Bullying in Schools: Research Has Yet to Precisely Prescribe a Remedy for School Bullying, but Some Guidelines Are Emerging to Help Schools Choose Programs That Best Fit Their Situation

By Ansary, Nadia S.; Elias, Maurice J. et al. | Phi Delta Kappan, October 2015 | Go to article overview

Bullying in Schools: Research Has Yet to Precisely Prescribe a Remedy for School Bullying, but Some Guidelines Are Emerging to Help Schools Choose Programs That Best Fit Their Situation


Ansary, Nadia S., Elias, Maurice J., Greene, Michael B., Green, Stuart, Phi Delta Kappan


Harassment, intimidation, and bullying pose a serious public and mental health concern that can poison the climate of schools and affect students' ability to focus on learning. We know that many children have experienced harassment, intimidation, and bullying at school: Nearly 28% of all students ages 12-18 reported being bullied physically, verbally, or online at least once during the survey year, according to one U.S. Department of Education report (2013). Another study found that 20% of high school students were bullied on school property and 15% through electronic means over the course of 12 months (Centers for Disease Control, 2014).

Even the White House has taken notice by hosting its first-ever Conference on Bullying Prevention in 2011, raising awareness about the topic by addressing in-school approaches, community-based strategies, and the effects of bullying on achievement. All 50 states have antibullying laws, many of which include model antibullying policies.

Nonetheless, educational settings are struggling to determine and implement suitable antibullying approaches. A myriad of antibullying programs are available--many claiming significant reductions in bullying--and schools are unsure which ones would work best for them. Further, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the potency of individual programs related to bullying. Comprehensive antibullying approaches require schools to mobilize substantial resources, forcing administrators to balance this need against ever-increasing budget constraints. Without a deep understanding of the pervasive effect of harassment, intimidation, and bullying and its connection to overall school culture and climate, schools can find it tempting to opt for contained and less costly approaches (Greene, 2008). Clear guidance is needed regarding the parameters of truly effective intervention.

Are programs effective?

Most antibullying programs have demonstrated only mild to moderate reductions in bullying behavior. A review of whole-school approaches in the U.S. and Europe found that success rates were modest (Pepler, Smith, & Rigby, 2004). Likewise, a meta-analysis of 16 bullying interventions in Europe and the U.S. revealed that bullying interventions were only weakly effective. A review of 48 evaluated interventions by W.M. Craig and colleagues (2010) revealed that almost half reported reductions in victimization, one-quarter reported some positive and negative effects, 15% reported no change, and 4% reported only negative results (Merrell et al., 2008).

But there are examples of successes. As promising programs are tested in more challenging and diverse environments, we have learned about their strong points, both conceptually and pragmatically. While we generally agree with Pepler, Smith, & Rigby (2004) that "the research is not at the point where we can reliably point to specific elements of interventions that are known to be the active and essential elements associated with change" (p. 313), we also recognize that schools and policy makers can't wait for the ultimate studies to be conducted, reviewed, and published. Schools require guidance now for initial and ongoing selection and review of programs and their coordination with related prevention efforts. We believe that successful implementation ultimately hinges on a hybrid of best practices and evidence-based approaches that are embedded in a comprehensive, coordinated, and sustained school-wide approach.

Common features

Successful antibullying programs generally share three common features:

#1. The program's central values and philosophy emphasize a positive school climate and strategies founded on social-emotional and character development;

#2. A long-term commitment to effective program implementation, assessment of program effectiveness, and sustainability; and

#3. Clear and consistent strategies outlining what to do when bullying occurs. …

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