Re-thinking approaches to reducing bullying behaviour

By Donna Cross, Winthrop Professor, Telethon Kids Institute and The University of Western Australia in Blogs

Bullying has traditionally been seen by schools as a behaviour problem that requires sanctions or consequences to “stop the behaviour from happening again”. Yet evidence suggests that consequences - especially harsh consequences that punish the perpetrator - are counterproductive when trying to build and maintain a positive school climate where power is not used to dominate others. Treating bullying as only a behaviour problem without considering it to also be an education and health problem, may fail to help the perpetrator behaviour better and understand the benefits of this change for them and others, instead may only incite resentment from the perpetrator.

Bullying refers to aggressive actions carried out repeatedly over time to intentionally harm a person who finds it hard to stop this bullying from continuing (Olweus, 1980). This behaviour is not uncommon among young Australians, with 25% of those aged 8-14 years being bullied frequently (defined as every few weeks or more often), and 9% bullying others frequently (Cross et al, 2009). More recently, with rapid developments in communication and information technologies, cyberbullying has emerged as a form of bullying behaviour that is particularly concerning. Cyberbullying behaviours include teasing, threatening, humiliating or socially isolating others using phone calls, text messages, emails, social networking sites, instant messages and websites (Smith et al., 2008). All forms of bullying appear be motivated by a perpetrator’s desire to gain approval and recognition from their peers (Emler & Reicher, 1995), to be popular (Caravita & Cillessen, 2012) or socially powerful (Vaillancourt, Hymel, & McDougall, 2007).

Bullying and cyberbullying contribute uniquely and directly to mental health problems, with potentially severe and long lasting consequences (Hemphill, Kotevski, & Heerde, 2015; Hemphill et al., 2011). Bullying behaviour is a significant (preventable) contributor to young people’s poor mental health for both the perpetrators and/or targets. While the risks of bullying to the targets are well-known, including emotional distress, school non-attendance,  low self-esteem, difficulty making friends, social isolation, depression, suicidal ideation, deliberate self-harm and antisocial behaviours (Cross, Lester, & Barnes, 2015; Hemphill et al., 2015; Hemphill et al., 2011; Hinduja & Patchin, 2010; Sourander et al., 2010; Sourander, Ronning, Brunstein-Klomek, & et al., 2009), those who bully others are also at risk.  Bullying perpetration is linked to an increased risk of experiencing psychosomatic symptoms, anxiety, depression and suicidality (Copeland, Wolke, Angold, & Costello, 2013; Sourander et al., 2009), as well as substance and alcohol use, violence and criminal activity (Hemphill et al., 2015; Kim, Catalano, Haggerty, & Abbott, 2011). Further, persistent perpetration and victimisation are predictive of substantial use of government support, such as public health and justice, by 28 years of age (Scott, Knapp, Henderson, & Maughan, 2001). 

Multiple factors are associated with the manifestation of bullying behaviour. Accordingly, single level programs such as the provision of classroom curriculum only, or targeted interventions engaging only higher risk young people, while necessary, are not sufficient to provide an effective and sustainable response (Smith, Schneider, Smith, & Ananiadou, 2004; Vreeman & Carroll, 2007).  Whole-school interventions are described as the most effective, non-stigmatising means to reduce bullying behaviour (Ttofi & Farrington, 2011).  Using a socio-ecological framework, these interventions acknowledge the impact of numerous individual, social and community factors on young people’s likelihood of being involved in bullying situations (Cross et al.; Espelage, 2014). Research suggests that whole-school programs can reduce bullying perpetration by as much as 20-23% and victimisation by 17-20% (Ttofi & Farrington, 2011).

Targeted approaches to reduce bullying have largely focussed on supporting victimised students, given psychologically vulnerable children may be a prime target for bullying (Delfabbro et al., 2006). However, whilst the prevalence of victimisation declines with increasing age, the prevalence of perpetration does not (Whitney & Smith, 1993), which suggests that  for every student being bullied, there may be several student perpetrators (i.e. more ‘bullies’ per ‘target’) (Borg, 1999). Importantly, limited empirical research has investigated the effectiveness of targeted approaches for individual students who bully others.

Targeted efforts that focus only on building the skills and resilience of the targeted student, may be insufficient because of the power imbalance associated with bullying. Consequently, it is essential to also work with the student who is bullying others. While there is support for restorative methods such as The Social Group Method, the Method of Shared Concern and Restorative Justice methods (Rigby & Bauman, 2009), these methods have limited quality empirical evidence to demonstrate their effectiveness. These methods are based on the assumption that perpetrators of bullying are remorseful for their behaviour and would like to make amends (Burns, Cross, Alfonso, & Maycock, 2008; Olweus, 1992). However, this approach alone can be challenging given students who bully others are generally characterised as having low levels of empathy (Kaukiainen et al., 1999; Kokkinos & Panayiotou, 2004).

There is a need for rigorous research that examines the effectiveness of targeted support interventions for students who bully others, including those interventions used to modify other problem behaviours among adolescents. One such promising intervention is Motivational Interviewing (MI). MI has been used successfully with adolescents to reduce violent behaviour, drug use and eating disorders (Hettema, Steele, & Miller, 2005; Woodin & O’Leary, 2010) and has potential for the subset of bullying perpetrators who have high cognition and use it to their advantage. The technique seeks to elicit the motivations behind individuals’ behaviour, and can direct them to other more socially appropriate means of achieving these goals.

School psychologists and other pastoral care staff report they need more training and support to develop and use a variety of strategies to support student bullying behaviour change. Current research in Western Australia, conducted by the Telethon Kids Institute, is investigating over a four-year period, the usefulness of MI and other approached used by schools to support positive behaviour change in students who regularly engage in bullying in secondary schools.  The final results from this study will be available in 2017.


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