Open Your Mind: A Q&A with distinguished psychology researcher Debra Pepler

Appearing at regular intervals in YFile, Open Your Mind is a series of articles offering insight into the different ways York University professors, researchers and graduate students champion fresh ways of thinking in their research and teaching practice. Their approach, grounded in a desire to seek the unexpected, is charting a new course for future generations.

Today, the spotlight is on Debra Pepler, professor in the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Health.

Pepler is a distinguished researcher who has focused her research interests on children’s experiences with bullying, aggression and other forms of violence experienced by children, as well as the development of healthy relationships within that context. She is a long-time member and past director of the LaMarsh Centre for Child and Youth Research.

Debra Pepler

Q. Please describe your field of current research

A. I work with many collaborators in the field of clinical-developmental psychology, which focuses on the difficulties that children encounter through development and how we can promote their healthiest development. Throughout my career, I have focused on the development of aggression and violence in family and school contexts, its consequences, and effective means of intervening. I have had the privilege of conducting my research within clinical, school and community settings, in which I have been able to co-create research projects with those who are experts in day-to-day practices. Within these collaborations, we are able to study change through programs and treatment, which are designed to accelerate development toward health and well being.

Q. What inspired you to pursue this line of research? Who or what sparked your interest in this line of inquiry?

A. I have always been interested in children and their development, which may have been sparked by my mother, an early childhood educator, who raised my three younger brothers and me in a most loving and supportive way. I am often asked why I study bullying and aggression. I think that I was drawn to this area of research because I find aggression so disturbing and destructive for all those involved. I came face-to-face with aggression during my six-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto, during which I spent countless hours in homes observing sibling interactions. In some cases, I was disturbed by parents’ lack of strategies to intervene and promote positive sibling interactions, and worse still by parents’ endorsement of aggression as a problem solving strategy. I moved from U of T to the Child Development Institute (formerly Earlscourt Child and Family Centre), where I began the two research programs that have spanned my career: one on the development and treatment of aggression, and the other on children living in families struggling with violence. We are continuing to learn about children’s experiences with aggression, as those both perpetrating and being victimized, as well as about the supports needed to move children and their families onto a healthier pathway.

Q. How would you describe the significance of your research in lay terms?

A. We have been on an extended journey to help people understand the importance of healthy relationships for children’s healthy development. When Dr. Wendy Craig and I started our research on bullying in the late ’80s, people were shocked – wasn’t this just “kids being kids” or “just a normal part of growing up”? Collectively, we have been able to show the destructive nature of bullying and today 98 per cent of Canadian parents believe that bullying prevention is very or somewhat important for their child’s well-being (Companies Committed to Kids, 2015). We have been able to move our scientific knowledge into practice through PREVNet (Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network), which has been funded for the past 10 years by the Networks of Centres of Excellence. We have evidence that we are making a difference in helping people understand that the way to prevent violence is by promoting healthy relationships.

Pepler shown with some of the children in her research
Pepler shown with some of the children in her research

Q. How are you approaching this field in a different, unexpected or unusual way?

A. There is a large body of research on the development of aggression, delinquency, and violence, to which we have contributed. Over the past 10 years through PREVNet, we have been slowly turning the coin to look at the other side – not what contributes to the development of aggression, but what contributes to healthy social-emotional development. Working with the Public Health Agency Canada, we were able to examine the links between healthy relationships and healthy development. The quality of youths’ relationships with parents, teachers, peers and neighbourhoods was strongly linked to many aspects of their health and well-being including: physical, emotional, social and academic. Our focus on healthy relationships and how they contribute to healthy development resonates within both scientific and practical sectors.

Q. How does your approach to the subject benefit the field?

A. Throughout my scientific training and research career, I have always been drawn to observations as a means of understanding what goes on in the moment that shapes behaviours and interactions. I have observed children at play and children interacting with their siblings, parents, teachers and peers. Through these observations, we have been able to document the complex interpersonal dynamics that unfold in both healthy and unhealthy relationships. I am currently on sabbatical and working as a Senior Research Fellow at the UNICEF Research Centre.  I have the privilege of working on a project on the drivers of violence in low- and middle-income countries, reviewing reports and reading the stories told by children and youth regarding violence in their lives. I am finding that my focus on the moment-to-moment interactions that children experience in relationships, and how these interactions contribute to development, is beneficial to the growing understanding about the impact of violence in children’s lives.

Q. What findings have surprised and excited you?

A. The most surprising and exciting findings in my research have come from an innovative method that I developed to put remote microphones on children and videotape them during free play on the school playground and in the classroom. We were able to step into children’s worlds and observe interactions that are generally hidden from adults, most importantly bullying. Through this research conducted with my graduate students, we were able to identify the nature and frequency of bullying, the important role that peers play in bullying, the dynamics that contribute to bullying, and the responses that are effective in stopping it. These observations of bullying were new in the field. They not only contributed to knowledge about this problem and how to address it, but also began to change attitudes about bullying as “just kids being kids” and “a normal part of growing up”. It is impossible to watch bullying unfold, with its abuse of power, and believe that it is acceptable.

Q. Every researcher encounters roadblocks and challenges during the process of inquiry, can you highlight some of those challenges and how you overcame them?

