The motive for bullying is to gain an unfair advantage by hurting or threatening to hurt others. Whether such an attempt succeeds or not depends on the surrounding culture. Some schools have cultures of bullying which tolerate abuse of weaker citizens by more powerful ones. Other schools create social norms and procedures to provide respect and equal opportunities. Widespread bullying is not inevitable in schools. Both the problem and solution depend on the vision and commitment of a school’s leaders.

Our two-year study of the Steps to Respect program demonstrates how a sustained commitment to creating a respectful, egalitarian culture can reduce bullying and victimization. Some of the program strategies can be used by individual teachers and administrators, although the strongest results are likely to occur as part of a school-wide effort.

About The Steps to Respect Program

The Steps to Respect program works at the school, class, and individual levels.

  • School-wide elements include leadership training for the entire staff.
  • The focus is on helping adults provide caring and ethical guidance during emotionally charged situations.
  • Manuals show how to create, implement, and communicate clear and fair policies.
  • These steps provide a practical demonstration of adult leadership, fostering the sense that school personnel can be trusted to respond effectively to bullying reports.
  • Classroom curricula in grades 3 to 6 further support adult leadership by opening a teacher-student dialogue on bullying, and providing guidelines for bystander and victim responses.
  • Instruction and practice in social-emotional skills empower students to use respectful, effective methods of self-defense and conflict resolution.

When bullying events occur, individual coaching for victims and bullies provides timely, consistent, and proportionate responses. These sessions focus on proactive measures that forestall future problems, encourage student reporting, and enact norms of civility, justice, and respect.

The Steps to Respect Program Can Work

  • We observed no increase of bullying in schools participating in the Steps to Respect Program.
  • Students who had bullied others in the fall were less likely to bully in the spring.
  • We also observed that bystanders who had previously encouraged bullying did so less often. This suggested that the culture of bullying might already be changing in the experimental schools.
  • In the second year of the program, we found an overall 34.5% decrease in bullying and victimization, and a whopping 78% decrease in destructive bystander behavior (Frey, Edstrom, & Hirschstein, 2005).    

Benefits of Coaching for Students

Although students may be punished for repeated or particularly severe infractions, the focus of coaching is to improve behavior. Steps to Respect training offers instruction and practice in how to coach students involved in bullying.

  • These brief individual sessions aim to establish facts and immediate safety needs, while empowering students to avoid future problems.
  • Coaching sessions provide practice in essential skills such as empathy, problem-solving, and assertiveness.
  • Educators remind students of school norms and that everyone shares responsibility for school safety.
  • Some schools set up procedures that help children identify their own problem behaviors and participate in creating a behavior-change plan
  • When communicating with students or parents, the focus remains on behavior, rather than a pejorative label (see Frey, Edstrom, et al., 2005, for more details).

Benefits of Coaching for Adults

 One principal completely changed his disciplinary procedure to incorporate coaching methods, liberating himself from ineffective, high-stakes punishment (Skiba, et al., 2006). With high-stakes approaches, guilt must be established beyond a reasonable doubt—a time-consuming and often frustrating process. Adults are more empowered with a positive approach, because they can work with students to help them avoid “even the appearance of bullying” before bullying habits become entrenched. Besides having more time to work on changing behavior, this principal appreciated having strategies that exemplified the program values of respect, and improvement through education.

Another advantage of the coaching method is that it demonstrates that adults will respond consistently and thoughtfully. Within bullying cultures, even victims may subscribe to widespread beliefs that bullying is inconsequential or deserved. Believing that adults will overreact may discourage reporting as much as believing that they won’t react at all (Limber & Small, 2003).

In our study, program teachers who spent at least once a week coaching students achieved positive results beyond those of their colleagues (Hirschstein, Edstrom, Frey, Snell, & MacKenzie, 2007). In these classrooms, students were less likely to encourage others to bully, less likely to respond aggressively when bullied, and less likely to be victimized.

It appears that even a little coaching, provided in the context of a multilevel intervention, enables adults to provide effective leadership while empowering students to appropriately stand up for themselves.    


Frey, K. S., Edstrom, L. V., & Hirschstein, M. K. (2005). The Steps to Respect program uses a multilevel approach to reduce playground bullying and destructive bystander behaviors. In D. L. White, M. K. Faber, & B. C. Glenn (Eds.), Persistently safe schools 2005 (pp. 47-56). Washington, DC: Hamilton Fish Institute, George Washington University. Frey, K. F., Hirschstein, M. K., Snell, J. L., Van Schoiack-Edstrom, L., MacKenzie, E. P., & Bruschi, C. J. (2005). Reducing playground bullying and supporting beliefs: An experimental trial of the Steps to Respect program. Developmental Psychology, 41, 479-491. Hirschstein, M. K., Edstrom, L. V., Frey, K. S., Snell, J. L., & MacKenzie, E. P. (2007). Walking the talk in bullying prevention: Teacher implementation variables related to initial impact of the Steps to Respect program. School Psychology Review, 36, 3-21. Limber, S. P., & Small, M. A. (2003). State laws and policies to address bullying in schools. School Psychology Review, 32, 445-455. Skiba, R., Reynolds, C. R., Graham, S., Sheras, P., Conoley, J. C., Garcia-Vazquez, E. (2006). Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools? An evidentiary review and recommendations. Retrieved June 19, 2007, from

For More on Bullying Intervention, See:

Frey, K. S., Edstrom, L. V., & Hirschstein, M. K. (in press). School bullying: A crisis or opportunity? To appear in Jimerson, S. R., Swearer, S. M., & Espelage, D. L. (Eds.), The International Handbook of School Bullying. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Learn more about the Steps to Respect program and the Committee for Children.