How to Stop School Bullying and Turn A Troubling Trend Around

Michele Borba January 6, 2012 5

8 crucial steps educators and parents can take to reduce peer cruelty and create caring, respectful learning environments 


Studies show that bullying is intensifying in our schools. We are also seeing an epidemic of so-called bullying prevention programs. Beware: three fourths of those programs which have been evaluated are ineffective in curbing bullying (Farrington). Those one-time “Stop Bullying” assemblies or posters plastered on walls may look good, but are largely ineffective in reducing aggressive behaviors.

Bully prevention is not a program, but an ongoing process to achieve systemic change in your school . The best approach to stopping bullying is always data-driven and evidence based, has buy-in by all stakeholders (parents, staff and students), ongoing training and utilizes a few crucial components. The goal is always about creating a school culture that is based on compassion, respect and justice.

Bullying can be reduced. What it takes to turn a troubling trend around are committed, compassionate educators and parents who work together in creating a safe and caring learning environment based on sound, proven principles.

Last night I took part in a fabulous twitter chat about bullying with dozens of educators and parents. (Talk about synergy and incredible ideas!) As promised, I’m inserting all of my tweets for the chat (at the end of this post) as well as the keys to successful implementation for educators and parent-teacher organizations – your roadmap to getting starting or checking to ensure you have the pieces in place.

Bullying Prevention Resources: Please also refer to my website Michele Borba where you will find 17 specific articles about bullying (Signs of Bully, How to Mobilize Bystanders, What to Do If Bullying Intensifies, etc) as well as a twenty minute video of a keynote I recently gave to the Character Education Partnership about implementation and a clip from my Dateline special on how to mobilize bystanders.

Crucial R’s to REDUCE Bullying

Here are what I call the Crucial R’s to REDUCE Bullying I use in my work in schools. The R’s have effectively reduced violence, aggression and bullying behaviors school-wide and became the basis of the Proposal to End School Violence (SB1667) I wrote for the state of California.

Yes, there is a lot here – but we’re changing the culture of a school and the behavior of students. Start by checking which elements you already have in place, and then add one more step at a time until you reap the change your students deserve. This is meant as only a simple beginning plan.

1. REALIZE Negative Impact

Bullying must be taken seriously and it has deadly consequences to not only a child’s feelings of emotional safety but also to the entire learning culture. Bullying is learned. It is also intensifying and starting at younger ages. Schools most effective at reducing this behavior recognize it is a serious problem. Educational authorities must put the reduction of bullying as a high priority.

The key is to ensure that all stakeholders understand the potential severity and lasting effect bullying can have on all students and staff. Education is key. Hold those courageous conversations. Read and review material. Keep discussing the kind of culture you want at that school and the type of students you hope will nurture. That discussion must involve your staff and your parents.

2. REVIEW Data and Be Evidence Based

Schools who are best at reducing bullying use their own data (not the school next door) based on anonymous surveys of their students to determine bullying frequency, location and intensity. Those educators then get on board together, review solid research-based proven strategies to turn this behavior around (such as Ken Rigby’s approach in Australia and Dan Olweus in Norway) and stay committed until they results. See also Step 6.

3. RULES Against Cruelty Announced and Followed By All

Educators must announce to their students that this behavior is not only inappropriate but will be closely monitored. There will be consequences and students will be held accountable. Parents, students and educators are jointly aware of the consequences. All educators must be trained how to respond to bullying each and every time. Many students sign a pledge to adhere to those rules. This is when you can get your students involved making those posters, signs and buttons. Your key question to answer is this: “If a brand new student came to your school in the next hour, how long would it take for him or her to recognize what those rules are?” Visibility is key! The ultimate goal is transparency.

4. RECOGNIZE Bullying Signs

All stakeholders must learn to recognize now only what bullying is but also what the signs of bullying. Only then will they be able to respond correctly. You will need to ensure that everyone knows how to respond to the incident. Educating adults via workshops, newsletters, and parent workshops is critical. Ongoing training (not just a once a year venture) is essential.

All adults must be committed and on the “same page” and use a common definition. Without that common definition you will water down your effectiveness and be unable to respond consistently to bullying behaviors.

