Sometimes bullying is easy to spot--a child pushing another on the playground or shoving a classmate's face into the water fountain. Other times bullying is less overt--children spreading rumors, teasing peers or excluding a classmate from games at recess. This veiled type of bullying--known as relational or covert aggression--can be harder for parents and teachers to see and prevent. What's more, previous research suggests that relational aggression increases and intensifies as children get older and become more emotionally and socially sophisticated.

But a psychologist-run community- and school-based program is aiming to nip this type of bullying in the bud by arming elementary school children with problem-solving skills on how to intervene and educating them about what qualifies as bullying.

The program, called the WITS-Leadership program and run by developmental psychologist Bonnie Leadbeater, PhD, is being pilot-tested with 200 fourth- and fifth-grade students at a Victoria, British Columbia elementary school thanks to the first-ever Violence Prevention and Intervention grant from the American Psychological Foundation (APF). The grant--which was initiated by the APF trustees last year--offers up to $20,000 to advance violence prevention research and programming.

"The idea is to teach kids about the internal worlds of other people and how people are hurt by this kind of meanness and what to do about it," says Leadbeater, who is a professor of psychology at the University of Victoria. "We try to give children a broader sense of what counts as bullying and better ways to solve peer problems."

A community-wide effort

The main goal of the WITS-Leadership program--WITS stands for Walk away, Ignore the bully, Talk it out and Seek help--is to imbue these older elementary school students with a sense of responsibility for preventing victimization among younger students, says Leadbeater. That way, these kids will not only prevent bullying among younger kids, they'll learn and practice leadership skills and positive ways of resolving peer conflicts, she adds.

Community police officers kick off the training program by "deputizing" participating students as "WITS-Leaders," giving them identification cards and staging a role-playing exercise on how to intervene when they spot bullying and teach younger students how to respond to bullying. Student athletes from the University of Victoria also present talks on how to prevent bullying and stress that adults are there to support their efforts. Students also learn how to solve problems on the playground that lead to bullying and to promote sharing.

Teachers and school librarians further the WITS-Leadership program through a classroom reading curriculum and a social responsibility curriculum. Students read and discuss two books about peer aggression, "Blubber" by Judy Blume and "Jake Drake, Bully Buster" by Andrew Clements, as well as watch and discuss a video called "Bully Dance." Moreover, the program gets parents involved through homework related to the books and presentations on bullying at parent-teacher nights.

Leadbeater will also bring together two or three students who have problems managing their aggression together with playground leaders to plan and film a play or video on solving peer conflicts that they can eventually show to their classmates.

"The goal is to target kids who are having problems and create a circumstance where they can be part of a team that does something positive," says Leadbeater.

A rock-solid foundation

The WITS-Leadership program builds on a similar program--the WITS Rock Solid Primary Program--applied in 11 Victoria elementary schools for the past four years. Leadbeater's previous research on that program--which targets children in kindergarten through third grade--shows a significant drop in both relational and physical bullying in schools that used the program compared with six control schools that didn't.

While the Rock Solid program is slightly different--its focus is on creating an environment in which adults respond to children's complaints of bullying or victimization and offers children strategies to deal with overt aggression--Leadbeater says she hopes her APF-funded research on the WITS-Leadership program will reveal a similar decline. She aims to complete her pilot evaluation this summer with the help of co-investigator Jeneva Ohan, PhD. The Victoria schools using the Rock Solid Primary program have been so pleased with its success they are eagerly awaiting the WITS-Leadership version, says Leadbeater.

"We've had quite a time holding on to it until we can get it evaluated," says Leadbeater. She has already applied for funding from other organizations to continue to develop and more formally evaluate the program next year when it debuts in Victoria-area schools.

The program's community component, strong research foundation and potential to contribute to the research base on violence prevention made it a perfect fit for the new APF grant, adds APF President Dorothy W. Cantor, PsyD.

"Her work was so outstanding that it ranked first in both our internal committee and the panel of experts," says Cantor. "It's rare to get that level of unanimity, and it speaks to the outstanding program that Dr. Leadbeater has proposed."

Further Reading

For more information on the WITS program, visit www.rocksolid.ca/witsup/index.html.

  • Leadbeater, B., Hoglund, W., & Woods, T., (2003). Changing contexts? The effects of a primary prevention program on classroom levels of peer relational and physical victimization. Journal of Community Psychology, 31, 1-22.