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What Makes Anti-Bullying Programs Effective?

How can schools get the anti-bullying message across to students?

Bullying is still a major problem faced by children and adolescents around the world.

While not all bullying victims are willing to come forward, U.S. studies indicate that 28 percent of students in grades six to 12 report experiencing bullying in some form with 30 percent admitting to bullying others. Children and adolescents become bullying targets for a wide variety of reasons, though race, ethnic background, appearance, or sexual orientation appear to be the most common.

According to U.S. surveys, more than 70 percent of all students report seeing some sort of bullying in their schools with 41 percent reporting seeing it on a weekly basis. Whether it takes the form of verbal threats, physical intimidation, emotional pressure, or cyberbullying, the mental health problems stemming from being victimized can last a lifetime. Along with substance abuse, depression, and other emotional problems, bullying has also been linked to adolescent suicide and trouble with the law as bullying victims attempt to strike back at their tormentors.

In recent years, we've seen more calls for action to protect children and adolescents from bullying, including laws against bullying in some jurisdictions as well as "zero-tolerance policies" adopted by many schools to protect students. As a result, programs designed to curb bullying through education are also becoming more popular.

For example, the Ontario Ministry of Education has launched PREVnet (Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network) to establish Safe Schools Teams across the province. Using biennial surveys to measure school climate for incidents of bullying, the teams plan out anti-bullying activities as well as conducting a Bullying Awareness and Prevention week each year. Other programs encourage students to intervene when they see a child being bullied in school or in their neighbourhood.

But how effective are these programs? One recent meta-analysis suggests that anti-bullying programs work best for younger students but, for students in grade eight or above, may actually be counterproductive. Most studies indicate that the actual benefits of these programs may be small at best and that their overall impact may not be as great as schools hope.

A new study published in the journal Psychology of Violence examines the effectiveness of anti-bullying programs from the perspective of the students themselves. A team of researchers, led by Charles E. Cunningham of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, conducted focus groups of elementary and middle-schools students in grades five through eight. The 38 boys and 59 girls in the study were placed in smaller focus groups to examine their own impressions of anti-bullying programs and how effective they are in getting their message across. All students came from Ontario schools and were familiar with PREVnet and anti-bullying guidelines in their own schools. To encourage all students to participate, the focus groups were broken down by age and gender.

In these focus groups, the students often reported that the posters and teacher presentations used to educate students about bullying tended not to be helpful in engaging students, especially if students found it boring. As one grade eight girl pointed out, “It’s just one person at the front talking and it just gets boring. So like, a big, school-wide assembly doesn’t really work." Another theme that came up fairly often was that many of the anti-bullying presenters "kept saying the same things over and over" leading students to "tune out" the message over time. One grade eight girl said that "after you read [posters] like four times, you really don't want to read them anymore."

Students also report problems with negatively worded anti-bullying messages which flatly told them what not to do. Messages such as "don't be a bully" and "bullying is wrong" are often ignored by students who face the regular challenges of their daily lives. An even bigger issue stems from the actual credibility of the people delivering the anti-bullying message. If a teacher or principal delivering the anti-bullying presentation is seen as "not caring" or unwilling to follow through with punishment for bullies, there is little motivation for bullies to stop. Outside presenters coming into schools to deliver anti-bullying presentations are especially likely to be ignored since students have no prior relationship with them and have no way of judging whether those presenters should be believed.

The effectiveness of anti-bullying programs can be undermined in other ways as well. Since bullying is often seen as something that only affects "younger kids," older students often appear visibly bored during anti-bullying presentations, something that younger students see and imitate. Other students, including the ones who are prone to bullying behaviour, might actively try disrupting the presentation since the message makes them uncomfortable. Even afterward, they try discrediting the speaker or the presentation by dismissing what was said as "stupid." Some students even try disrupting the anti-bullying activities directly. There may even be an increase in bullying if bullies choose to rebel against the message being presented by teachers. Many of the students in the focus groups mentioned seeing bullying taking place as a direct response to the anti-bullying activities organized by schools.

Ultimately, what really determines whether anti-bullying programs are effective is how well the anti-bullying guidelines are followed in schools. If there aren't enough teachers to keep watch or if students get a sense that their accusations of bullying are not going to be believed or acted upon, then nothing is likely to change. There is also the fear of retaliation that many bullying victims often go through even if the bully has been punished. Typically, the only real punishment bullies receive is either suspension or detention which is usually not effective in making students feel safer. This is especially true for students facing racial, sexual, or homophobic harassment. Since these bullies are rarely removed from school except in the most extreme cases, victims continue to face these bullies on a regular basis. The acid test of any anti-bullying program is how well these kinds of challenges are dealt with.

Based on their focus group research, Charles Cunningham and his co-authors make the following recommendations:

  • In designing effective anti-bullying programs, schools need to avoid the kind of negative message that students are likely to tune out. This means using more positively focused motivational messages that are aimed at encouraging students to stand up for themselves. All anti-bullying presentations need to be carefully tested out on students of different ages to see how they respond and to make changes as needed before widespread use.
  • Schools carrying out anti-bullying activities need to be especially vigilant in dealing with any kind of disruptive behaviour and to encourage students to be as involved as possible.
  • Schools need to be more careful in monitoring for bullying behaviour, before and especially after anti-bullying activities. Teachers need to be aware that bullying may well become after an anti-bullying presentation and extra vigilance is more important than ever.
  • Any report of bullying needs to be dealt with as promptly as possible to encourage students to come forward when they are bullied. Schools also need to respond to bullying complaints in a fair and impartial manner. Students need to be shown that bullying of any kind has real consequences and that victims of bullying will be protected.
  • Ministries and school boards need to ensure that teachers and school staff have the resources they need to pursue bullying complaints. Since many teachers complain that competing work demands make them less able to deal with bullying, schools need to recognize that anti-bullying activities take priority over other teacher responsibilities.

The problem of bullying will likely always be with us and changes in telecommunications are making some forms of bullying easier than ever. Cyberbullying is becoming an epidemic problem, especially since much of this kind of bullying can be done anonymously.

Much of the racist, sexist, and homophobic harassment that many students experience is often ignored by schools, especially if it reflects attitudes found in the larger community. Victims of bullying and the bullies themselves need to learn that this kind of intimidation will not be tolerated. Ignoring the problem won't make it go away.

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