Olweus definition is most frequently used: Bullying always has three components: 1. A negative, cruel intent; 2. Repeated aggression or cruel behavior; 3. A power imbalance (one child can not hold their own against the perpetrator).

There are also five types of bullying: physical, verbal, emotional, sexual and electronic. While physical bullying is usually the easiest to spot (hitting, kicking, shoving, slamming resulting in bumps and bruises) and verbal bullying can be heard (racial slurs, homophobic comments, cruel, vicious comments) other types of bullying are more difficult to decipher: emotional (exclusion, shunning, rejection, rumors), sexual or electronic (cyberbullying, sexting, images).

In fairness to educators, most bullying in classrooms happens when a teacher’s back is turned, a substitute is present or in rooms where the “home room” teacher is not there and of the more subtle type. Bullying peaks at middle schools where students also have multiple teachers.

Create a response plan that is based on degree of intent and frequency. Best consequences for bullying are seeped in justice and empathy. Remember, you want to reeducate the bully as well.

5. REPORTING Must Be Designated

Students must be given multiple options to report including a website, phone hot line, reporting box, staff members. Give options!

~ One of the simplest ways to determine where bullying is happening on a school campus (as well as the time and who bullies are) is using a Report Box. The box is wooden or metal and designed like a mailbox (open slot on top) with a bolt lock. Boxes are distributed in several locations around the school (libraries, office, classrooms). Students may then write any threats they experienced or witnessed and insert them in the boxes. Principals and teachers are able to track those responses and make bullies accountable as well as keep track as to where students do not feel safe.

~ Students also need to know which adults to turn to who will believe them and respond. Designate staff members who are trained in response then announce those names to students.

Beware: seventy-five percent of bullying starts as verbal abuse and then escalates. A key is to stop bullying before it escalates.

6. RECOGNIZE Hot Spots and Hot Times Based On Data

Bullying is most prone to happen in certain school locations: bathrooms, lunchrooms, classrooms and hallways. Forty-three percent of U.S. school-aged students say they fear using the school restroom due to bullying. Identify your hot spots and hot times (the place and time bullying occurs).

Don’t say this is too costly! Here are two no-cost (cheap!!) ways to get instant evidence of hot spots at your school.

~ Give every student a map of the school. Just copy off the map of the school inside your handbook on an 81/2 x 11″ sheet. Now instruct each student to mark with a green pen the places they (or their friends) feel “safest”; a yellow pen “where you sometimes feel “unsafe” and red where you “avoid” or have seen “bullying.”

~ Give every student a 3 x 5 inch card tomorrow. Ask them to jot dot the time and place they feel “least” safe at school. Tell them not to sign it so they feel comfortable giving you that information. Collect the cards! You’ll have an instant assessment.

Research by Dan Olweus found that boosting adult supervision (even putting up mirrors and video cameras—if you can’t afford film don’t put it in –just don’t tell the kids!) or student hall monitors in identified hot spots reduces bullying by almost fifty percent!

The gold star goes to a North Penn principal who made a full size cardboard likeness of herself with a sign that said, “I’m watching you! You’ll never know when I’m going to show up!” and stuck it in the hall. Clever!

6. REBUILD A Culture of Caring and Mobilize Your Bystanders! 

Research shows that best hope we have for reducing bullying is to change the school culture by boosting a tone of empathy, respect and compassion.

~ Classrooms with a more democratic (not autocratic) tone are more successful at reducing bullying. Classroom meetings and cooperative learning structures are two best practices in boosting democratic atmosphere.

~ Mobilize student bystanders who are witnessing bullying. Studies at the University of Toronto show that students who step in within the first ten seconds can effectively stop bullying. The trick is teaching students how to step in so they will not be hurt, mobilize their empathy so they will step in and teach strategies so they know what they can do to effective stop a bullying incident. Role play those skills with your students. (Please refer to my website for the complete plan of how to mobilize bystanders by teaching them Bully BUSTERS).

~ Enlist the support of your more popular students who can become leaders in the social network. Bullying is by nature a relationship issue. New research at UCD finds that students at the second tier on the popularity ladder often use aggressive means to weave their way into the social scene.

7. RETEACH Habits and RECOGNIZE Your Bullies and Your Bullied Students

Counselors and teachers must identify those students who are bullies and children who are more likely to be victimized (and both can be easily overlooked). Beware: a child who bullies at age eight has a one in four chance to have a criminal record by the age of 26 (Eron).

