Anti-Bullying Programs; Do They Really Work?

Anti-Bullying Programs; Do They Really Work?

Given that not all attempts have achieved results in terms of reductions in bullying behaviors, it is legitimate to question these programs. Some programs have succeeded in one place and failed in another. There are a few wrong-headed ideas out there, and some conflicting evidence. So what can we be confident about?

Students are bullied when they are repeatedly the targets of negative treatment by others without justification. This treatment may be physical violence or verbal intimidation and insults, or it may be relational bullying. Relational bullying includes spreading rumours and excluding someone from a group (Olweus and Limber, 2010, 125, Beaudoin and Roberge, 2015, 322-3).

Why do some kids bully others? It is all about control, identity and belonging. Bullies tend to be poor students and lack empathy. They often misinterpret unwanted outcomes as being someone else’s fault (Merrell et al. 2008, 26-7). Thus, they do not have an identity as a popular person or a good student. For such people, bullying can be a way to lash out or to change the agenda and become the centre of attention. The later motivation is why child bystanders are encouraged to ‘‘take away the attention that serves as oxygen maintaining the flame of disrespectful behavior.’’ (Ross 2009, 753)

Not being part of the inner circle of successful students, or if they are, not being confident of remaining in the inner circle, various dynamics around belonging come into play. Bullies may try to push another student out of the group by excluding them or attacking them on some other identity issue such as appearance or ethnicity. They may seek to develop an alternative circle of approving “henchmen” and supporters (Olweus and Limber, 2010, 125). A study in Norway found that Norwegian-born boys bullied to dominate others, while immigrant bully boys sought to create good relationships with the native bullies – an odd way to “belong” (Fandrem et al., 2009, 918).

Bullied children can suffer from “elevated levels of depression, anxiety, poor self-esteem, social isolation, psychosomatic problems, and suicidal ideation” (Olweus and Limber, 2010, 126). Without any helpful intervention, they are at risk for a range of problems in adult life. In Norway, 55% of former school bullies had at least one criminal conviction by the age of 24 years, and 36% had three or more convictions (Olweus, 2013, 769). In adult life, the victims become “overconsumers” of society’s health and social support systems (Olweus, 2013, 770, Olweus and Limber, 2010, 131).

Mixed results

How then, will we prevent this problem? There is good reason to suspect that we are not doing a very good job in North America. What evidence do we have? Instead of referring to isolated studies, consider what we find in the following meta-analyses.

First of all, you may have already noticed a number of references to “Norway” and “Olweus.” This is because Dan Olweus and the Olweus Bullying Prevention Programme (OBPP) is the gold standard in bully prevention. This was a response to an incident in 1983 when three adolescent boys committed suicide after having been bullied (Olweus and Limber, 2010, 126). The American programs received more attention at a later date; after the Columbine shootings in 1999. When looking at the effectiveness of anti-bullying efforts, we need to keep the American/Scandinavian distinction in mind.

Indeed, while noting that the majority of North American programs are based on the OBPP, Swearer et al. found inconsistent results outside Scandinavia (2010, 42). In agreement, Merrell et al. also found that the solid evidence for results in this continent was limited to “enhancing students social competence, self-esteem, and peer acceptance; in enhancing teachers knowledge of effective practices, feelings of efficacy regarding intervention skills.” Note that these results, while good, are all internal states of being and not about bully behavior. Merrell et al. found that the effects of programs on bullying “across studies were too weak to be considered meaningful” (2008, 38-9). Likewise, Bradshaw et al. found that the effect on behavioral violations “did not reach statistical significance” (2010, 139).

For a meta-analysis that did find decreases in bullying, we can look to Ttofi & Farrington. What is significant here is that their survey of studies was not limited to those in English and so included studies from Scandinavia. Their study found average decreases in bullying of over 20% (2011, 27).

Even within Norway, there are variations. The pilot program was done in the Bergen region, and saw “a remarkable decrease of about 50% in the rate of bullying 1 and 2 years after the campaign was started” (Roland, 2000, 137). That initial program was done with broad participation and even national media attention. Yet over in the Rogaland region and with the same program design, bullying had been found to have increased slightly 3 years into the campaign (Ibid.).

Against this big picture of very mixed results we can consider what works and what does not. It will be easier to start with explanations for these mixed results and some specific mistakes to avoid as a way to prepare the ground for the positive recommendations.

The meta-analyses remain much more significant than any single study. However, they also yield result descriptions that are averaged across studies of various anti-bullying efforts. If we suppose that some of those programs were well done while others were not, we would expect middling average results at best (Ertesvåg and Roland, 2015, 210). If we can tease out the negative influences, we can learn how to proceed and regain our confidence that anti-bullying programs can and do work.

