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Research-Based Practice

Strengthening Elementary School Bully Prevention With Bibliotherapy

By Melissa Allen Heath, Emily Moulton, Tina Taylor Dyches, Mary Anne Prater, & Alec Brown

The consequences of bullying are both widespread and severe. In comparison to their nonvictimized peers, victims suffer lower academic achievement as well as higher rates of depression, lower self-esteem, and increased interpersonal problems across development and into adulthood (Nansel, Craig, Overpeck, Saluja, & Ruan, 2004). Over time, bullying is strongly linked to victims’ anger, frustration, and violent behaviors (Nansel, Overpeck, Haynie, Ruan, & Scheidt, 2003).

Bullying also impacts bystanders. Children who witness bullying often feel powerless and fearful of being victimized. Furthermore, bullying often escalates with an audience: Onlookers may implicitly or explicitly encourage bullying by silently observing or actively participating. Particularly in school settings, bullying and bystander silence create an unwelcome and increasingly intimidating environment (Orpinas, Horne, & Staniszewski, 2003).

Bully Prevention: Strengthening Supportive Environments

Data from several school-wide programs have indicated positive headway in effectively targeting and reducing bullying behaviors (e.g., Frey et al., 2005; Orpinas et al., 2003). However, large meta-analyses counter these findings, indicating that antibullying programs produce minimal change in bullying behaviors over time (Merrell, Gueldner, Ross, & Isava, 2008).

Although faced with these mixed messages, teachers and other caring adults can offset bullying’s negative impact (Sprague & Walker, 2005). Research shows that adults’ social support is extremely important in alleviating children’s personal pain (Davidson & Demaray, 2007). Additionally, positive role modeling is crucial in curbing bullying behavior. Adults must teach and model kindness and respect, closely monitoring, protecting, and befriending those who are victimized. In particular, adults must not ignore, discount, or condone mean-spirited behavior: They must actively create and support a safe and inclusive environment (Frey et al., 2005).

Additionally, schools must empower children, particularly bystanders, to denounce bullying. Some commonly advocated steps include increasing awareness of bullying, establishing and enforcing clear antibullying rules, providing support and adequate supervision, encouraging cooperation, and rewarding prosocial behaviors (Sprague & Walker, 2005).

Although multiple strategies have targeted bullying, bullying must be understood within a social contextual framework beyond the bully–victim dyad (Orpinas et al., 2003). Most importantly, as addressed by Craig, Pepler, and Blais (2007), effective intervention must consider two important underlying factors: (a) the overall social acceptance of bullying and (b) the lack of effective problem-solving strategies, particularly for victims and bystanders (Davis & Davis, 2007). In particular, Davis and Davis emphasize the importance of focusing on the broad base of bystanders, strengthening this vast majority of students to speak up and take an active stand against bullying. To this end, bibliotherapy is recommended as a potential tool to address these factors and to create positive, supportive, and inclusive classroom environments (Oliver & Young, 1994).

Bibliotherapy

Forgan (2002) defined bibliotherapy as using books to heal the mind, empowering individuals to resolve personal difficulties. Proponents of bibliotherapy rely on the leverage of a well crafted story to assist children in changing problematic thoughts and behaviors (Heath, Sheen, Leavy, Young, & Money, 2005). Although frequently used by mental health professionals as an activity aligned with cognitive–behavioral therapy (CBT) and play therapy, bibliotherapy is also recommended for teachers and parents as a teaching aid to address social skills and normal developmental challenges (Forgan, 2002; Heath et al., 2005).

Beyond merely confronting bullying behaviors and focusing on what students should not do, carefully selected books should promote healthy interpersonal relation- ships (teacher–student and student–student) and encourage prosocial behavior, such as kindness, inclusiveness, and empathy—critical ingredients in sensitively responding to other’s feelings (Henkin, 2005). Indeed, this type of social support buffers bullying’s negative repercussions and strengthens students’ resilience (Davidson & Demaray, 2007).

