Who can stop bullying? Not just parents and teachers, argue Ken Rigby and Bruce Johnson.
Bullying in schools is now widely recognized as a serious social problem that must be addressed if we care about the well-being of bullied children. Thus far, however, attempts to reduce bullying in schools have largely failed.
A 2004 comprehensive evaluation of the effectiveness of anti-bullying programs in schools around the world (Bullying in Schools: How Successful Can Interventions Be? edited by Peter K. Smith, Debra Pepler, and Ken Rigby) found that achievements so far have been modest at best. In some cases, the interventions have been totally unsuccessful. Why have anti-bullying programs met with so little success? We suggest two important reasons.
The first is that educators have concentrated on encouraging teachers and counselors to watch what is happening and take strong disciplinary action when bullying has occurred. Unfortunately, school authorities are commonly unaware of what is going on. This is not to blame them. It is simply to recognize that bullying goes on in the company of peers and rarely in the company of teachers. Children see it happening, but the teachers do not. Only occasionally do students tell.
The second reason why anti-bullying programs often fail is because they are not effectively supported by children. One of the startling facts to emerge from the research into children's behavior in recent years has been the almost ubiquitous presence of other children when bullying takes place in schools. We can no longer conceive of bullying at school as a covert activity, engaged in guiltily when there is no one around. On the contrary, research has found that school bullies glory in the presence of an audience. It provides theater. To a remarkable extent, the watchers either enjoy the spectacle or watch in a curious but largely disengaged manner. The few who may object are in a small minority.
Yet some do object. And here is another remarkable fact. On those rare occasions when a witness does object to bullying, there is a good chance that the bullying will stop. Indeed, several researchers have reported that bystander objections effectively discourage bullying at least half the time.
Educators are now beginning to think that promoting positive bystander intervention may be a more effective way to counter bullying. To succeed, anti-bullying programs must enlist the support of children. But, as we have noted, children typically just stand by and watch bullying take place. Why don't they act? More to the point, how can they be encouraged to act and to act effectively? We need to know what students typically do when they're bystanders in the presence of bullying, and why.
In our own research, we set out to cast some light on children's motives by showing them a video of different kinds of bullying, then asking them what they would do in each situation. We found that while a small proportion would support the bullying and many would ignore it, a substantial number of children believed they would act to support the victim. Their good intentions which ranged from simple moral justifications to the desire for reciprocal benefit to feelings of empathy or close identification with the victim can be encouraged and lever- aged to help stop bullying.
We now have useful insights into what children think and are prepared to do when they witness bullying in the school playground. This knowledge can help us to devise more effective ways of addressing the problem, such as catalyzing classroom discussions about bullying and rehearsing with students what they might say when they see bullying take place. In these ways, we might influence bystanders to act more positively in the face of bullying.
Reprinted with the permission of the Greater Good Science Center.
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