Long considered just another childhood rite of passage, bullying has recently come under closer scrutiny. As increasing amounts of research emerge about bullying's effects on children—some of which can be devastating—adults are paying more attention to the problem. But too often, when teachers hear about bullying, they expect youngsters to work it out on their own.

"Telling the child to solve the problem himself doesn't address how powerless he is," says Debra Pepler, professor of psychology at York University in Ontario. "By the time the child who's been targeted is distressed or courageous enough to tell a teacher, the child doing the bullying has immense power."

"The problem of bullying is in all schools," says Wendy Craig, professor of psychology at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. "If schools don't acknowledge it, they inadvertently support it. If schools don't address the problem, we know it'll get worse. It's like an infection—if you don't take steps early to stop it, it'll grow."

Systematic Bullying Prevention

Committee for Children has developed a program to help schools decrease bullying and create a safe and respectful learning climate. Titled STEPS TO RESPECT: A Bullying Prevention Program, it is designed as a proactive, systemic approach for elementary schools to deal with bullying.

The STEPS TO RESPECT program is designed to rally an entire school community—students, staff, teachers, and parents—against bullying. Says Craig, "For programs to work effectively, the whole school needs to be on board…so you have a consistent approach in dealing with problems."

William King Elementary, a Nova Scotia school that piloted the STEPS TO RESPECT program, experienced a significant change in their school climate. "Students realized the impact of bullying on people, and its seriousness," says sixth-grade teacher Shirley Everett. "We've noticed a decrease in bullying across grade levels."

The Importance of Adult Training

To ensure that staff and teachers have the information they need to take consistent and appropriate action when responding to bullying, a three-section training component is included in the program kit. "Adults need to learn how to respond appropriately to show students that they care and to build trust," says Karen Summers, an implementation specialist at Committee for Children. "The lessons teach all children to report bullying—adults need to learn to listen and coach children on how to deal with it. Children know their problems will be taken seriously when teachers take action."

The Curriculum Component

"A lot of children try out bullying in third or fourth grade," says Pepler. "Data shows that there's an increase in the prevalence of bullying in these grades, as children become aware of their position and status in the social group. This is a good time to teach children about issues of power."

Friendship Is a Buffer

Early in the program, students learn concrete skills for making and keeping friends. Research shows that having at least one friend acts as a buffer for bullying, helps students deal with it, and mitigates its harmful effects (Hodges, Boivin, Vitaro, and Bukowski, 1999).

Children are also taught conversation skills, how to join a group, and how to manage conflict between friends. They brainstorm face-saving techniques for dealing with failure when attempts at joining in play are unsuccessful, and then practice the techniques in role-plays.

Then students move on to learn about bullying. They are introduced to the "Three Rs of Responding to Bullying": recognizing, refusing, and reporting; develop an awareness of the difference between tattling and reporting bullying; and discuss the various forms that bullying can take.

Bystander Power

The vast majority of bullying occurs in the presence of other children (Craig and Pepler, 1995). This dynamic creates ample opportunities for students to apply their collective power as bystanders. "We have to make it easy for kids to intervene," says Craig. "We need to give them skills that are easy to learn, that won't decrease their status in the peer group."

The program gives children a box of tools—skill steps they can use when they're confronted with bullying. Targeted students can refuse bullying assertively or seek an adult's help. Children nearby who see a bullying incident can speak out against it or report it to an adult.

"There's tremendous potential in using bystanders to 'assist' in solving the problem. Half the time when children intervene in a bullying episode, it stops after 10 seconds. The average episode lasts 38 seconds. The more bystanders [watch and don’t intervene], the longer the bullying occurs," says Pepler.

"We noticed a very strong difference in the kids' tolerance for bullying [after teaching the program], especially when they realized their influence and responsibility as bystanders," says Everett. "The teachers pushed the point that once you ignore it you're a part of the problem."

Incorporating Academics

Following the skill lessons, children receive literature-based lessons that integrate and reinforce concepts previously introduced. These lessons fulfill both language arts and social and emotional learning objectives.

Different types of bullying appear in each of the curriculum's novels, providing rich opportunities for classroom discussions. "The novels had so much meaning for students," says Everett. "They didn't like it when we stopped reading. Even the reluctant readers were motivated." Literature is an ideal vehicle for teaching empathy. Discussing characters' lives encourages perspective taking, a skill taught throughout the curriculum.

Changing School Culture

"Denial is a powerful thing, and grown-ups don't like to think that there's bullying or harassment going on at a private school. Starting off with surveys was a powerful tool," says Assumption-St. Bridget's Berlin. This pilot school used surveys to assess student and teacher perceptions about bullying. Students at Assumption reported a much higher incidence of bullying than their teachers. "When we showed those figures to parents, it blew them away," she says.

No program will be an effective antidote to bullying unless it involves an entire school. "The challenge in implementing a program is in changing people's behaviors," says Craig. "Attitude change comes first, behavioral change is second. For behavior change, the culture has to support it."

By Lisa Walls
Committee for Children

References

Craig, W. M., and Pepler, D. J. (1995). "Peer Processes in Bullying and Victimization: An Observational Study." Exceptionality Education Canada, 5, 81–95.

Hodges, E. V. E., Boivin, M., Vitaro, F., and Bukowski, W. M. (1999). "The Power of Friendship: Protection Against an Escalating Cycle of Peer Victimization." Developmental Psychology, 35, 94–101.