From a practical standpoint, bibliotherapy is highly versatile, cost effective, and appropriate for strengthening classroom prosocial support against bullying behaviors. In other words, rather than focusing on the individual level (victim and bully), by applying general principles of bibliotherapy in a classroom setting, school psychologists and teachers focus on the classroom level, identifying desired behaviors and strengthening classroom cohesiveness. Shared stories and related activities should empower classrooms to realize that bullies are the minority and bystanders are the majority.

Sharing carefully selected stories provides enjoyable group activities, builds cohesiveness and bystander support, teaches social skills, and increases understanding of others’ viewpoints (Hillsberg & Spak, 2006). Additionally, classroom bibliotherapy helps relieve emotional distress and decreases feelings of isolation, helping children understand they are not alone (Forgan, 2002). The desired group outcome is increased bystander support for prosocial behavior and a model for adaptive coping skills. Following the basic tenets of CBT, bibliotherapy strengthens desired connections between thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

Research Basis for Bibliotherapy

Stories and metaphors such as fables and parables have been used for centuries, passing wisdom from one generation to the next (Friedberg & Wilt, 2010). Although bibliotherapy was not traditionally touted as a research-based therapeutic intervention (Jack & Ronan, 2008), over the past 50 years bibliotherapy has increasingly grown into a recognized therapeutic activity aligning with underlying tenets of CBT (Pattison & Harris, 2006). In general, CBT emphasizes the strong link between thoughts, feelings, and behavior (Cohen, Mannarino, & Deblinger, 2006). The goal of CBT is to change behavior by changing thoughts and attitudes. CBT strengthens problem solving, positive self-talk, and adaptive coping skills.

As an adjunct to CBT, carefully selected stories open communication, reduce alienation and isolation, normalize challenges, model desired behavior, and offer hope. Research studies have supported bibliotherapy for treating a variety of childhood emotional and behavioral problems, including depression (Smith, Floyd, Scogin, & Jamison, 1997; Stice, Rohde, Seeley, & Gau, 2008), anxiety disorders (Rapee, Abbott, & Lyneham, 2006), aggression (Shechtman, 1999, 2000, 2006), and darkness phobia (Santacruz, Mendez, & Sanchez-Meca, 2006).

To date, limited empirical studies have specifically examined the effectiveness of bibliotherapy in addressing bullying. Nevertheless, a few studies demonstrate bibliotherapy’s success in combating externalizing behaviors related to bullying. For example, Shechtman (1999) included bibliotherapy in counseling five boys who struggled with overly aggressive behavior. Compared to a control group not receiving bibliotherapy, participating children demonstrated higher levels of prosocial behavior and significantly lower levels of aggressive behaviors. Shechtman later replicated these results with larger groups, first with 70 students identified with behavior problems and receiving special education services (2000), then with 61 boys between the ages of 8 to 16 years (2006). In the 2006 study, researchers noted greater gains in children’s empathy, greater therapeutic change over time, and greater satisfaction with their outcomes reported among therapists who utilized bibliotherapy.

Although aggression and bullying are not synonymous, the use of bibliotherapy to decrease aggressive behavior supports the notion that similar results may be expected for studies specifically targeting bullying. In regard to decreasing bullying, more research is needed to strengthen the basis for this proposed intervention.

In further support of bibliotherapy, experts recommend children’s literature and stories as tools to address bullying (Berger, 2007; Teglasi, Rahill, & Rothman, 2007). Specifically, Olweus (1993) suggested teachers use children’s books as part of an overarching antibullying program. Olweus stated, "The goal in reading aloud from the literature should be to increase the students’ empathy with victims of bullying and to demonstrate some of the mechanisms involved, without teaching new ways of bullying" (1993, p. 82). In agreement with Olweus’ goal, resources and suggested books for bibliotherapy are included in the following Resource List. Noting unique needs of individual children and classroom dynamics, teachers and mental health professionals who work with young children must review resources to ensure a good fit. Stories must be more than entertaining; core messages must align with expectations for desired behavior, particularly how bullying is resolved and how adults, victims, and bystanders respond.

Antibullying groups and children’s librarians also recommend children’s books to strengthen coping skills (Resource List includes websites). Clearly, bullying experts, practitioners, and laymen recognize the value of utilizing stories in helping children cope with this pervasive problem.

