peer relationships. “It’s something that really struck home.”
Today, Hoglund is the principle investigator in the Department of Psychology’s Promoting Children’s Early Empathic Relationships in School (PEERS) Lab, which studies factors that influence children’s development during childhood and early adolescence, and helps create programs to reduce peer victimization and promote healthy peer relationships.
Hoglund is especially interested in how variability in classroom contexts can affect or impact the development of children’s peer relationships, particularly in high-needs schools, and children’s mental health and success in school.
Variables in classroom contexts include factors such as whether teachers say hello and use children’s names; whether children use names with each other; and whether children and teachers smile at each other. Other variables include classroom organization and instructional support from teachers — for example, noticing children who have their hands up and changing instructional practices to ensure that all children are engaged and understand the concepts.
Hoglund is interested in how variability in classroom contexts can affect or impact the development of children’s peer relationships
“In one school you can see substantial variability across classrooms, so it’s not so much a [high-needs] school phenomenon but rather this variability within schools,” says Hoglund.
“We know that low-income children typically enter school showing higher levels of emotional and behavioural problems, relative to more affluent children,” explains Hoglund. However, her research has shown that “respectful interactions,” such as acknowledging one another and emotional support, result in more positive children-teacher and peer-to-peer relationships, as well as higher levels of emotional well-being for children in these settings.
Hoglund’s research also suggests that children in classrooms that have lower levels of emotional support — either from their peers or teachers — report higher levels of peer victimization and increases in peer victimization over time. In addition, children tend to be more disruptive and aggressive in classrooms where teachers have a difficult time managing children’s misbehaviours.
Her research has shown that “respectful interactions” result in more positive children-teacher and peer-to-peer relationships
The PEERS lab aims to help support schools and families in creating safe, caring settings for children to develop. One current project evaluates children’s experiences in the ABC Head Start program to determine whether it contributes to their readiness in elementary school. ABC Head Start is an Edmonton-based preschool and family support program for families with low incomes. In collaboration with Sandra Wiebe, a fellow professor in the Department of Psychology, Hoglund will be following a cohort of preschool children in the program, and tracking their transition into elementary school.
The researchers want to determine how the children’s experiences in a Head Start organization classroom, as well as their experiences in the home, jointly affect their self-regulation and peer relationships.
Peer victimization is another major focus of the lab. The Beyond the Hurt project evaluates the effectiveness of an anti-bullying, youth mentoring program in Alberta schools. “We’re also looking at whether the program increases children’s self-efficacy for standing up against bullying, and their awareness of what’s happening. We’re also assessing things about the school climate. Do children feel safer in their schools when this program is being implemented?” she adds.
“Research on victimization and bullying is something that schools [and parents] are really interested in. It also has direct implications in children’s development,” says Hoglund. “Ideally, the work that we’re doing on bullying prevention programs can help lead to no bullying in schools, so that it isn’t something that children need to experience.”