Book Review: Mermaid

When I heard that a new picture book that has a protagonist with a disability – and that had been written by a person with a disability – had hit the bookshelves, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. Helping children develop positive attitudes towards children with disabilities forms part of my research (as I’ve blogged before), and the Guardian’s  review struck a chord.

Like Burnell, although I spent a fair amount of time as a child at the back of my wardrobe, and managed to devastate my parents, aged nine years, with the news that I wanted to leave for boarding school,  there were never really characters in books I could identify with because of their disability*. The closest I got was Matilda  who could mysteriously move things with her eyes (if I stare hard enough at my right hand fingers, they will move  without my conscious intention). I liked that. And yes, things have improved, since the days when disability was tragedy, and children in books were healed of it, (cf. What Katy Did, The Secret Garden, Heidi) to a place where disability is more positively represented, (Curious Incident)  representation from within – and with an under-the-sea theme (am a bit of a fish, myself) had me hooked.

photo (4)

The story itself (beware: spoilers) is about a little girl, Sylvia, who can swim, and a little boy, Luka, who can’t. Sylvia appears at the beach one day, and teaches Luka how to swim, and he loves it. And, when Sylvia appears as a new pupil in Luka’s class, and the children “murmur” why are you in a wheelchair?  Luka tells them that she is a mermaid: the focus is on what Sylvia can do.

And this has to be a strength of the (mermaid’s) tail. Often, when it comes to characters with disabilities, the illustrations and story centre on what the child cannot do. This story is different, and highlights the positive ways in which friendships can be built around commonalities. It also flips the whole ‘I must help the child with the disability’  mantra, that children seem to develop when I talk with them about disability, on its head: it is Sylvia that helps Luka, not the other way around.

From a research perspective? There are two empirical questions I’d like to follow up. The first is about friendships. Are friendships with children in a wheelchair easier for children to imagine in this context (the swim), than in the context of the classroom / playground – or somewhere where the character with a disability would likely need help?

And relatedly, if it were easier, why is this? Is it because the taboo is less of an issue when help isn’t needed? It would be interesting to know what children pick up from this story about the taboo surrounding disability. It is mentioned that Luka “hardly noticed” the wheels of Slyvia’s chair – yet to the children in her class – and in the illustrations – they are very prominent. What would happen if the words about the wheelchair were omitted?  If Luka did notice the wheelchair? If the children in her class didn’t? If Sylvia was introduced to the class as a swimmer, or as a child who uses a wheelchair?

I liked this story. It gives a positive message about the possibilities of friendship and playing together and helping one another. It focuses on can, rather than on cannot.  Plus, I love swimming :-). Realistically, I’m not so sure about Luka’s not noticing the wheelchair, nor about whether dismissing Slyvia’s wheelchair to the class is helpful. But both could be empirically investigated to determine the effects on children’s attitudes (any eye-tracking colleagues wish to collaborate here…?). As I head for a BPS symposium on children growing up with diversity on Thursday, it will make for a silvery sea of discussion. Before that – I’m off to the pool 🙂

Mermaid  is written by Cerrie Burnell and Laura Ellen Anderson

32pp, £6.99

Scholastic

*For newer readers, it’s worth knowing that I have a congenital right hemiplegia.

Bullying Research: At Odds with the Commentary

It will come as no surprise to you to learn that this piece caught my eye whilst I was perusing Twitter last week (the article is linked to below).

guardianmay15

The piece describes research by Wolke and his colleagues (2015). The research made use of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children in the UK (ALSPAC) and the Great Smoky Mountains Study in the USA (GSMS) longitudinal studies.The association between maltreatment, peer victimization, and mental health problems was assessed using binary logistic regression. Binary logistic regression chooses the more likely option between two outcomes in the form of odds ratios: in this case odds for the presence or absence of a mental health problem (i.e., any presence of anxiety, depression, or self-harm or suicidality).

Four groups of children were investigated. Some were maltreated only, some were peer victimized only, some were peer victimized and maltreated, and some were neither maltreated nor peer victimized. It was found that, when compared with children who were not maltreated nor peer victimized, children who were maltreated only were at increased risk for depression in young adulthood. At the same time, those who were both maltreated and peer victimized were at increased risk for overall mental health problems, anxiety, and depression. Children who were peer victimized only were more likely than children who were maltreated only to have mental health problems.

It is the last of these findings that has made the headlines, and is still being amply re-tweeted as I type. It is the comments of Dr. Jennifer Wild that I wish to make the topic of this post:

Dr Jennifer Wild, associate professor of experimental psychology, University of Oxford, said the researchers did not investigate why bullying caused mental health problems. But, she said: “The findings are important because they highlight the devastating consequences of bullying and the need for zero tolerance programmes.

Dr. Wild is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist, with expertise in anxiety – meaning she is well-placed to talk about this study’s outcome measure. To my mind, however, her comments should come with two health warnings: the first concerns what the researchers did not investigate; the second is the concept of zero tolerance.

The comment made by Dr. Wild is true. Wolke et al. did not investigate the why of the link between peer victimization and mental health problems. However, neither did they intend to do so. Their aim was “to determine whether [mental health problems] are just due to being exposed to both maltreatment and bullying or whether bullying has a unique effect”. What Dr. Wild offers here then is not, as some might be tempted to see it, a criticism of the research, but rather a suggestion for future research. More pertinent criticisms, I would argue, would concern the methods that the researchers used to address their stated aim. One example might be that maltreatment was assessed using parent-report, for UK participants.

Secondly, the recommendation for zero tolerance.  According to the OED online, this is “automatic punishment for infractions of a stated rule, with the intention of eliminating undesirable conduct”. Zero tolerance on bullying was widely advocated by Michael Gove when he was Education Secretary. One might imagine cases where zero tolerance would work well, where rules have been obviously transgressed. And where punishment has been shown to deter rule-breaking. However, when it comes to bullying, neither of these tenets holds true. I have already written about the dubious merits of punishment following bullying – and  as the research attests – bullying can be pernicious precisely because it is difficult to define when it has taken place (it often involves acts of omission that worsen with time) (e.g., Monks & Smith, 2006). This means that zero tolerance and bullying do not make good prospective partners.

In conclusion, it seems to me that Dr. Wild’s comments cloud the true value of Wolke et al.’s findings, which  demonstrate that peer victimization in childhood can have worse long-term effects on young adults’ mental health than maltreatment – and that when a child is maltreated peer victimization can denote an added detriment to mental health. These findings, together with the current pervasiveness of peer victimization, mean that government efforts should focus on finding out what leads to and maintains it. It might also focus, not on promoting zero tolerance, but in researching what the effective methods of reducing bullying may be, in schoolchildren. This should be done in order to that bullying research funding  is no longer at odds with the long-term public health concern that bullying represents.