Whether it takes the form of hallway shoving or threatening text messages, bullying is surprisingly common. Nearly one in three students experienced bullying in the 2007-08 school year, and administrators at one in four schools described bullying as a daily occurrence, according to the federal report Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2010.
Such harassment isn't just a case of kids being kids, psychologists say. For perpetrators, bullying can begin a trajectory of trouble, including conduct disorders, substance abuse, truancy and crime. Victims suffer physical and emotional pain, and consequences can extend into adulthood. Among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LBGT) victims, bullying motivated by their LGBT status (or perceived status) may lead to greatly increased risk of depression and suicide, according to a May 2011 study in the Journal of School Health.
Even students who aren't directly involved in bullying are affected by it—a climate of fearful distraction making learning harder for everyone, says Catherine Bradshaw, PhD, associate director of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence.
"That's why I consider it more a public health problem, rather than just an individual experience, or an individual problem, because it does pose significant concerns for the overall school environment," Bradshaw says.
With help from President Barack Obama—who hosted a bullying prevention conference at the White House last year, attended by APA CEO Norman B. Anderson, PhD—psychologist-designed interventions are finally getting attention on the national stage. And, rather than focusing only on educator training, these interventions are taking a multi-tiered approach, addressing the underpinnings of bullying, understanding how much bullying is taking place and where, creating school cultures where bullying is not tolerated, and helping victims find their voices, Bradshaw says.
A comprehensive approach is the best strategy for reducing bullying, says Dewey Cornell, PhD, a clinical psychologist and education professor at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education.
"With bullying, you need education and training from the administrators down to the students, a shared understanding of what bullying is and why it's wrong, and a concerted effort to identify victims of bullying and reach out to help them," Cornell says.
Interventions for bullies
It may sound counterintuitive, but bullies need help, too. Teens and even younger children who victimize others tend to have poor social skills and emotional regulation, which can contribute to their bullying behavior, says Susan Swearer, PhD, a psychologist and bullying researcher at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
Punishment-based strategies, such as suspension and expulsion, do not give students who bully the tools they need to make lasting behavior change, says Swearer.
"There's a connection between bullying in elementary school and middle school and adult criminal behavior. We need to get these kids off that trajectory," Swearer says.
To help bullies change, Swearer has developed a three-hour program that, according to preliminary results, significantly reduces bullying behavior and bullying-related suspensions.
During the first part of the session, a school mental health professional assesses the student's habits around explaining the behavior of others, also known as attributional style. Many bullies often see other people's perhaps innocuous acts—such as pushing past them in the hall—as being aggressive. Then, the therapist works with the student to talk through and reinterpret events in his or her own life—perhaps that shoving student was simply running late.
In the final part, the counselor, student and family members write a plan for reducing the student's bullying behaviors in the future. A typical plan sets up regular communication between the school and the parent about how the student is doing, arranges follow-up training in emotional regulation skills and lays out rewards for prosocial behavior, Swearer says.
Another psychologist-developed intervention, called Coping Power, brings together groups of bullies and children identified as aggressive by their teachers and classmates. During weekly sessions, students talk about times when they lashed out in anger and rehearse alternative, less hostile ways of successfully handling conflicts with peers.
A modification of the intervention, designed by John Lochman, PhD, of the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, is being tested in 20 Alabama elementary schools with 360 fourth- and fifth-graders. The modification adds one-on-one sessions to the typical group therapy format.
Group therapy for bullies and aggressive children, however, has a potential downside. Research by British criminologist David Farrington, PhD, and earlier work by Thomas J. Dishion, PhD, of the University of Oregon has shown that bringing aggressive children together can reinforce deviant behavior. For example, a child talking about a particularly inventive bullying tactic or some other destructive activity may get a laugh or some other encouraging response from others in the group, says Lochman. To avoid such potential effects, Lochman is videotaping group sessions and looking for signs of such reinforcement and whether the group leader can quash and redirect such moments.
The data's not in yet on how group therapy leaders can avoid deviant behavior reinforcement, but the program seems to work overall: A study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology® in 2009 found that aggressive students who completed Coping Power with school guidance counselors trained to conduct the intervention got along better with peers and were less aggressive than an untreated comparison group.
Help for victims
Though some 40 percent of teachers report observing bullying once a week or more, according to a 2010 survey by the National Education Association, plenty of harassment happens outside school officials' sights. To identify the hidden victims of bullying, Cornell and his colleagues helped start the Safe Schools/Healthy Students Albemarle/Charlottesville Project, in Virginia. The project uses anonymous surveys that ask students to list classmates who are regularly bullied.
"What we've found in a number of schools are students who get listed 10 or 15 or 20 or more times. Almost invariably, these are students who are in serious trouble, and often not known to be victims by guidance counselors," he says.
School counselors use this information to help victims by learning what type of bullying is taking place and investigating possible sources of conflict. They often identify perpetrators and may discipline them. School counselors also talk to bystanders and encourage them to intervene on behalf of the victim and not egg on the bully, he says.
According to the project's annual report, published in August, the number of high school students who reported experiencing bullying dropped by 22 percent and the number of middle school students decreased by almost 16 percent since the project started in 2009.
Perhaps the most effective way to reduce bullying is to band students together against bullying. Two such programs, the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program developed by Norwegian psychologist Dan Olweus, PhD, and Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports, are being tested by Bradshaw through a $13.3 million study of 60 public high schools in Maryland. The study is funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Safe and Supportive School grant program.
The Positive Behavioral Intervention Supports program works by asking students to discuss and adopt positive behavioral goals, such as being "ready, responsible and respectful" in their interactions with peers and teachers, Bradshaw says. In the classroom, respecting yourself can mean doing your best, being honest and using appropriate language, while being responsible can mean being on time to class, coming prepared and completing assignments, Bradshaw says.
Students who behave positively are eligible for rewards such as a ticket to a special school dance, or permission not to wear the school uniform for a day, she says.
Although the results of the high school study aren't yet in, another randomized trial of PBIS in 37 Maryland elementary schools showed that it resulted in less bullying and lower levels of social rejection (in press, Archives of Child and Adolescent Medicine).
Another effective way to galvanize students against bullying is to teach them ways they can intervene as bystanders, says developmental psychologist Ron Slaby, PhD, a senior scientist with the Education Development Center Inc., a non-profit organization based in Newton, Mass., that develops programs for education, health and economic opportunity. Empowering students to speak out and stand up for victimized students greatly reduces bullying, according to research on Slaby's Aggressors, Victims and Bystanders curriculum.
An expert panel that reviewed Aggressors, Victims and Bystanders for a 2001 U.S. Department of Education report said students who received the curriculum showed significant decreases in their belief that violence is OK.
The program teaches students to stop and size up a bullying situation and to try to intervene if possible—perhaps by defusing the situation by making a joke or distracting the bully. If it's not safe to intervene, students are encouraged to report bullying to an adult and console a bullied peer afterward and say something supportive.
"A friendly response from a peer, for a kid who's falling into despair, can be enormously effective," Slaby says. Doing nothing, and saying nothing, only encourages continued bullying.
Whichever evidence-based program schools use, the most important thing is that, as a society, we are finally taking bullying seriously, says Cornell. "The attention to bullying is going to be highly beneficial for the millions of students who experience it, and for that proportion of students for whom it's a very serious problem," he says.
To see APA's resources on bullying, go to Bullying: A Module for Teachers.