Selecting Books for Bibliotherapy

Although bibliotherapy is recommended by many professionals, confusion arises when selecting from literally hundreds of books on the topic of bullying. Caution must be taken because some books contain flawed strategies for responding to bullies, such as retaliating, ganging up and fighting the bully, or embarrassing the bully. As suggested earlier, it is wise to read potential books before selecting and sharing stories with children. Henkin (2005) similarly warns that many bullying books are overly simplistic and unrealistic, thus of limited therapeutic utility. It is advisable that the bullying situation in the book be resolved in a prosocial and realistic manner.

An example, Big Bad Bruce <(Peet, 1977) is a story about a huge bear (Bruce) that terrorizes small forest animals. Furious about the bear’s insensitivity, a witch casts a spell, shrinking Bruce to the size of a chipmunk. Tables turned, Bruce becomes the object of victims’ revenge. Taking pity, a witch saves Bruce, takes him to her home, and cares for him as a small house-pet. The final scene reveals Bruce having a grand time throwing small pebbles at insects, the only living thing smaller than him. Realistically speaking, this book’s core message is that, to a certain extent, adults have power to control bullying in given situations, but their control may not extend across settings. Prior to selecting bully-themed books, adults must consider the core message in each book and determine if this message aligns with desirable behaviors they intend to promote.

Consider the following guidelines when selecting books to share with students:

  • Select books that align with desired classroom behavior.
  • Select books with a clear and direct core message focusing on positive rather than negative behaviors.
  • Select age-appropriate books sensitive to students’ social and emotional maturity, attention span, interests, and unique characteristics (e.g., gender, cultural, ethnic, and religious beliefs).
  • Prior to sharing books with the classroom, it is important to carefully read and screen selected books. Care should be taken to ensure content is appropriate in text and illustration, and supports school values and rules.
  • In advance, teachers may want to review books with the school psychologist, discussing behavioral expectations and identifying books that best align with desired outcomes.

Additionally, to increase the likelihood of children identifying with the story, selected books should be carefully matched with student characteristics and the unique bullying situation being addressed. One of the most important steps in bibliotherapy is helping readers relate to the story’s character and situation. This increases the likelihood of children connecting with the story and subsequently applying lessons learned (Gregory & Vessey, 2004). Although limited, some research has summarized information about children’s books. Oliver and Young (1994) analyzed 22 books with bullying themes relevant to preadolescents (ages 9–12). Each book was analyzed to identify and describe the characters’ use of violence as a solution to bullying. Additionally, major characters’ responses to bullying were analyzed, identifying their coping and problem-solving strategies.

A similar effort was undertaken by Entenmen, Murnen, and Hendricks (2005). These authors analyzed content in 25 children’s books (K–3rd grade) published between 1995 and 2003. They examined several important variables related to specific bullying situations, such as type of bullying, gender of bullies and targets, location where bullying occurred, and how bullying was resolved. Extending on the Entenmen et al. study, Moulton (2010) analyzed children’s bully-themed picture books published between 2004 and 2007. Her thesis is available at http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/ETD/image/etd2991.pdf.

These detailed analyses provide a fast menu of specific ingredients in bully-themed books. With hundreds of bully-themed books on the market and many more published each year, identifying a book that is engaging, age-appropriate, and tailored to the needs of the individual child or classroom of students can be both overwhelming and time-consuming. Detailed book analyses help professionals narrow down options for bibliotherapy. Additionally, consulting with children’s librarians and previewing recommended bully-themed books, professionals will more strategically meet children’s needs and strengthen supportive classroom environments.

Guidelines for Sharing Stories With Students

When introducing the book, heighten students’ interest by asking a few carefully posed questions, showing the cover of the book, and possibly giving a short background of the author or illustrator. A few points should be considered for classroom discussion. The school psychologist or teacher could ask one or two questions to help the children think about the book’s message. Students may also discuss bullying situations related to similar events in the classroom, school, and community.

Reading the story aloud is preferable because the activity becomes a shared experience and does not place slower readers at a disadvantage. When reading aloud, to increase students’ interest, the reader should inject feeling, matching his/her expression to realistically reflect characters and situations. When reading from picture books, Sipe (2008) suggested the book’s pictures be large enough for children to see from a distance.

