How to prevent bullying: An evidence-based guide

© 2008 -2014 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

How to prevent bullying?

We need to change the behavior of bystanders as well as bullies.

And we need to get more sophisticated about what causes kids to repeatedly intimidate, harass, or physically harm their less powerful peers.

Here’s an overview of what research tells us about anti-bullying strategies: What works, what doesn’t work, and what we should try next.

Figuring out how to prevent bullying in school

Experimental studies have tested a number of school-based anti-bullying strategies.

Unfortunately, many of these strategies have performed rather poorly.

For instance, programs designed to help kids improve their social skills haven’t reported much success.

Neither have programs that rely entirely on new curricula—like anti-bullying videotapes or lectures.

And recent research suggests that peer counseling programs don’t reduce rates of bullying, either.

“Whole-school" interventions—programs that battle bullying on multiple fronts—have produced better results. Schools adopt and enforce new, strict rules against bullying and follow through with consequences for those who disobey. In addition, schools may offer teacher training, new anti-bullying curricula for students, anti-bullying information for parents, and individual counseling for kids.

It sounds good, and a few “whole school" anti-bullying programs have reported impressive, lasting effects. (For details on such school-based programs, click here.)

But it’s not yet clear which aspects of the “whole school" approach are most effective, and, in fact, most whole-school interventions have produced mixed results. In some cases, the programs have failed outright. In other cases, schools were rewarded by lower rates of bullying among some groups, but increased rates of bullying for others.

Can we do better? I think so. But it will probably require a more fine-tuned understanding of bullies and the way they see the world.

Why haven’t school-based approaches been more successful?

Possibly, it reflects problems with execution: Schools might have done a poor job carrying out the new reforms.

But I wonder if there isn’t a more fundamental problem.

Maybe some of these anti-bullying programs are based on the wrong premises.

For instance, some school-based approaches seem to assume that bullies will mend their ways if they are taught social skills or conflict resolution techniques or self-confidence-building exercises.

The implication is that most bullies misbehave out of ignorance or incompetence. They victimize others because they don’t know how to make friends. They don’t know how to anticipate how their behavior will make other people feel.

And there is another implication: Teachers can change bullies by presenting them with the right lesson plans and activities.

But I don’t think these premises are correct, and I don’t think it’s realistic--or fair--to expect teachers to solve bullying problems by themselves.

Research has revealed that there are at least two types of bully:

• the “pure" bully, who is almost always the aggressor, and

• the “bully/victim," who is frequently victimized by other bullies

While they may share some traits in common, they are distinctive in other respects.

Risk factors for bullying appear early in life. A study tracking Dutch children for almost ten years found that children demonstrating aggressiveness in preschool were more likely to get involved in bullying later in life -- both as bullies and as victims (Jansen et al 2011). Another long-term study has reported that British five-year-olds with poor mental perspective-taking skills were at higher risk for involvement in bullying at age 12 (Shakoor et al 2012).

Compared to other kids, aggressive children are quick to attribute hostile intentions to other people (see Orobio de Castro et al 2002). Moreover, the effect is worsened when these kids feel bad (Orobio de Castro 2003). Research suggests that aggressive kids can learn to see the social world in less hostile terms (see below). But this requires special training, and I don’t think it’s fair to expect teachers to administer such specialized programs.

Bullies are at a greater risk for developing psychiatric disorders, including anti-social personality, a condition that is sometimes called “sociopathy" or “psychopathy." In one study, researchers screened 8-year old boys for psychiatric symptoms. Among boys who acted daily as “pure" bullies, 80% screened positive for possible psychiatric disturbance. Among bully/victims, the number was 97% (Sourander et al 2007). Again, it seems unreasonable to ask teachers to handle psychiatric problems.

Bullies may be more likely to endorse Machiavellian beliefs and to rely on rationalizations to excuse their behavior. If so, programs that emphasize peer mediation, “conflict resolution" training, or peer counseling seem inappropriate. Bullying is not about resolving disputes between equally powerful parties. It’s about harassment, intimidation, and callousness.

Some bullies—the "pure" bulliesdon’t seem to have trouble with social reasoning. They tend to be confident, and they frequently enjoy high social status. For these kids, programs aimed at improving social skills and self-esteem might be a waste of time.