What does not work

Of course half-hearted attempts, short-term programs, efforts without whole-school support, and lack of intervenor training and support will doom any program. But are there elements that have been tried in good faith that actually backfire? There are two.

One aspect that needs to be carefully handled is peer intervention. At least for students younger than university age, peer mediation and peer mentoring are not recommended (Ttofi and Farrington, 2011, 43, Olweus and Limber, 2010, 131). Students should instead be encouraged to seek help. Group treatments for bullies – getting them all together in one place – is completely counterproductive (Merrell et al. 2008, 39).

The second element to avoid is a zero-tolerance policy. Some people interpret this to mean that bullying will not be ignored, which is perfectly sensible. However, “zero-tolerance” refers to a system of automatic suspensions applied regardless of the circumstances or the seriousness of the act. As such, zero-tolerance policies do nothing to help the bully (Cornell and Limber, 2015, 338).

What Works

We can profit from the developments with the OBPP in Norway, the KiVa in Finland and WITS in Canada specifically, and use those results as an indicator of the potential benefits in general. First of all, we can note the systemic differences between Norwegian schools and many North American schools. Norwegian schools tend to be of high overall quality, with small classes and well-trained teachers (Ttofi and Farrington, 2011, 46). Relative to Canada, there are relatively homogeneous student populations, reducing intersections with language, race and ethnicity (Juvonen and Graham, 2014, 172). Whole-school approaches to bullying are used there.

The initial results in the Bergen region of Norway with OBPP were strong, with a 62% reduction in reports of being bullied and a 33% reduction in the bullying of other students after just eight months of intervention. There were also “reductions in self-reports of general antisocial behavior (vandalism, theft, and truancy) and improvements in the social climate of the class, including improvements in students’ satisfaction with school life, improved order and discipline, more positive social relationships, and a more positive attitude toward school. A number of possible alternative explanations of the positive findings were considered but ruled out as highly unlikely (Olweus and Limber, 2010, 126).

The OBPP program seeks to reduce opportunities and rewards for engaging in bullying and to build a sense of community among students and adults within the school environment. These elements are shared with KiVa and WITS as we will see. “The OBPP is based on four key principles. Adults at school (and ideally, at home) should (a) show warmth and positive interest in their students; (b) set firm limits to unacceptable behavior; (c) use consistent nonphysical, nonhostile negative consequences when rules are broken; and (d) function as authorities and positive role models” (Olweus and Limber, 2010, 126). Students take ownership and are asked to create their own rules about bullying (Juvonen and Graham, 2014, 171).

Note that this program is taken seriously in Norway. Instructors get 11 days of training and ongoing consultation with experts (Olweus and Limber, 2010, 129). Even in the US there are 5 days of intensive training (Ibid., 130). In Finland and Norway, the programs roll out from the federal governments which pay for them and evaluate the quality of their execution.


WITS, Walk Away, Ignore, Talk It Out, and Seek Help, is a “noteworthy program” for grades 1 to 3 that was created by Bonnie Leadbeater at the University of Victoria (Juvonen and Graham, 2014, 172-3). This program also creates shared norms for expected behaviors early on. Aspects of the program are integrated with existing curricula. There are components for parents as well. In the annual startup, prominent figures in the community, such as police or firefighters, conduct a ceremony with the children (Leadbeater and Sukhawathanakul, 2011, 608). This program has resulted in a 31% decline in physical bullying and a 28% decrease in relational bullying (Ibid., 615). There is also a program for grades 4 to 6 called LEADS (Look and listen, Explore points of view, Act, Did it work? Seek help).


KiVa stands for “kiusaamista vastaan” which means against bullying. Not all the research about this Finnish program is available in English, but you can learn about KiVa international at  There are lessons for everyone as well as specific interventions when bullying occurs. Those interventions address everyone involved; bullies, victims and bystanders. The attention to bystanders is important (Juvonen and Graham, 2014, 172-3). As with sexual harassment, bystanders are an important part of the bullying dynamic. By giving attention to the bully in laughing, cheering, or fighting back, bystanders typically feed the bad behavior and give the bully the attention he or she seeks (Ross 2009, 751, Richard et al., 2011, 265). When the children seek the help of an adult, the bully receives a just portion of attention in being asked about the reason for the behavior and being coached on ways conflicts may be resolved. Support is given in both sides of the conflict, as with the WITS program.

Dating violence

The meta-analysis of DeGue et al. found two programs against dating violence to be effective; Safe Dates and Shifting Boundaries (2014, 352). Note that some authors have reported that there were no significant differences in dating violence between adolescents who did the Safe Dates program and those who didn’t a year afterward (Cooper et al., 2013, 365). This comment comes from only one study (Foshee et al., 2000, 1621). We need to consider a later study done with three of the same researchers. The later study reported less psychological abuse, and less moderate physical and sexual dating violence (Foshee et al., 2005, 255). It did note that Safe Dates did not prevent or reduce psychological victimization or severe physical victimization (Ibid., 256). However, the authors found the program warranted and effective even three years post treatment (Ibid.).

