How to stop bullying in school: A research-based guide
© 2008 Gwen Dewar, all rights reserved
Bullying in school is costly to everyone.
Victims are traumatized. Bullies may become more anti-social
over time. And bystanders are affected too.
in a community that tolerates bullying is stressful, and it might
make it harder for kids to learn: In schools where bullying is
entrenched, students perform lower on standardized achievement tests
(Twemlow et al 2001).
So how can we stop bullying in school?
Consider this story.
researchers wired up primary school children with wireless microphones
and videotaped them as they played in the school yard. The researchers
collected 125 hours of observations altogether (Hawkins, Pepler and
These observations included 306 episodes of
bullying—defined as acts of aggression in which the aggressor was more
powerful than the victim. And here’s where it gets interesting.
• Most bullying episodes—88%--happened in front of peer witnesses
• Peers intervened in only 19% of these episodes
peers did intervene—speaking up or physically defending the victims—the
bullies tended to stop: 57% of the interventions clearly stopped the
bully within 10 seconds
It seems that simply taking a stand may be enough to stop a bully in his tracks.
But the Canadian study focused only on bullying incidents in progress.
Can we prevent these incidents from happening in the first place?
looked over a lot of research, and it certainly seems plausible. But
it’s not a simple problem to fix. Here is an overview of the
experimental research—what studies say about how to stop bullying in
Stop bullying in school by changing the behavior of bullies and bystanders
The Canadian study suggests that bullies like to play to an audience.
In fact, researchers have suggested that many bystanders actively
reinforce bullying—by laughing, taunting, or simply observing without
making any protests (Twemlow et al 2004).
And kids aren’t the only
bystanders who witness bullying in school. When teachers, parents, and
other adults stand by without intervening, they are passively supporting
The Twemlow program
Such observations inspired Stuart Twemlow and his fellow researchers
to develop a school-based anti-bullying program designed to change the
way both bullies and bystanders behave (Twemlow et al 1999). For full
can download the 134-page manual here.
The program helps kids become “gentle warriors," people who are
courageous, friendly, helpful, respectful, and show self-control. The
program incorporates four components:
• Creating an atmosphere of zero tolerance both for bullying and for
standing by during violent acts. This is accomplished through many
“consciousness-raising" tactics, like giving school-wide recognition to
kids who act “heroically" (e.g., by intervening on behalf of a victim).
In addition, each classroom is given a “peace banner" to display on the
classroom door. The banner may be taken down during the day if someone
engages in bullying.
• A progressive discipline plan that avoids
drastic punishments. For example, if a child bullies someone, a teacher
might remove the “peace banner" from the classroom door for the rest of
the day (a tactic that makes bullying everyone’s business). More serious
actions are taken if kids continue to misbehave.
• A physical
education plan designed to teach kids how to control their impulses
(featuring martial arts training, role playing, and anger management).
• A mentoring program for adults and kids designed to teach kids to avoid involvement in bullying.
Twemlow and colleagues tested the program in an inner city American
elementary school, disciplinary referrals for physical aggression
dropped by 50%.
In a control school matched for demographics and other variables, the rates of referrals didn’t change.
the prevalence of bullying in school had another beneficial effect: the
school in the experimental program reported higher standardized test
scores (Twemlow et al 2001).
After the same program was extended to 5 more primary schools, researchers reported similar results (Fonagy et al 2005).
Which aspect(s) of the Twemlow program were effective?
It seems that school-based programs can reduce rates of bullying in school.
But the Twemlow program includes a variety of tactics, so it’s hard to know which of these were crucial for success.
There is some independent evidence that mentoring programs help.
a study unconnected with the Twemlow program, American 4th graders who
scored low on a test of self-esteem and social “connectedness" were
assigned mentors who met with them twice a week for 90 minutes (King et
al 2002). Mentors focused on building warm, personal relationships with
the kids. They also helped kids set goals and improve their reading and
After four months, mentored kids were interviewed
again. Compared to kids in a control group, the mentored kids were less
likely to have bullied a peer in the previous 30 days (King et al
So maybe mentoring was an important component of the Twemlow program.
for the other components, they certainly sound good (at least to me).
But I haven’t found any independent tests of their effectiveness.
it's important to recognize that the success of this program may depend
on its "fit" to local cultural conditions. As I note below, another
"whole school" intervention--the Olweus program--has been successful in
Norway (Olweus 1994). But its success in some other settings, like the
multicultural United States, has been mixed.
So far, the Twemlow
program has been tested only in the United States. It's not yet clear
how it would perform elsewhere. Like the Olweus program, it might
require some "tweaking" to be effective in your local culture.
Other “whole-school" interventions: Mixed results
Researchers have tested several other “whole school" interventions—
programs similar to the Twemlow program in that they, too, tackled
bullying on multiple fronts.
Such programs may introduce new,
anti-bullying curricula, train teachers, provide anti-bullying
information to parents, offer individual counseling to kids, and adopt
new school-wide rules and sanctions against bullying.
