What Are the Best Ways to Prevent Bullying in Schools
All 50 U.S. states require schools to have a bullying prevention policy.
But a policy, alone, is not enough. Despite the requirement, there’s been a slight uptick in all forms of bullying during the last three years. Bullying can look like experienced basketball players systematically intimidating novice players off the court, kids repeatedly stigmatizing immigrant classmates for their cultural differences, or a middle-school girl suddenly being insulted and excluded by her group of friends.
Bullying occurs everywhere, even in the highest-performing schools, and it is hurtful to everyone involved, from the targets of bullying to the witnesses—and even to bullies themselves. October is National Bullying Prevention Month, so it’s a good time to ask ourselves: What are the best practices for preventing bullying in schools? That’s a question I explored with my colleague Marc Brackett from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, in a recent paper that reviewed dozens of studies of real-world bullying prevention efforts.
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As we discovered, not all approaches to bullying prevention are equally effective. Most bullying prevention programs focus on raising awareness of the problem and administering consequences. But programs that rely on punishment and zero tolerance have not been shown to be effective in the U.S.; and they often disproportionately target students of color. Programs like peer mediation that place responsibility on the children to work out conflicts can increase bullying. (Adult victims of abuse are never asked to “work it out” with their tormentor, and children have an additional legal right to protections due to their developmental status.) Bystander intervention, even among adults, only works for some people—extroverts, empaths, and people with higher social status and moral engagement. Many approaches that educators adopt have not been evaluated through research; instead, educators tend to select programs based on what their colleagues use.
We found two research-tested approaches that show the most promise for reducing bullying (along with other forms of aggression and conflict). They are a positive school climate, and social and emotional learning.
Building a positive school climate
School climate can be difficult to define, though possible to measure. It is the “felt sense” of being in a school, which can arise from a greeting, the way a problem is resolved, or how people work together; it is a school’s “heart and soul,” its “quality and character.” Schools with a positive climate foster healthy development, while a negative school climate is associated with higher rates of student bullying, aggression, victimization, and feeling unsafe.
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The elements of a positive climate may vary, but may often include norms about feelings and relationships, power and how it is expressed, and media consumption. Social norm engineering is a conscious process that builds a positive culture among student peers and school adults that becomes self-reinforcing. Like a healthy immune system, a positive school climate promotes optimal health and reduces the chances of dysfunction or disease.
Leadership is key to a positive climate. Is bullying minimized as a “normal rite of childhood,” or is it recognized as the harmful peer abuse that it is? Do leaders understand that uninterrupted, severe bullying can confer lifelong negative consequences on targets of bullies, bullies, and witnesses? Are school leaders committed to promoting all children’s positive psychological health, or do they over-rely on punishing misbehavior? Can they discern between typical developmental processes that need guidance versus bullying that needs assertive intervention? Are educators empathic to their students, and do they value children’s feelings?
Next, are teachers prepared to deal with bullying? Students consistently report that teachers miss most incidents of bullying and fail to help students when asked. A majority of teachers report that they feel unprepared to deal with classroom bullying. Some teachers bully students themselves, or show a lack of empathy toward children who are bullied. Teachers report that they receive little guidance in “classroom management,” and sometimes default to the disciplinary strategies they learned in their own families growing up.
However, reforming school climate should involve all stakeholders—students and parents, as well as the administrators and teachers—so a school’s specific issues can be addressed, and the flavor of local cultures retained. School climate assessments can be completed periodically to track the impact of improvements.