A. This is a wonderful question because research is really about thinking creatively and flexibly, particularly about challenges. In the best-case scenario for research, challenge leads to innovation, which was the case for me when I developed an innovative way to observe children on the school playground. I had been studying the effectiveness of social skills training for aggressive children. When we asked teachers and parents about the children’s behaviour after the program, both groups indicated that the children had improved significantly. When we asked their classmates, however, there was no perception of improvement. This discrepancy led to the question: What is really going on in children’s world that adults may not see? We know that children have a pretty good idea about what adults expect, so they generally try to behave when adults are present, and are aggressive when adults aren’t watching. By putting remote microphones on children and videotaping from a distance, we weren’t physically intruding on children’s interactions, but importantly we could hear what they were saying and see what they were doing. With this observational method, we were generally able to capture natural interactions and frequently observe bullying.

Pepler with her grandson
Pepler with her grandson

Q. How has this research opened your mind to new possibilities or new directions?

A. I am so excited to be in the “senior” years of my career. Although I have decades of research behind me, I’m still very eager to learn more about how healthy relationships promote healthy development for children and youth around the world. I’m just beginning to engage in research in low- and middle-income countries at UNICEF. I know that I have so much to learn about how children’s development and relationships in these countries are similar to and different than those which I have been studying in developed countries. My interest in children’s development in these countries parallels my learning about traditional ways in which children were raised in indigenous communities in Canada. I have the privilege of working on a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) partnership grant with Shelley Cardinal, the national aboriginal advisor for the Canadian Red Cross Respect Education programs. Together with other indigenous researchers, including Susan Dion also at York, we are studying the process of community change through the Red Cross programming, with the overall goal of promoting healthy relationships for healthy child and youth development.

Q. Are there interdisciplinary aspects to your research? If so, what are they?

A. In the early stages of forming PREVNet, we recognized that understanding about the development of bullying and violence was needed by all of the adults who were involved in children’s lives. Our goal within PREVNet is to develop understanding, programming, practices and policies to prevent bullying and violence and to promote healthy relationships. This collective activity requires input not only from many others disciplines, but also from many sectors of society, such as government, non-government organizations, corporations and media. We are learning so much about how to improve children’s relationships and lives across the 15 research disciplines and diverse sectors within PREVNet.

Q. Did you ever consider other fields of research?

A. In the early years, my research was focused on how children learn through play. I began studying in a physical and health education program (now kinesiology), but came to understand that if I wanted to study the development of the whole child, psychology was a better field for me. Although I began to study the social aspects of play and development, my excitement in studying children’s social development and relationships really took off during my postdoctoral fellowship.

Q. Are you teaching any courses this year? If so, what are they? Do you bring your research experience into your teaching practice?

A. I am not teaching this year, because I am on sabbatical. When I do teach, I always bring my research experiences into my teaching, because they can bring learning to life. In my graduate course on program evaluation and research, I connect students to clinical or community programs, so that they can experience the excitement that I have had in co-creating a research project.

Tell us a bit about yourself:

Q. How long have you been a researcher?

A. I have always enjoyed studying and learning, but I believe that the turning point for me, when I really became engaged in research, was when my Masters advisor, Michael Ellis, gave me the opportunity to work with fourth-year thesis students in planning and doing their research. I came to realize that with research, you can ask a question that really interests you and then think about the ways in which you might answer that question. I find research so exciting and fulfilling.

Q. What books, recordings or films have influenced your life?

A. If I reflect back, I think that I have always been interested in books and films about development and relationships. As I was growing up, I was intrigued with stories about girls’ development; as an adult I have been interested in reading classical fiction to learn about girls’ and women’s lives. Throughout my career, I have had a strong interest in girls’ development and have helped develop programs for girls and women, with the accompanying research.

Q. What are you reading and/or watching right now?

A. I’m living in Florence right now, working at the Innocenti Research Centre, so I have chosen to read a historical fiction about a young woman’s life in the 15th century in Florence titled The Birth of Venus. I recognize the landscape and buildings of the time, but I am uncomfortable with the descriptions of the constraints on girls and women, with the inequities, and the heavy direction of the Catholic Church at the time. I know, however, from my travels to low- and middle-income countries, that some of these inequities exist today around the world and even in our own country.

Q. What advice would you give to students embarking on a research project for the first time?

A. I love supporting students in research – working with graduate students is one of my great joys.  I think that I try to encourage them to ask a question that they are passionate about, because research can be a long and arduous process. I also help them to expect brick walls, because research is never easy and straightforward – it requires creativity and perseverance. There is challenge and delight in figuring out how to get around the brick walls, which is where innovation ignites and where knowledge moves forward.

Q. If you could have dinner with any one person, dead or alive, who would you select and why?

A. For the same reason, there are two young women whom I would like to have dinner with: Shannen Koostachin and Malala Yousafzai. At a very young age, both of these young women were courageous outspoken advocates for equity in education. Shannen Koostachin challenged the Canadian government to provide safe, equitable and accessible education for Indigenous youth. Malala Yousafzai challenged the Pakistani government to provide safe, equitable and accessible education for girls. In the face of such adversity, both of these young women made a difference. I would like to hear their stories of how they found their courage and passion and how relationships may have enabled them to use their voices for the betterment of others. Malala continues her advocacy; Shannen died in a car accident in 2010, so others have had to take up her dream.

Q. What do you do for fun?

A. I have wonderful family and friends and my greatest joy comes from being with them (which is why being alone now in Florence is somewhat challenging). I enjoy being physically active and love squash, tennis, skiing, sailing, swimming and other sports – for the joy of moving. I also really enjoy travel, particularly when I can observe children and their families as they go about their everyday lives. One of the joys of being a professor is that I am able to travel extensively, usually to places where I know people who will help me understand their country and their ways a little bit better!