How to stop bullying in school: An evidence-based guide to interventions that work

© 2008-2019 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.

Living in a community that tolerates bullying is stressful, and it might make it harder for kids to learn.

Researchers have found that kids earn higher grades when they attend schools characterized by a friendly, cooperative atmosphere -- a school climate where students "help each other, even if they are not friends" (Wang et al 2014).

By contrast, kids who perceive a climate of bullying feel less engaged at school (Mehta et al 2013), and their academic performance may suffer (Twemlow et al 2001).

So how can we stop bullying in school?

Consider this story.

Canadian 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 Craig, 2001).

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.
  • When 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.

The lesson?

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?

Looking over the research, it's seems possible. 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 school.

Nipping it in the bud: A school-wide approach

The Canadian study suggests that bullies like to play to an audience. In fact, this may be key to their motivation. Bystanders encourage bullying when they observe without protest (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 bullies.

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). 

Called CAPSLE, ("Creating a Peaceful School Learning Environment"), the program helps kids become “gentle warriors," people who are courageous, friendly, helpful, respectful, and show self-control. The program incorporates these elements:

1. Creating a positive climate in the classroom, and teaching 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), and displaying a "peace banner" outside each classroom. In addition, parents are offered workshops for using positive discipline.

2. Training teachers in classroom management and the use of positive discipline.

Teachers are taught concrete tactics of positive discipline, which you can read about in this evidence-based guide to positive parenting. The emphasis is on reinforcing desirable behavior, rather than punishing disruptive behavior. When teachers observe aggressive behavior, they intervene promptly, following a progressive discipline plan that avoids drastic punishments and shaming.

3. A physical education plan designed to teach kids how to control their impulses and take specific action against bullies.

Students receive martial arts training that emphasizes anger management, self control, and role playing to learn concrete methods to de-escalate conflicts.

4. A mentoring program designed to teach kids to avoid involvement in bullying.

Community volunteers patrol school corridors and playgrounds, monitoring children and acting as mediators. They enter into games with kids (during recess) and actively coach kids in conflict resolution.

After 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.

Reducing 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 element(s) of the CAPSLE program were effective?

Twemlow and his colleagues tested a whole package of anti-bullying measures, so it’s hard to know which of these were crucial for success. But analysis by Maria Ttofi and David Farrington suggests some answers. 

The researchers reviewed decades of research, and focused on the most rigorous tests of anti-bullying programs (Ttofi and Farrington 2011).

What did the most effective anti-bullying school programs have in common?

Four features stood out:

  • parent training in conflict resolution
  • improved playground supervision
  • firm disciplinary sanctions against students who bully
  • teacher training and classroom management

So it appears that that parents and teachers -- trained in positive discipline methods -- can make a difference.

There is also evidence that close, warm adult-child relationships can help.

We know, for instance, that positive, supportive teacher-student relationships buffer the effects of toxic stress.

Can they also reduce the rate of bullying? That seems possible. In a study of U.S. middle schools, researchers found that bullying was less prevalent when teachers reported positive teacher-student relationships (Espelage et al 2014).

In addition, there's reason to think that kids benefit from mentoring -- engaging in warm, personal relationships with older role models.

For example, a small study of troubled 4th graders may have reduced bullying rates by assigning kids to twice-weekly sessions with a friendly, older person. 

The mentors were trained to build warm, close relationships with their kids. They were also trained to help kids build skills relevant to succeeding in school. 

The kids were tested before and after enrolling in the program, and compared with kids in a control group. After four months, the mentored children were less likely to report having bullied a peer in the previous 30 days (King et al 2002).

These results are consistent with a very large, correlational study. Reviewing the progress of more than 65,000 school children in the United States, researchers found that children without mentors had twice the odds of bulling other kids (Azuine and Singh 2019).

But not all school interventions succeed

For example, the Olweus program is a "whole school" anti-bullying intervention developed and tested in Norway (Olweus 1994). It has had great success in its home country (Olweus et al 2019), and it has reduced rates of bullying in some American schools (e.g., Limber et al 2018).