Unfortunately, these programs have met with uncertain success.
instance, researchers Rachel Vreeland and Aaron Carroll combed the
published literature for experimental tests of school-based
When they narrowed their focus to “whole
school" interventions, they found that 7 out of 10 experimental studies
reported reduced rates of bullying.
But if you take a closer look at these “successful" programs, the results aren’t straightforward. Examples:
• One study reported decreased bullying for kids in grades 5 through 8. But kids in the lower grades actually reported more bullying (Rahey and Craig 2002).
In another study, the number of official disciplinary actions
(referrals or suspensions) might have decreased, but student-reported
rates of bullying remained the same or got worse (Metzler et al 2001).
And in yet another case, the same “whole school" intervention—-the
Olweus Bullying Prevention Program--has been tested multiple times with
very different outcomes(Olweus 1994; Roland 2000; Bauer et al 2007).
Anti-bullying videotapes, lectures, and written curricula: Not enough?
Rachel Vreeland and Aaron Carroll also reviewed studies that tested
the effects of new curricula on the rates of bullying in school.
found 10 studies that met their criteria for rigor. Of those, only 4 of
the studies reported decreased bullying. But even the “success stories"
seem doubtful, because in 3 cases bullying actually got worse for some
Does this mean that anti-bullying curricula are bad?
Not necessarily. But it suggests that--at the very least--they are
insufficient by themselves to produce major improvements.
Social skills training programs have failed—with one exception
Vreeland and Carroll (2007) identified 4 experimental studies.
Only one of these reported clear reductions in the rates of bullying after the intervention.
successful case targeted American 3rd graders who had been identified
as bullies (DeRosier et al 2004). It also treated kids suffering from
social anxiety and peer rejection. Kids were put into groups where they
practiced basic social skills, including perspective taking,
communication, and self-control. The program, called SS-GRIN (Social
Skills Group Intervention), resulted in reduced rates of aggression and
bullying as measured by peers and the bullies themselves. These results
were maintained for at least a year after the program ended (DeRosier
and Martin 2005).
Peer counseling programs may be ineffective.
A longitudinal study of British girls attending secondary school
found little evidence that peer counseling reduced bullying in school
(Houlston and Smith 2008). Over the course of a year, the girls who
acted as counselors enjoyed improved interpersonal skills. They also got
a boost in self-esteem. But overall, the rates of bullying and
victimization didn’t change.
More social workers might help...or not...
In one experimental study, two British schools—-one primary, one
secondary—-were assigned more social workers (Bagley and Pritchard
1998). After the intervention, the primary school students reported
significantly lower rates of bullying compared to controls. But bullying
in school got worse for the secondary students.
Why haven’t school-based programs been more successful?
It’s not entirely clear. The Twemlow anti-bullying program seems to
have gotten something right--at least for the American kids who've
experienced it. But it tested a whole package of reforms, so it’s hard
to know which of them were effective.
If we take a look at
failures, it might be a problem with execution. Maybe the participating
schools didn’t fully implement the proposed reforms.
It’s also possible that some programs have been poorly matched to the cultural backgrounds of the students.
The Olweus program
example, one study found that the Olweus program--which had great
success when it was first tested in Norway--produced mixed results in
the United States. The Olweus program reduced bullying in school among
white middle school students. But there was no similar effect for
students of other racial or ethnic backgrounds (Bauer et al 2007).
Perhaps the Olweus program requires a bit of cultural "tweaking" to
reach all populations.
There are other possibilities, too.
strikes me that some programs—-like programs designed to teach social
skills or “peer mediation" skills or self-esteem-building exercises—-may
be based on questionable assumptions about bullying in school.
New research suggests that
some bullies are socially-adept, confident, and popular.
So low self-esteem and poor social skills may not be the problem.
But bullies do have a distinct set of problems:
• Some bullies suffer from clinically high levels of arousal and anxiety
Bullies are likely to exhibit symptoms of psychiatric conditions, and
some are at risk of developing antisocial personality disorder
• Most bullies are quick to attribute hostile intentions to others
• Bullies are more likely to endorse Machiavellian beliefs
• Many bullies are experiencing problems—-including bullying--at home
it together, and it seems unrealistic—and unfair--to expect schools to
handle bullying problems by themselves. For more details, see this
article on addressing
the underlying causes of bullying in school.
References: How to stop bullying in school
If you're looking for a brief overview of how to stop bullying in
school, you might begin with Dan Olweus' highly influential book, Bullying at School: What we know and what we can do (Wiley-Blackwell 1993).
In addition, the references cited in this article include:
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of friendship quality as a protective factor in peer victimization and
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Bagley C and
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exclusion in at-risk youth: An experimental study of school social work
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Baldry AC. 2003. Bullying in schools and exposure to domestic violence. Child Abuse Negl. 27(7):713-32.
NS, Lozano P, and Rivara FP. 2007. The effectiveness of the Olweus
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