Following the story, the school psychologist (or teacher) should ask questions that lead to discussing the story’s major tenets. Care should be taken to clarify misunderstandings and reduce confusion. Following a discussion, students should participate in an activity that stretches the story’s core message into action, solidifying learning with an applied activity. Across the school year, school psychologists should encourage teachers to use examples and extrapolate wording from the story to continue discussions about targeted social skills (a common language for students and teacher).

Professionals have described students participating in basic phases during the therapeutic process (Heath et al., 2005). In the identification phase, students relate to story characters and transfer the story’s meaning into their personal lives. In the catharsis phase, students become emotionally engaged as the story builds to an emotional release. This phase should be carefully monitored by the school psychologist (and/or teacher), assuring students they are not alone and that school adults will be there to support them. In the integration phase, students take the emotional power of the story’s message and apply their new insights (lessons learned) into real-life activities.

As school psychologists encourage teachers to implement classroom bibliotherapy, teachers may need some guidance incorporating its essential elements. To this end, lesson plans serve as a basic guide to (a) clearly identify the selected book’s core ideas and teaching points, (b) specify supplies and materials needed for activities following the story, (c) organize questions to promote class discussion (pre and post), and (d) identify activities to extend the story’s main ideas into practical application. Activities to supplement bully-themed books are listed in the Resource List (e.g., National School Safety Center and Intervention Central), including an excellent lesson plan (The Bully Blockers Club).

Summary

Bullying disrupts learning, threatens school safety, and poses long-term emotional repercussions for bullies, victims, and bystanders. Grounded in principles of CBT, bibliotherapy supports classrooms in promoting and modeling desired social interactions. In turn, the majority of children—bystanders—will be empowered to actively take a stand against bullying. This will deter bullying and offset bullying’s negative consequences. Reading carefully selected bully-themed literature and participating in related discussions and activities strengthens core prosocial messages and builds classroom unity against bullying. Additionally, stories help school psychologists and teachers initiate important classroom discussions about friendship, kindness, and conflict resolution. Shared stories build a common classroom language and support safe and caring learning environments.

Resources

Articles Describing Classroom/Group Bibliotherapy

Gregory, K. E., & Vessey, J. A. (2004). Bibliotherapy: A strategy to help students with bullying. The Journal of School Nursing, 20, 127–133.

Heath, M. A., Sheen, D., Leavy, D., Young, E. L., & Money, K. (2005). Bibliotherapy: A resource to facilitate emotional healing and growth. School Psychology International, 26, 563–580.

Prater, M. A., Johnstun, M. L., Dyches, T. T., & Johnstun, M. R. (2006). Using children’s books as bibliotherapy for at-risk students: A guide for teachers. Preventing School Failure, 50, 5–13.

Rozalski, M., Stewart, A., & Miller, J. (2010, Fall). Bibliotherapy: Helping children cope with life’s challenges. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 47, 33–37. Retrieved from http://www.kdp.org/publications/pdf/record/fall10/Record_Fall_2010_Rozalski.pdf

Professional Books Recommending Children’s Literature for Bully Prevention

Beane, A. L. (2005). The bully free classroom: Over 100 tips and strategies for teachers K-8. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit. Includes more than 50 K–8th grade books to support bully-free classrooms. Topics include bullying, friendship, conflict resolution, and acceptance/inclusion of peers. Recommends reading in conjunction with discussions and writing activities.

Henkin, R. (2005). Confronting bullying: Literacy as a tool for character education. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Outlines a comprehensive program utilizing children’s literature to tackle bullying and teach prosocial skills. Includes extensive booklist.

McNamara, B. E., & McNamara, F. J. (1997). Keys to dealing with bullies. New York, NY: Barron’s Educational Series. Appendix with fiction and nonfiction books on topic of bullying. Authors recommend reading books to initiate discussion.