Yet some attempts to implement the program have failed (e.g., Bauer et al 2007).

In addition, research suggests that certain types of intervention haven't been very effective, not on their own.

For instance, when researchers Rachel Vreelman and Aaron Carroll combed the published literature for rigorous tests of school-based interventions, they found little evidence that anti-bullying curricula -- video programs, lectures, and written materials -- were helpful. Only 4 out of 10 studies reported decreases in bullying (Vreeman and Carroll 2007). 

Why do school-based interventions fail?

It's important to recognize that the success of the CAPSLE program, and other school programs, may depend on a good "fit" to local cultural conditions. Perhaps the Olweus program requires a bit of cultural "tweaking" to reach kids in the United States. 

It also depends on the dosage: Programs fare better when they are intensive and long-lasting (Ttofi and Farrington 2011; Menesini and Salmivalli 2017).

And in some cases, teachers may fail to enforce zero tolerance, or actually engage in bullying themselves. When teachers think of bullying as a normal phase of childhood, they are less likely to reprimand aggressive students, and bullying becomes more prevalent (Troop-Gordon and Ladd 2015). Likewise, kids are more likely to bully each other when the observe teachers bullying students (Oldenburg et al 2015).

So perhaps some anti-bullying programs falter because teachers aren't following through, or setting a good example. 

Finally, we probably need to do a better job of addressing the distinctive psychology of bullies.

Some bullies suffer from clinically high levels of arousal and anxiety, and they are quick to attribute hostile intentions to others. These kids are at high risk for developing serious psychiatric conditions.

Other bullies are socially-adept, confident, and popular.  They are lacking in social skills and self-esteem. But they may have other problems. Studies suggest they are more likely than other kids to endorse cynical, harsh, Machiavellian beliefs. 

Can more targeted interventions do a better job of reducing bullying in school? I suspect so. For more details, see this article on addressing the underlying, psychological 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:

Azuine RE and Singh GK. 2019. Mentoring, bullying, and educational outcomes among US school-aged children 6-17 Years. J Sch Health. 2019 Feb 7.

Bollmer JM, Milich R, Harris MJ, and Maras MA. 2005. A friend in need: the role of friendship quality as a protective factor in peer victimization and bullying. J Interpers Violence. 20(6):701-12.

Bagley C and Pritchard C. 1998. The reduction of program behaviours and school exclusion in at-risk youth: An experimental study of school social work with cost-benefit analysis. Child Fam Soc Work 3: 219-226.

Baldry AC. 2003. Bullying in schools and exposure to domestic violence. Child Abuse Negl. 27(7):713-32.

Bauer NS, Lozano P, and Rivara FP. 2007. The effectiveness of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program in public middle schools: a controlled trial. J Adolesc Health. 2007 Mar;40(3):266-74.

DeRosier ME. 2004. Building relationships and combating bullying: effectiveness of a school-based social skills group intervention. J Clin Child Adolesc Psychol. 33(1):196-201.

Espelage DL, Polanin JR, Low SK. 2014. Teacher and staff perceptions of school environment as predictors of student aggression, victimization, and willingness to intervene in bullying situations. Sch Psychol Q. 29(3):287-305.

Fonagy P, Twemlow SW, Vernberg E, Sacco FC, and Little TD. 2005. Creating a peaceful school learning environment: the impact of an antibullying program on educational attainment in elementary schools. Med Sci Monit. 11(7):CR317-25.

Hawkins DL, Pepler DJ, and Craig WM. 2001. Naturalistic observations of peer interventions in bullying. Social Development 10(4): 512-527.

Houlston C and Smith PK. 2008. The impact of a peer counselling scheme to address bullying in an all-girl London secondary school: A short-term longitudinal study. Br J Educ Psychol. 2008 Apr 23.

Hudley C and Graham S. 1993. An attributional intervention to reduce peer-directed aggression among African-American boys. Child Dev. 64(1):124-38.

King KA, Vidourek RA, Davis B, and McClellan W. 2002. Increasing self-esteem and school connectedness through through a multidimensional mentoring program. J Sch Health. 72(7):294-9.

