What Works in Bullying Prevention?
Researchers are just beginning to piece together strategies proven to be successful in bully prevention. It is a long road and one which society has only begun to travel. In the past, bullying wasn't seen as a big problem. Today, researchers have proven that bullying is not only a big problem; the problem is so large it is now considered a widespread social problem. But despite the recognition of bullying as a social problem and a growing awareness of its negative and harmful effects on children, not enough is being done to prevent bullying.
The past decade has at least provided some clues as to what types of strategies and programs might work to lessen the prevalence of bullying. Many more studies need to be done, and much more attention needs to be paid to this matter, but let's take a look at what researchers and school personnel believe to be strategies for successful reduction in bullying behavior.
According to renowned researcher and bullying expert Dan Olweus, PhD, bullying behavior and various other inappropriate and antisocial behaviors can be reduced by as much as 50 percent when effective anti-bullying education and prevention programs are implemented in schools. Other studies, such as Ferguson, Kil-burn, San Miguel & Sanchez, 2007, report significantly less influence overall across all anti-bullying programs.
Honest Assessment of the Bullying Problem
Adults are not always aware of what is going on inside and outside of the classroom. A significant percent of school bullying occurs under the radar, and because of this the level of the bullying problem in schools can be seriously underestimated. Researchers have found that administering an anonymous survey to students in a given school can provide more accurate information on how often kids are being bullied, what types of bullying are occurring, and where in the school most of the incidents occur. School personnel can then devise a plan of action depending on the specific problems and trouble spots in the school. These surveys can also provide baseline information that the school can use as a comparison after implementing prevention strategies now and in the future.
School Climate Change
As mentioned before, a climate of tolerance for bullying behavior enables the activity to continue. In order for a school to decrease the level of bullying, a change must be made in the overall climate of the school. School personnel (including paraprofessionals, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, etc.) must become intolerant of bullying behaviors and those behaviors must be consistently identified, addressed, and met with appropriate consequences.
A change in perception must occur so that students no longer view bullying as cool and begin to realize that bullying is undesirable and decidedly not cool. Everyone involved (school personnel, parents, and students) must view bullying as inappropriate and unacceptable. Only then, when the social norms and perceptions have been altered, will change happen.
Integrated Bullying Prevention
One of the biggest misconceptions in bullying prevention is that students can learn about bullying with a single program, or at one grade level, or in one class (like health), and it will do the job of educating the students. This thinking is inadequate. Studies have shown that the best bullying prevention and intervention programs incorporate many activities and programs that include all adults and students involved in the school system.
These programs need to be administered every year on the student level, the school personnel level, and the parent level. Everyone must work from the same framework and set of guidelines. And everyone should be aware of and have some input into the bullying prevention policies, rules, and activities.
Parents and educators should be provided with education programs on how bullying affects children and how it adversely affects their learning environment, how to identify bullying behavior, how to respond if they observe or are informed of bullying behavior, and how they can work with other adults in the school system to prevent the bullying from occurring again in the future.
Students should also be provided with education programs on how to handle bullying situations when they are the bullied child, a bystander, and the bully. Students need to understand the negative consequences that bullying has on them and others. Students should be given the ongoing opportunity to make suggestions and provide feedback on bullying prevention to school personnel. And they should feel comfortable doing so.
A report released by the organization Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, identified three proven bullying intervention and prevention programs: The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (first developed in Norway and now implemented around the world); Linking the Interests of Families and Teachers (LIFT), a 10-week anti-aggression program; and The Incredible Years, designed for children two to eight years of age.
These things will be impossible unless every person is willing to adopt and enforce the new policies and procedures. Every person needs to see the value in continuing, supporting, and periodically upgrading the school's existing bullying prevention programs and interventions. Only then will real change be enacted.
Supportive Parents and School Personnel
Even the best bullying prevention and intervention programs won't be successful without a “buy in” from the most important adults in children's lives. The school system can be putting forth 100 percent effort in the prevention of bullying, but if parents undermine, or worse, oppose the bullying prevention efforts, the situation is doomed to failure.
On the flip side, if parents are 100 percent on board but the teachers or school personnel are reluctant to consistently address and enforce anti-bullying policies and procedures, even the best program (and parental intentions) will fail. Only when both parents and school personnel work together to prevent bullying will positive changes be seen.
Character Education for all Students
It can be difficult to change a school climate that has traditionally tolerated bullying behavior. Bully, victim, and bystander behaviors may be strongly entrenched in the social norms of a particular school culture. Bullying may be viewed as cool and bystanders may view interfering or intervening as uncool. It can be tough for bully prevention educators to reverse this erroneous way of thinking.
