Psychologist’s research interests include bullying and peer conflict

Q&A with Beth Kotchick, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology

By Marisa Pizzulli, '15  |  Photo by Brigid Hamilton, '06

Beth Kotchick, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, has taught at Loyola since 2003, but her relationship with Loyola goes back much farther. She received both her bachelor’s (in 1991) and master’s degrees (in 1993) in psychology from Loyola.

Marisa Pizzuli,’ 15, spoke with Kotchick about her passion for teaching and her research interests.

What do you like most about teaching at Loyola?

The students. What I love about the students at both the graduate and undergraduate levels is their optimism, altruism, and idealism. They have a genuine desire to bring meaningful change to the world and serve others. They have really bought into the Jesuit mission, which is what I think brings both students and faculty here. We all have the same goals and visions for the world together. That synergy is what makes teaching here so much fun. It energizes me.

Tell me a little about your research.

I’m trained as a child clinical psychologist. I was always interested in how children achieve the most optimal development, particularly with respect to mental health. I started off focusing on the family and its contributions to children’s psychological development; I was most interested in parenting.

Most recently I have taken a little detour and looked at another area of influence in child and adolescent developmental outcomes. My research has been focused on understanding the predictors and consequences of bullying. I am really excited about my most recent project which started back in 2010 in collaboration with Dr. Alison Papadakis, one of my colleagues in the department.

We partnered with the Archdiocese of Baltimore to collect data in seven different Catholic schools on bullying and peer conflict. We looked at the factors associated with children engaging in aggressive behaviors, but also the kind of consequences associated with being victimized by peers. The outcomes we focused on were all along the mental health spectrum such as depression, anxiety, and self-injury. We asked students to report on their family relationships as well as the school’s climate. We have data from about 340 students and 28 teachers.

Over the last five years a whole army of graduate students have been working on this project. They have analyzed various aspects of the data for theses and dissertations, addressing questions like what are some of the negative consequences of relational or physical victimization, what are the most successful strategies for coping with peer victimization, how parental support buffers kids from negative physical aggression, and what factors predict who engages in relational or physical aggression.

These are projects I have felt so lucky to mentor and be involved with. I’m looking forward to taking a sabbatical in the fall to do some of my own analysis of data about school climate and how that relates to bullying and victimization in Catholic schools. I also am supervising students on a new project that examines how parents view and respond to relational and physical aggression among adolescents. Since my earlier research always focused on parenting, this is nice a way to connect my two areas of interest together.

Why is your research so important to you?

I’ve always been motivated to understand what places children and adolescents at risk of mental health problems, or conversely what protects them and promotes optimal development. I think the familyspecifically, the interactions children have with their parents from an early ageplays a huge role in cultivating positive developmental outcomes and resilience in the face of stress. My early clinical training often involved working with parents of young children with disruptive behavior to help them adjust the way they responded to their child in order to shape more adaptive and positive behavior. This grew into a broader interest in parentingwhat parents do, what they believe, how they become the parents they are. Then I look at how that all relates to current and future emotional, social, and behavioral adjustment.

This interest became so much more meaningful when I had children of my own. I’m in awe of the complexity of parenting in today’s world, which only gets more complicated when you consider that parents are competing with social influences at younger and younger ages and in larger and more ambiguous contexts created by social technology.

Can you describe an “aha” moment in your research?

Initially, I pursued my doctorate in clinical psychology because I thought I wanted to go into private practice as a therapist. I was lucky enough to be accepted to the University of Georgia’s clinical psychology doctoral program, which is very strong in research. My major professor told me he had a project ready and waiting for me to start whenever I wanted. About six weeks before classes started, I walked into his office and he handed me two huge stacks of papers (about 50 articles and SPSS printouts from an old dot matrix printer). He gave me a description of the project, which was looking at family processes among families in which a parent was diagnosed with hemophilia, some of whom had also contracted HIV. He had already run the data to see if there was evidence of intergenerational transmission of coping strategies—in other words, did children engage in the same kinds of coping strategies as their parents when dealing with emotional stress? This was something I had never ever thought about, that I had no background in, but I figured I had nothing to lose and everything to prove, so I dove in and found out that I loved everything about the research process. That paper was my first published article, so I think I would call that an “aha moment” that told me I was exactly where I needed to be and changed the direction of where I wanted to go. I became much more interested in conducting clinically relevant research. This then morphed over time into wanting to pursue a more academic career.

How are our Jesuit values reflected in your teaching and/or scholarship?

I teach a course in psychopathology, which is focused on psychological disorders. I include a service-learning option in the course, where students are engaged with community partners that provide support and advocacy for persons with mental illness. This gets students out of the textbook and classroom. I want to make the material come to life and put it into context for students. I think that is very much driven by a commitment to service and social justice.

And in my research, I try to address questions that are relevant and meaningful for populations within a community. I am not just interested in generating knowledge for the sake of knowledge; I’m really looking for applied findings that could have immediate impact.

What is something that your students don’t know about you?

I don’t really have much of a filter, so they probably know more than they should!

Hobbies/ interests outside of teaching?

Our family loves to ski, though I’m not very good at it! We also just got a puppy last year, so I enjoy taking him for hikes and walks. I also like to cook, and absolutely LOVE baseball. I’m a huge O’s fan!

A favorite book, movie, or quote?

I don’t get to do much reading or even movie watching, but I am totally hooked on The Walking Dead and Downton Abbey. How’s that for a study in contradiction!

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