Bully/victims--i.e., bullies who are also victimized by other bullies—-are more likely to suffer from anxiety and clinically high levels of arousal. In other words, these kids are unusually edgy, excited, and may be quick to overreact. One British study, almost 42% of adolescent bully/victims tested positive for abnormal levels of arousal (Woods and White 2004). High arousal levels put kids at risk for hyperactivity and attention problems, conditions that might make it harder for kids to learn in a typical classroom setting.

Bully/victims may be particularly cynical. One survey found that bully/victims were much more likely than other kids—including “pure" bullies—to endorse cheating (Glew et al 2005). Another study found that bully/victims reported the least faith in human nature (Andreou 2004). To me, this suggests that bully/victims are more likely to dismiss what their teachers tell them.

School programs may be undermined by parenting styles that encourage bullying. Child aggression has been linked authoritarian discipline—an approach that attempts to control kids through fear and the threat of harsh punishment (Espelage et al 2000). It has also been associated with inconsistent discipline and with parenting styles that are permissive about displays of aggression (Loeber and Stouthamer-Loeber 1986; Olweus 1980).

Other negative family experiences increase a child’s chances of becoming a bully Bullies are more likely to have experienced child abuse or to have witnessed domestic partner abuse (Baldry et al 2003; Bauer et al 2006). They are more likely to be bullied by their siblings (Wolke and Samara 2004) and to have mothers who are rejecting, cold, or indifferent (Olweus 1980). Moreover, bullies are more likely to have parents who believe that aggression is an acceptable way to solve personal problems.

How to prevent bullying: Evidence-based suggestions

What to do these insights suggest about how to prevent bullying? Here are some promising approaches.

Stop bullying incidents in progress and make it clear that bullying will not be tolerated.

Adults need to take a stand. Even kids can stop a bullying incident in progress.

In one study, 57% of bullying incidents on an elementary school playground ceased within 10 seconds of another child getting involved—by either verbally or physically defending the victim (Hawkins, Pepler and Craig, 2001).

Screen bullies for psychiatric conditions.

As suggested by psychiatrist and bullying researcher Andre Sourander, kids who frequently bully others should be screened for other psychological and behavioral problems (Sourander et al 2007). If bullies have psychiatric problems, they should be treated for them in an appropriate setting. Let’s stop asking teachers to perform as therapists.

Teach kids about moral disengagement.

Bullies harbor anti-social beliefs and rationalizations that make it easier for them to behave in cruel or callous ways.

Bullies may also suffer from disillusionment about human nature.

And everybody, including kids and adult bystanders, might rely on mechanisms of moral disengagement to avoid getting involved and speaking up for victims.

If we’re going to introduce new curricula to the schools, perhaps these curricula should emphasize ethics.

For more details, see this article about Machiavellian beliefs and implications for how to prevent bullying.

Help aggressive kids re-interpret the apparently “hostile" intentions of others.

Research suggests that it can be done. In a controlled, experimental study, primary school boys were enrolled in a training program designed to teach kids to avoid attributing hostile intentions to peers.

After the intervention, boys who had been identified as aggressive showed marked improvements. Teachers rated them as less aggressive, and, when tested, the boys were less likely to assume hostile intentions in ambiguous situations (Hudley and Graham 1993).

Stress management

Research has identified effective relaxation therapies and stress management techniques. Bully/victims with clinically high levels of arousal might benefit from them.

Promote helpful parenting practices

Authoritarian parenting seeks to enforce a kind of unthinking obedience. It also features punishments that may seem overly harsh or arbitrary.

By contrast, authoritative parenting encourages kids to regulate their own behavior. It’s about setting clear limits, explaining the reasons behind the rules, being responsive, and treating kids as independent, rational, cooperative family members.

In one study, kids who perceived their parents as authoritative were less likely to bully their peers (Rican et al 1993). And a recent meta-analysis of studies published between and 2012 found that warm, communicative, involved parenting had a small-to-moderate protective effect against the development of bullying behavior (Lereya et al 2013).

Encourage family counseling.

Studies suggest that some forms of family counseling—sessions that address how to improve communication between family members—may help reform adolescents who bully. After 12 weeks of a program called "brief strategic family therapy" (BSFT), kids report fewer acts of bullying and less anger. They may even have changed their patterns of stress hormone secretion (Nickel et al 2005; Nickel et al 2006).

Protect kids from trauma, abuse, and bullying at home.

The more kids get abused or experience other adverse life events, the more likely they are to develop anti-social personalities.

So not only is protecting kids a matter of morality, it's also a way to disrupt the cycle of violence.

References: How to prevent bullying

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