In an effort to prevent bullying before it starts, Marymount Manhattan College’s Psychology Assistant Professor Nava R. Silton, Ph.D., is successfully conveying to second- and third-graders that, regardless of disabilities, each child possesses special talents and abilities. Dr. Silton and her students, Senada Arucevic (’14), Vanessa Norkus (’11) and Rebecca Ruchlin (’14) are going from school to school as catalysts for change, targeting potential bullies, typical school children, and kids with disabilities while researching the effectiveness of their new, experimental video series called Realabilities.
“People with disabilities are like me and my friends. We all have different abilities. Bullying is bad and hurts feelings,” expressed a seven-year-old from Krieger Schechter Day School in Baltimore, Maryland, after viewing three Realabilities storyboards on video. “His response is typical of what we’re finding in our research, which means that our children’s video program is hitting the Holy Grail of effective educational programming,” says Dr. Silton, an expert in childhood development and parenting who has worked at Nickelodeon and Sesame Workshop. She explains, “The aim of Realabilities is to create video programming that will improve typical children’s knowledge, understanding, behavioral intentions, and cognitive attitudes towards their peers with special needs. Previous video interventions have sought a similar agenda, but unfortunately with minimal success.”
The video segments, which feature the superhero exploits of four characters with disabilities, encourage their viewers to see differences between people as opportunities to cooperate and share instead of reasons to ostracize. Realabilities is one of the first programs to statistically demonstrate improvements among young children at a time when bullying – both in the classroom and, among older kids, on the Internet – is at the forefront of national conversations about education, parenting and cognitive diversity.
Dr. Silton’s work resonates deeply with the three students helping her. Ms. Ruchlin, a college junior who wrote Chicken Nuggets in the Freezer, a book about autism, last year for one of her classes, shares, “I’ve been an advocate for my brother and autism all my life. I want children to grow up treating others with the same respect that they want for themselves. I only wish it happened for my brother who grew up with no friends, simply because he was different.” She continues, “I hope that by watching Realabilities, typical kids would invite children with disabilities into their larger community instead of feeling sorry for, discounting or ignoring them. Realabilities lessens the load of life by touching on the kids that are left behind.”
Mrs. Arucevic, a Marymount Manhattan College junior with an eye on becoming a nurse practitioner in pediatrics, was the first student to sign on and work with Dr. Silton on Realabilities. She recalls, “I was in my second semester freshman year as a Biology major. As this remarkable bullying intervention coalesced, I added psychology as my dual major.” Mrs. Arucevic, whose cousin has autism, shares, “The purpose behind our work – encouraging typical kids to become more sensitive through the powerful medium of animation – is so important. I feel proud; it’s good to do something so right.”
About the Realabilities Storyboards on Video
Realabilities features characters with disabilities as the principal characters and portrays them in a strong light. Very few other shows overtly discuss disabilities and highlight the strengths that these special characters may possess, in addition to their limitations. The characters – Uno (with autism), Melody (with a visual impairment), Seemore (with a hearing impairment) and Rolly (with a physical disability) – are four superheroes, who turn their disabilities into advantages to combat bullying in school. The show benefits from strong pro-social messages, not only to eradicate bullying but also to promote empathy, sharing, cooperation, and helping behaviors. The excitement of each episode derives from the various bullying obstacles theRealabilities team must cleverly traverse by creatively harnessing their specific superpowers. Each episode begins with a bullying scenario and one of theRealabilities team members intervenes and galvanizes his/her other team members to diffuse the situation in a creative, fun, and remarkable way.
Disabilities Can Improve other Abilities
With respect to strengths, research suggests that some children with autism spectrum disorder may display savant skills (Iavarone, Patruno, Galeone, Chieffi, & Carlomagno, 2007) and enhanced spatial memory (Caron, Mottron, Rainville, Chouinard, p. 478). Individuals with hearing impairment may possess enhanced peripheral vision and other visual abilities (Bosworth & Dobkins, 1999), while individuals with visual impairment may exhibit a greater interest in and/or talent for music than their sighted peers (Matawa, p. 260). Finally, individuals who are wheelchair-bound often develop greater upper body strength due to exercising those muscles more frequently, which also helps to prevent muscle atrophy. Each of the Realabilities characters possesses one of these disabilities and uses their strengths to combat bullying in their school.
About the Research and Its Measurements of Success
Using quantitative and as well as qualitative questions, Dr. Silton and her three Marymount Manhattan College students tested the efficacy of the programming (proposed characters and video storyboards with voiceovers for multiple episodes of the show) for enhancing the positive behavioral intentions, cognitive attitudes and sensitivity of typical children towards children with special needs. The researchers administered shortened versions of the Shared Activities Questionnaire (SAQ), a behavioral intention measure, and the Adjective Checklist (ACL), a cognitive attitudinal measure to young children both prior to and following the viewing of three episodes of Realabilities. The children were then debriefed and encouraged to discuss recommendations they would make for the show.
Research results from testing the first three episodes of Realabilities in multiple second and third grade classrooms (166 children) in Baltimore, Maryland, (89 students) and Manhattan, NY (77 students) suggest highly statistically significant improvements in both behavioral intentions and cognitive attitudes of typical elementary school children towards children with disabilities in general following the three-episode viewing.
Following the three-episode intervention, the elementary school participants showed significantly more favorable cognitive attitudes and behavioral intentions towards hypothetical children presenting with all four forms of disabilities (deafness, blindness, cerebral palsy, and autism). These findings are especially illuminating, since they are some of the first to show the success of an intervention in improving cognitive attitudes towards children with disabilities.