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.

Living 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.

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?

I’ve 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 school.

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 bullies.

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 details, you 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.

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 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.

In 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 writing skills.

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 2002).

So maybe mentoring was an important component of the Twemlow program.

As for the other components, they certainly sound good (at least to me). But I haven’t found any independent tests of their effectiveness.

And 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.

For instance, researchers Rachel Vreeland and Aaron Carroll combed the published literature for experimental tests of school-based anti-bullying programs.

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.

They 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 students.

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.

The 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

For 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.

It 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

Put 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:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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