Bullying can do severe emotional damage to a child. We see this with a rash of horrific bullicides. Enough!

Both the bully and the bullied will need specific help to change their behavior habits. Do not overlook the impact on your bystanders: new research shows that those children are witnessing cruelty and in some cases can begin to display symptoms of PTSD.

Bullying can be reduced but only with certain methods. Do not apply the “cookie cutter-one tip fits all” approach. Instead, analyze why the bully is bullying — what is the benefit? Why does he need to resort to aggression to get his needs met (for instance: poor anger management, lack of social skills, wants power, lacks empathy). You’ll need to ask the same question for the child who is bullied.

Also new research shows that bullies and the bullied child can “flip” roles – 13 percent of the time the bullied child becomes the bully and vice versa. We know what works.

8. REACH and Educate Parents

Finally, we must reach out to parents as our allies in this effort. Farrington’s meta-analysis of the effective of 600 bully prevention programs (only one quarter show gains!) found that parent involvement is crucial in the process. In particular:

~ Educate parents in the signs of bullying so they can stop behaviors before they become entrenched

~ Encourage parents to discuss the school policy about bullying with their children

~ Invite parents to your assemblies so they can be on the “same page” as their children.

~ Video your bullying programs so that parents unable to attend can review your efforts with their children

~ Inform parents what to do if they witness bullying or if their child is bullied

~ Help parents learn how to teach their children (bullies, bullied and bystanders) specific skills to help them

~ Start book clubs for parents or have Moms and Daughters, Dads and Sons, or Coaches and Kids!!!! read books about bullying and discuss them together.

~ Hold a movie night where parents watch The Bully Project or Bullied to Silence (two fabulous new movies about bullying about to hit the theaters).

Final Thoughts

The goal of bullying prevention is not a one-time assembly or a poster competition. To reduce a cycle of cruelty we must teach our children new habits and new attitudes and replace aggression and the lack of empathy. This is doable.

Bullying is learned, but so too is compassion. Aggression is contagious, but so too is kindness.

It’s now up to adults to step up and implement proven, effective techniques that are evidence based.

Our children deserve better.

My Tweets from the Bullying Twitter Chat

For those of you who asked for the tweets I sent out during the hour-long twitter chat last night here they are. For those of you unfamiliar with twitter, I apologize for the abbreviations. You only have 140 characters! You can follow me on twitter @MicheleBorba