Websites

Anti-Bullying Alliance
http://www.warwickshire.gov.uk/Web/corporate/pages.nsf/Links/3D669EB9E08CA9398025707D003035A7/$file/53+fictionlist2007.pdf
Promotes bibliotherapy, suggesting books to strengthen coping skills. Lists authors, publication information, and brief summaries for more than 50 bully-themed children’s books.

Best Children’s Books
http://www.best-childrens-books.com/childrens-books-about-bullying.html
Lists recommended bully-themed children’s books.

National School Safety Center
http://www.schoolsafety.us/free-resources/bullying-in-schools-fact-sheet-series
Fact sheets, including Bullying in Schools: Fighting the Bully Battle (Quiroz, Arnette, & Stephens, 2006). This 14-page booklet for parents, schools, and communities identifies strategies to decrease bullying. Website is an excellent resource for training materials and handouts.
http://www.schoolsafety.us/pubfiles/bullying_chalk_talk.pdf
Bullying in Schools: Fighting the Bully Battle: Discussion Activities for School Communities includes a teacher lesson plan with 24 pages of classroom training materials.

Intervention Central
http://www.jimwrightonline.com/pdfdocs/bully/bystander.pdf
Jim Wright’s (2003) 4-page article Bystanders: Turning Onlookers into Bully-Prevention Agents. This resource has role-play activities and ideas to involve students in taking a stand against bullying. These activities could be included as "story stretchers," in particular reinforcing the idea of bystander support.

Recommended Children’s Books

Bateman, T. (2004). The Bully Blockers Club. Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman. Core message: Friends stick up for each other. Bystanders take a stand against bullying (grades pre- K–3). Download free lesson plan (suggested for grades 2–5) from http://www.socstrp.org/issues/PDF/2.2.14.pdf

Cook, J. (2009). Bully B.E.A.N.S. Chattanooga, TN: National Center for Youth Issues. Core message: Bystanders have power to stop bullying (grades pre-K–3). Also available: Bully BEANS Activity and Idea Book (Cook, 2010).

McCain, B. R. (2001). Nobody knew what to do: A story about bullying. Morton Grove, IL: Whitman. Core message: Children should tell adults about bullying (grades pre-K–3). Adults can intervene to stop bullying.

Moss, P. (2008). Say something. Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House. Core message: One person can help stop bullying. Emphasizes importance of bystanders (grades 1–5).

Recorvits, H. (2008). Yoon and the jade bracelet. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Core message: True friends are sensitive to others’ feelings. It is important to tell adults when bullying situations are not easily resolved (grades pre-K–3). It takes courage to stand up against a bully.

References

Berger, K. S. (2007). Update on bullying at school: Science forgotten? Developmental Review, 27, 90–126.

Cohen, J. A., Mannarino, A. P., & Deblinger, E. (2006). Treating trauma and traumatic grief in children and adolescents. New York, NY: Guilford.

Craig, W., Pepler, D., & Blais, J. (2007). Responding to bullying: What works? School Psychology International, 28, 465–477.

Davidson, L. M., & Demaray, M. K. (2007). Social support as a moderator between victimization and internalizing-externalizing distress from bullying. School Psychology Review, 36, 383–405.

Davis, S., & Davis, J. (2007). Schools where everyone belongs: Practical strategies for reducing bullying (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL: Research Press.

Entenmen, J., Murnen, T. J., & Hendricks, C. (2005). Victims, bullies, and bystanders in K–3 literature. The Reading Teacher, 59, 352–364.

Forgan, J. W. (2002). Using bibliotherapy to teach problem solving. Intervention in School and Clinic, 38, 75–82.

Frey, K. S., Hirschstein, M. K., Snell, J. L., Van Schoiack-Edstrom, L., MacKenzie, E. P., & Broderick, C. J. (2005). Reducing playground bullying and supporting beliefs: An experimental trial of the STEPS TO RESPECT program. Developmental Psychology, 41, 479–491.

Friedberg, R. D., & Wilt, L. H. (2010). Metaphors and stories in cognitive behavioral therapy with children. Journal of Rational Emotive Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, 28, 100–113.

Gregory, K. E., & Vessey, J. A. (2004). Bibliotherapy: A strategy to help students with bullying. The Journal of School Nursing, 20, 127–133.