Cyber bullying

One Canadian study said that 25% of students had reported having been victims of cyberbullying, while the Canadian Institute of Health Research (2012) reported the level at 33% (Beaudoin and Roberge, 2015, 322-3). At first sight, one might think that cyberbullying has used ubiquitous technology to victimize thousands more young people, but that is not likely the case. In both Norway and the US, Olweus found that 90% of students who experienced cyberbullying were already being bullied in conventional ways (Olweus, 2013, 767). Fortunately, Salmivalli and Pöyhönen 2011, found, in studying the KiVa project, that what works to reduce bullying tends to reduce cyberbullying as well (Ibid., 769).

Students can be made less vulnerable to cyberbullying by teaching them of the dangers. Any gain in their understanding of the threat – its severity and their vulnerability, or how to cope – what to do and their ability to do it, will all help. Of course children are naïve and adolescents have an optimistic bias, so we cannot bank on them understanding their vulnerability. The point is that gains in any area will help; it is not a chain undermined by the weak link of underestimated vulnerability (Lwin et al. 2012, 33). Some basic guidance can go a long way. In a Toronto study of 33 schools, grades 6, 7, 10 and 11, one third of participants had given their online passwords to friends, and only one-quarter of participants accurately stated that content uploaded online cannot be completely deleted (Mishna et al. 2010, 10).


The better results seen in Norway relative to the US raise the question of whether the overall climate in a school might have an effect on bullying. Indeed, the connection between school climate and rates of bullying has been well established by research (Beaudoin and Roberge, 2015, 322, Ertesvåg and Roland, 2015, 197-8). Good climate includes the quality of the interpersonal relationships, the teaching methods and less hierarchical, more collaborative structure for staff (Ertesvåg and Roland, 2015, 198). The commitment and positive attitudes of the school administrators are required for success. Starting a program with a student survey can help with this by serving as an ‘‘eye opener’’ (Olweus and Limber, 2010, 130-1). Still, the message that reducing bullying requires a culture change that impacts everyone’s behaviors can be hard for many to hear (Ibid., 131).

Relationship with the teacher

In schools where teachers spend the entire day with their class, they are the single most important factor for bully prevention. Of course the relationships between the children and all the adults they encounter make a difference (Roland, 2000, 142). The teacher/student relationship remains paramount, and it is the one that teachers can directly do something about.

Fortunately, what is required is entirely consistent with being a good educator and practicing classroom management. There are four conditions required to facilitate learning; emotional and physical safety, connectedness, authentic challenges, and a responsible peer climate (Osher et al. 2010, 53). These conditions are supported by; positive behavioral support, supportive relationships, engaging and supportive teaching, and Social Emotional Learning (SEL). SEL incorporates approaches that emphasize self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making (Ibid., 50). Positive behavioral support (BPS mentioned above) involves defining and teaching a common set of positive behavioral expectations, acknowledging and rewarding expected behavior, and establishing and using consistent consequences for problem behavior (Ibid.). With this kind of support, students are in the best situation to absorb new ideas and information. The support in the form of a mutually respectful teacher/student relationship also creates trust and respect for authority, not as policing, but as a legitimacy to lead (Vaaland and Ertesvåg, 2013 in Ertesvåg and Roland, 2015, 197).

The teaching relationships that foster learning and respect for the legitimacy of a teacher’s authority have a large role in contributing to a climate that reduces bullying. Person-centered teachers who display warmth and empathy have classes that are more respectful and encounter fewer resistant behaviors (Hattie, 2009, 119).  In a recent study, the idea that good leadership, and collaborative activity among teachers are directly related to rates of bullying and being bullied was supported (Ertesvåg and Roland, 2015, 199). Others have found a correlation between lower rates of bullying and “schools that are perceived as safer, that have higher achieving students, and that have more positive student-teacher relationships” (Richard et al., 2011, 276). Richard et al. conclude that “bullying prevention programs would benefit from greater focus on the quality of student-teacher interactions in general.” This conclusion is reinforced by findings that “proactive aggressive pupils, much more than others, scanned new teachers for signs of weakness in authority” (Vaaland & Roland, 2013, in Ertesvåg and Roland, 2015, 197).

Significant reduction in rates of bullying is possible. While it will not be realized without a serious commitment, the rewards in terms of the learning experience we can offer students today, the depression and anxiety that can be avoided today, and the repercussions on young adult lives tomorrow, leave no doubt that our full attention to this problem is justified.


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