Limber SP, Olweus D, Wang W, Masiello M, Breivik K. 2018. Evaluation of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program: A large scale study of U.S. students in grades 3-11. J Sch Psychol. 69:56-72.

Mehta SB, Cornell D, Fan X, Gregory A. 2013. Bullying climate and school engagement in ninth-grade students. J Sch Health. 83(1):45-52.

Melzer C, Bigian A, Rusby J, and Sprague J. 2001. Evaluation of a comprehensive behavior management program to improve school-wide positive behavior support. Educ Treat Child 24: 448-479.

Menesini E and Salmivalli C. 2017. Bullying in schools: the state of knowledge and effective interventions Psychology, Health & Medicine 22(sup1):1-14

Nickel MK, Muehlbacher M, Kaplan P, Krawczyk J, Buschmann W, Kettler C, Rother N, Egger C, Rother WK, Loew TK, and Nickel C. 2006. Influence of family therapy on bullying behaviour, cortisol secretion, anger, and quality of life in bullying male adolescents: A randomized, prospective, controlled study. Can J Psychiatry. 51(6):355-62.

Nickel M, Luley J, Krawczyk J, Nickel C, Widermann C, Lahmann C, Muehlbacher M, Forthuber P, Kettler C, Leiberich P, Tritt K, Mitterlehner F, Kaplan P, Pedrosa Gil F, Rother W, and Loew T. 2006. Bullying girls - changes after brief strategic family therapy: a randomized, prospective, controlled trial with one-year follow-up. Psychother Psychosom. 75(1):47-55.

Oldenburg B, van Duijn M, Sentse M, Huitsing G, van der Ploeg R, Salmivalli C, Veenstra R. 2015. Teacher characteristics and peer victimization in elementary schools: a classroom-level perspective. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 43(1):33-44.

Olweus D. 1994. Bullying at school: basic facts and effects of a school based intervention program. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 35: 1171-1190.

Orobio de Castro B, Slot NW, Bosch JD, Koops W, and Veerman JW. 2003. Negative feelings exacerbate hostile attributions of intent in highly aggressive boys. J Clin Child Adolesc Psychol. 32(1):56-65.

Orobio de Castro B, Veerman JW, Koops W, Bosch JD, and Monshouwer HJ. 2002. Hostile attribution of intent and aggressive behavior: a meta-analysis. Child Dev. 73(3):916-34.

Rahey L and Craig W. 2002. Evaluation of an ecological program to reduce bullying in schools. Can J Counseling 36: 281-296.

Ttofi MM and Farrington DP. 2011. Effectiveness of school-based programs to reduce bullying: a systematic and meta-analytic review. Journal of Experimental Criminology 7: 22-56.

Troop-Gordon W, Ladd GW. 2015. Teachers' victimization-related beliefs and strategies: associations with students' aggressive behavior and peer victimization. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 43(1):45-60.

Twemlow SW, Fonagy P, and Sacco FC. 2004. The role of the bystander in the social architecture of bullying and violence in schools and communities. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 1036:215-32.

Twemlow SW, Fonagy P, Sacco FC, Gies ML, Evans R and Ewbank R. 2001. Creating a peaceful school learning environment: a controlled study of an elementary school intervention to reduce violence. Am J Psychiatry 158: 808-810.

Twemlow, SW, Sacco FC, and Twemlow S. 1999. Creating a Peaceful School Learning Environment: A Training Program for Elementary Schools. Agawam, MA: T & S Publishing.

Wang W, Vaillancourt T, Brittain HL, McDougall P, Krygsman A, Smith D, Cunningham CE, Haltigan JD, Hymel S. 2014. School climate, peer victimization, and academic achievement: results from a multi-informant study. Sch Psychol Q. 29(3):360-377.

Vreeman RC and Carroll AE. 2007. and A Systematic Review of School-Based Interventions to Prevent Bullying Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 161(1):78-88.

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Title image by Jessica Pereira / flickr


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