Heath, M. A., Sheen, D., Leavy, D., Young, E. L., & Money, K. (2005). Bibliotherapy: A resource to facilitate emotional healing and growth. School Psychology International, 26, 563–580.

Henkin, R. (2005). Confronting bullying: Literacy as a tool for character education. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Hillsberg, C., & Spak, H. (2006). Young adult literature as the centerpiece of an anti-bullying program in middle school. Middle School Journal, 38, 23–8.

Jack, S. J., & Ronan, K. R. (2008). Bibliotherapy: Practice and research. School Psychology International, 29, 161–182.

Merrell, K. W., Gueldner, B. A., Ross, S. W., & Isava, D. M. (2008). How effective are school bullying intervention programs? A meta-analysis of intervention research. School Psychology Quarterly, 23, 26–42.

Moulton, E. (2010). Confronting bullying: Searching for strategies in children’s literature (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/ETD/image/etd2991.pdf

Nansel, T. R., Craig, W., Overpeck, M. D., Saluja, G., & Ruan, W. J. (2004). Cross-national consistency in the relationship between bullying behaviors & psychosocial adjustment. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 158, 730–736.

Nansel, T. R., Overpeck, M. D., Haynie, D. L., Ruan, W. J., & Scheidt, P. C. (2003). Relationships between bullying and violence among U.S. youth. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 157, 348–353.

Oliver, R. L., & Young, T. A. (1994). Early lessons in bullying and victimization: The help and hindrance of children’s literature. School Counselor, 42, 137–146.

Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Orpinas, P., Horne, A. M., & Staniszewski, D. (2003). School bullying: Changing the problem by changing the school. School Psychology Review, 32, 431–444.

Pattison, S., & Harris, B. (2006). Adding value to education through improved mental health: A review of the research evidence on the effectiveness of counseling for children and young people. The Australian Educational Researcher, 33, 97–121.

Peet, W. B. (1977). Big bad Bruce. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Rapee, R. M., Abbott, M. J., & Lyneham, H. J. (2006). Bibliotherapy for children with anxiety disorders using written materials for parents: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74, 436–444.

Santacruz, I., Mendez, F. J., & Sanchez-Meca, J. (2006). Play therapy applied by parents for children with darkness phobia: Comparison of two programmes. Child & Family Behavior Therapy, 28, 19–35.

Shechtman, Z. (1999). Bibliotherapy: An indirect approach to treatment of childhood aggression. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 30, 39–53.

Shechtman, Z. (2000). An innovative intervention for treatment of child and adolescent aggression: An outcome study. Psychology in the Schools, 37, 157–167.

Shechtman, Z. (2006). The contribution of bibliotherapy to the counseling of aggressive boys. Psychotherapy Research, 16, 631–636. Sipe, L. R. (2008). Storytime: Young children’s literary understanding in the classroom. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Smith, N. M., Floyd, M. R., Scogin, F., & Jamison, C. S. (1997). Three-year follow-up of bibliotherapy for depression. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 65, 324–327.

Sprague, J. R., & Walker, H. M. (2005). Safe and healthy schools: Practical intervention strategies. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Stice, E., Rohde, P., Seeley, J. R., & Gau, J. M. (2008). Brief cognitive–behavioral depression prevention program for high-risk adolescents outperforms two alternative interventions: A randomized efficacy trial. Journal of Consulting Clinical Psychology, 76, 595–606.

Teglasi, H., Rahill, S., & Rothman, L. (2007). A story-guided peer group intervention for reducing bullying and victimization in schools. In J. E. Zins, M. J. Elias, & C. A. Maher (Eds.), Bullying, victimization, and peer harassment: A handbook of prevention and intervention (pp. 219–237). New York, NY: Haworth Press.


Melissa Allen Heath, PhD, NCSP, is an associate professor in the Brigham Young University School Psychology Program. Emily Moulton is a school psychologist with the Falcon School District #49 in Colorado Springs, CO. Tina Taylor Dyches, EdD, is an associate professor in the Brigham Young University special education program. Mary Anne Prater, PhD, is a professor in the Brigham Young University special education program. Alec Brown is a school psychology doctoral student at Arizona State University.