One way educators have been doing this is to provide character education to all students. These programs emphasize things such as respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and fostering a sense of community and inclusion. Character education is geared toward creating a change in the social norms that have allowed bullying to continue in every classroom and on every playground.
In character education, kids are taught that respect for each other is positive and proactive; that each individual should take responsibility for his or her own behavior and for ensuring that the behavior of others is consistent with school expectations and rules; that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect; and that a community is only as strong and as functional as its members. When kids are given permission and support from their peers and the adults around them to protect each other, they will usually step up and do the right thing.
When kids understand that silence and staying out of it only makes the situation worse for victims, bullies, and themselves, they are more likely to intervene. There is strength in numbers, and if kids are unified in their disapproval and condemnation of bullying behavior, it will dramatically decrease.
The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (recognized by the federal government as a model program) recommends that schools adopt these four rules about bullying: (1) We will not bully others; (2) we will try to help students who are bullied; (3) we will try to include students who are left out; (4) if we know that somebody is being bullied, we will tell an adult at school and an adult at home.
Safe Reporting Procedures
Kids need to feel like they can report bullying and abusive behavior in a confidential and safe environment — especially at the outset of a bullying prevention and intervention program. Some kids won't trust the system, and fear putting themselves and their reputation on the line. There should be an anonymous reporting system in place — such as a box where kids can drop notes or a phone line they can call to report bullying problems — until the climate has sufficiently changed enough for kids to feel comfortable going directly to school personnel or parents to report a bullying situation.
Schools that develop simple, clear rules about bullying behavior have an easier time enforcing those rules. Students are aware of exactly what types of behavior won't be tolerated, teachers and school personnel understand the proper sanctions for students who engage in bullying behavior, and parents are clear on what repercussions and punishments will be enforced should their child bully another child.
Zero tolerance policies have been less than effective so far in the pursuit of bully-free schools. Zero tolerance tends to make students and teachers reluctant to report bullying behavior because of the extreme punitive nature of a zero tolerance policy. If a student knows that his classmate will be expelled from school if she reports a bullying incident, she may hesitate to act or not act at all. And teachers may be less likely to reprimand and report a student who engages in bullying behavior if that teacher thinks the zero tolerance policy is too extreme.
Another problem with zero tolerance is that many of the children who bully (especially the younger offenders) are simply engaging in learned behavior. With early intervention, many bullies can be taught not to bully. Expelling a student for a first offense is extreme and is essentially sending the student to another school where he will likely continue the behavior.
Critics of zero tolerance policies suggest that these policies are inconsistent with healthy childhood development. Childhood is a time of growth and development, and it should be a time to practice and develop cognitive, social, and academic skills. Zero tolerance imposes harsh punishment without allowing for positive instruction, further guidance, or rehabilitation.
Graduated sanctions allow for appropriate punishments and consequences that can modify the bully's behavior. Add counseling and peer mentoring to the mix, and help can be provided for the bully (help should always be provided to the victim). The sanctions should escalate in scope and may very well end in expulsion if other, lesser sanctions have failed to correct a bully's behavior. The graduated sanctions should be clear and should be provided to every school employee, student, and parent.
Consistent Enforcement of Sanctions
It is vital that school personnel consistently enforce bullying sanctions. The sanctions will be completely ineffective if they are not enforced equally across the board. No child can be exempt from the sanctions — not the popular kids, not the athletes, not the kids who have parents working in the school system. The consequences for bullying must be enforced without discrimination. If the school fails to do this, the students will not trust in fair treatment, the program will not be successful, and bullying will continue.
Increased Supervision in Trouble Spots
Some schools are adopting district-wide definitions, policies, and sanctions regarding bullying and are including them in student, teacher, and parent handbooks. A handbook is a book or booklet that outlines information on academic, procedural, and student-affairs policies, rules, and procedures.
In every school there are certain places where bullying occurs frequently. In some schools it's the playground, in others it might be the bathrooms. If administrators can identify the most likely places bullying occurs (this can be done via anonymous student surveys), they can increase the level of supervision in these areas. It may take some creative maneuvering (and some parent volunteers), but this should be seen as a necessary and important aspect of bullying prevention.
Continued Education and Intervention
With staff turnover and a new batch of students entering the school each year, bullying prevention and education programs must be conducted on an ongoing basis. And with the national attention bullying in schools is starting to receive, there are new studies and valuable research being conducted and released on a regular basis. This new information should be incorporated into existing programs. The goal is for schools to have access to the best and most effective anti-bullying programs and be able to keep abreast of new finding, suggestions, and recommendations.