By Dennis D. Embry, Ph.D.
Anyone reading this certainly knows that bullying at school and via social media are major causes of suicide. But what at school—even in first grade—protects against lifetime risk of suicide, and improves virtually every indicator of wellbeing through young adulthood?
Thanks to my colleagues’ data analyses of our original experimental studies at Johns Hopkins [1, 2] and in Tucson [3, 4], you can know and spread the answer. It wasn’t in-school therapy, outside counseling, medication, parent training, anti-bullying programs, or social-emotional curricula [5, 6]. It’s something our grandmothers goaded us to do: Compliment each other—peer-to-peer reinforcement for doing good things verbally or, better yet, in writing.
Peer reinforcement of pro-social behavior is what allows humans to do all the good things we cherish. Throughout most of human evolution, peers and other community adults reinforced pro-social behaviors in young people everyday—both verbally and, often, by writing “thank you notes” as literacy increased.
When my colleagues and I observe classrooms today, we notice that students inadvertently reinforce each other many times per hour for problematic behaviors, and rarely reinforce each other for pro-social behaviors. As a consequence, we easily observe 600 problematic behaviors per hour per classroom all over the United States today, and yes even in so-called “good schools, with good families, and good kids.” These rates have easily tripled since we started these observations in the 1990s. Such easily observed problematic behaviors are what increase the lifetime risk for virtually every mental, emotional, behavioral or psychiatric disorder for all children in the classroom—including being bullied and suicide.
What to do? Anybody at home, at school, at scouts, an after-school program, or church can teach students of all ages to compliment each other for pro-social behaviors and, better write, positive peer-to-peer notes. Scientifically, we call these positive peer reporting  or “Tootle Notes” [8-10]—the opposite of tattles or put-downs. Daily use of these immediately reduces problem behaviors and increases pro-social behaviors . In turn, that reduces problem behaviors in the classroom, improves academics and reduces the risk of multiple psychiatric disorders and even suicide .
Imagine we started a national movement for peers, teachers, communities, and families to tootle the good in our children. We’d bring out more good, just like our grandmothers told us to do. You can start by downloading a blank, reproducible Tootle. Then, write one right now for a child you know. Or you can teach a child to write Tootles because they will have more friends and a better life. And, we will start saving lives from suicide—at the cost of slips of paper.
- Dolan, L.J., et al., The short-term impact of two classroom-based preventive interventions on aggressive and shy behaviors and poor achievement. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 1993. 14: p. 317-345.
- Ialongo, N., et al., Proximal impact of two first-grade preventive interventions on the early risk behaviors for later substance abuse, depression, and antisocial behavior. American Journal of Community Psychology, 1999. 27(5): p. 599-641.
- Embry, D.D., et al., PeaceBuilders: A theoretically driven, school-based model for early violence prevention. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 1996. 12(5, Suppl): p. 91.
- Flannery, D.J., et al., Initial behavior outcomes for the PeaceBuilders universal school-based violence prevention program. Developmental Psychology, 2003. 39(2): p. 292-308.
- Newcomer, A.R., et al., Higher Childhood Peer Reports of Social Preference Mediates the Impact of the Good Behavior Game on Suicide Attempt. Prev Sci, 2016. 17(2): p. 145-56.
- Wilcox, H.C., et al., The impact of two universal randomized first- and second-grade classroom interventions on young adult suicide ideation and attempts. Drug & Alcohol Dependence, 2008(Special Issue): p. 14.
- Murphy, J. and K. Zlomke, Positive Peer Reporting in the Classroom: a Review of Intervention Procedures. Behav Anal Pract, 2014. 7(2): p. 126-37.
- Lum, J.D.K., Tootling with a randomized independent group contingency in a high school setting. 2017, ProQuest Information & Learning: US. p. No Pagination Specified-No Pagination Specified.
- Shelton-Quinn, A., Increasing positive peer reporting and on-task behavior using a peer monitoring interdependent group contingency program with public posting. 2009, ProQuest Information & Learning: US. p. 1169-1169.
- Skinner, C.H., T.H. Cashwell, and A.L. Skinner, Increasing tootling: The effects of a peer-monitored group contingency program on students' reports of peers' prosocial behaviors. Psychology in the Schools, 2000. 37(3): p. 263-270.
Dennis Embry, President/Senior Scientist at PAXIS Institute – Dennis D. Embry is a prominent prevention scientist in the United States and Canada, trained as clinician and developmental and child psychologist. He is president/senior scientist at PAXIS Institute in Tucson, Arizona. Dennis Embry serves on the scientific advisory board for the Children’s Mental Health Network and the U.S. Center for Mental Health Services Advisory Council.