  • 1st step: take this seriously! Bullying can become entrenched. It’s LEARNED & can be UNLEARNED. Schs & parents make a difference #ptchat
  • 3 elements of bullying: INTENTIONAL cruelty, Power imbalance, Repeated negative intent (Olweus) #ptchat
  • Critical to success participation by ALL stakeholders: students, staff, parents & community #ptchat
  • Establish committee inc parents/staff/students to dev sch bullying policy & coordinate bullying preven. #ptchat
  • Sch culture key-take steps to ensure staff/students/parents see prevention of bullying as core value & belief of sch #ptchat
  • Think of bullying prevention as ongoing PROCESS not PROGRAM Goal =change culture, behavior, attitudes #ptchat
  • DOABLE. Research shows when schs implement COMPREHESIVE approach bullying SS reduced #ptchat
  • Est clear policy prohibiting bullying & communicate to ALL students, staff AND parents #ptchat
  • We need to make it easier for students to come to adults to talk abt harassment & we MUST respond #ptchat
  • 1st step- conduct anonymous survey of students abt bullying: prevalence, types, areas occurring, who. #ptchat
  • Most successful bullying prevention always DATA driven –based school culture not sch next door #ptchat
  • Meta analysis 600 bullying “programs” found only ¼ succeed –Don’t implement w/out proof #ptchat
  • Become informed consumers of anti-bullying curricula. A lot out & most DO NOT wk Must have rigorous evaluation #ptchat
  • MUST read: Effectiveness of School-Based Anti-Bullying Programs: A Meta-Analytic Rev – Ferguson #ptchat
  • MUST read: School-Based Programs to Reduce Bullying & Victimization (Farrington, Ttofi) #ptchat
  • Pay special atten to students at risk for bullied: isolated, spec ed, ESL, phy characteristics, new #ptchat
  • Reports show Asian Am studs most bullied in US schs than other ethnic grps; 3x more likely on Internet #ptchat
  • UCD: pop kids (except at top of social ladder) most likely to act aggressively tow other kids #ptchat
  • Key QN Why bullying is working from view of bully-goals served. Ans helps u dev plan to stop it #ptchat
  • Eron: kid repeatedly bullies at age 8 has ¼ odds criminal record age 26; aggression bec entrenched #ptchat
  • 3 victims: bullied: emo & physical well-being; bystander: watching cruelty,  empathy curbed; bully: adopting aggression #ptchat
  • Bullying learned so can be unlearned; we must replace aggression w empathy, coflict resol, anger mgnt etc #ptchat
  • Boost supv areas & times “Hot Spots”bullying most frequent; Adult visibility easiest way to reduce #ptchat
  • Prime bullying Hot Spots: playgrd corners, lockers, back of buses, cafeteria (exclusion), restrooms #ptchat
  • 43% of US students fear using school restrooms due 2 bullying (kid rushing home 2 use bathrm = bullying sign #ptchat
  • Core 2 reduce bullying-adult visibility, consistency, warmth, clear expectations, respect don’t cost a dime #ptchat
  • Raise stud/staff/parent awareness thru sch-wide activites, videos, assemblies, posters, buttons, pledges #ptchat
  • Assemblies do NOT stop bullying but mobilize communities to be on same page & great 1st step #ptchat
  • Ongoing –not once a yr -training for teachers & staff abt bullying key to share same response & know signs #ptchat
  • Aggression/bullying is contagious! So too is compassion and kindness #ptchat
  • 2/3 studs  not bullies or bullied but bystanders-mobilize their compassion/teach how to step in safely #ptchat
  • I advocate changing school culture by encouraging bystanders to condemn bullying – social netwk critical #ptchat
  • Target bystanders gives better chance 2 create sch culture bullying discouraged not rewarded #ptchat
  • Bullying usually requires degree of social support – kids at top of social hierarchy in power to stop bullying #ptchat
  • Imp of how peers & adults respond to bullying can’t be overestimated #ptchat
  • Peers who intervene 2 stop bullying succeed in ½ time; but stand up in less than 20% (Pepler) #ptchat
  • Bullying often a social event – audience 85% of time are peers #ptchat
  • 2/3 studs  not bullies or bullied but bystanders-mobilize their compassin/teach how to step in safely #ptchat
  • Hold parent movie nite: See”The Bully Project” or “Bullied to Silence” both at theatres soon #ptchat
  • Parents involvement crucial: offer inform abt bullying incidents, rev sch policy w kids, watch for signs #ptchat
  • Start parent bk clubs to discuss bullying: Read The Bully, The Bullied & the Bystander, Coloroso #ptchat
  • Mom/DO Bk Clubs abt mean girl: Girl Wars, Dellasega; Queen Bees & Wannabees (Wiseman) Odd Girl Out; Simon #ptchat
  • Read to ur kids: Confessions of a Former Bully, Ludwig; Bullies Ar a Pain in the Brain, Romain #ptchat
  • Bullied signs: sleep/eating diff, grade drop, unfounded phys complaints, wants to avoid sch, marked beh change etc #ptchat
  • Take teacher seriously if she says your child may be bullying #ptchat
  • Educate parents-what to do if child bullied – who to report to – post on sch website & how to help your child #ptchat
  • Significant & pos effects for parent training * meetings in reducing bullying (Farrington) #ptchat
  • Olweus, KiVa program; Steps to Respect, #ptchat
  • Remember bullying is also a problem of values and relationships #ptchat
  • If we are to reach real peace in the world, we shall have to begin with children.” Mahamta Gandhi #ptchat
  • Perfect school is a Cheers place: A sch where everyone knows your name & everyone’s glad you came. Best hope to stop bullying #ptchat
  • Caring, concerned, committed adults who model respect & expect nothing less have always made difference in our kids’ live #ptchat 
Join the next #ptchat on twitter next week when the topic is “Bus Bullying Solutions with Jim Dillon
1/11/12 @9PM EST #cpchat #parenting #edchat #elemchat