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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Research has revealed that there are at least two types of bully:
who is almost always the aggressor, and
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" bullies—don’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
• 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
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.
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.
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).
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
seeks to enforce a kind of unthinking obedience. It also features punishments that may seem overly harsh or arbitrary.
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.
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Content of "How to prevent bullying" last modified 3/14
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