May 21, 2019


Not every school’s anti-bullying program works – some may actually make bullying worse. Most anti-bullying programs available to schools haven’t been evaluated for effectiveness.


Karyn Healy, The University of Queensland

School bullying can have serious consequences for victims including depression, psychosis, self-harm and suicide. With increasing evidence of harm, a groundswell of school anti-bullying programs and campaigns in Australia and internationally have vowed to stamp out bullying.

The schools’ intentions are good, but often these programs have not been properly evaluated for effectiveness, and studies show some types of programs can actually make bullying worse.

School programs

There is no shortage of anti-bullying programs offered to schools. The programs are varied and can include teaching resources and discipline plans, as well as student and teacher training, parent meetings and improved playground supervision.

Most programs cite a theoretical base to support their approach but not an evaluation of the specific program. For instance, educational campaigns in many countries, including Australia and New Zealand, emphasise the role of student bystanders in standing up against bullying.

Educational videos show students how they can make a big difference by standing up for the victim when they witness bullying.

The theory behind using bystanders to address bullying goes back to an observational study conducted in 2001. Observational studies are where researchers observe behaviour in a natural setting, rather than placing participants in certain experimental conditions.

In the 2001 study, researchers observed 58 children aged 6-12 intervene in bullying. Most (57%) interventions stopped the bullying. Overall, the study showed bullying often stops when students spontaneously stand up for a bullied peer. Since then, many school-based anti-bullying programs have emphasised bystander action.

But a 2010 synthesis of many studies found programs encouraging students to help actually made bullying worse. This study was a meta-analysis, meaning it pulled together results of well-designed studies conducted at that time on the effectiveness of anti-bullying programs.

Read more:
Is your child less likely to be bullied in a private school?

There are several ways to explain these different findings. Firstly, in the observational study the effect on bullying was judged in the few seconds after the bystander action. We don’t know if bullying resumed the next day. The meta-analysis included studies that examined bullying weeks or months later. We know from previous research that actions that seem effective in the short-term can have harmful long-term effects.

There may also be crucial differences between naturally occurring bystander actions and those encouraged by schools. The effectiveness in natural situations may rely on who the student bystander is and their relationship with those involved in bullying. School programs may encourage students with poor skills to get involved which may escalate the situation.

Future research may explain differences between effective and ineffective bystander actions. In the meantime, schools should exercise caution in using this approach.

Bystander involvement can make bullying worse.
from shutterstock.com

Difference among programs

The 2010 meta-analysis showed that, overall, school-based anti-bullying programs decrease bullying and victimisation by around 20%, with similar reductions for cyber-bullying. But this and other meta-analyses report substantial differences between programs.

Another recent meta-analysis looked separately at anti-bullying programs in primary schools and high schools. On average, programs in primary schools were effective. But in high schools, anti-bullying programs were just as likely to make bullying worse as they were to improve it. The exact reason for these differences is not known.

Read more:
‘I don’t want to be teased’ – why bullied children are reluctant to seek help from teachers

There are many reasons why efforts to change behaviour may have unintended negative effects. Perhaps the emphasis on stopping bullying in high schools provokes student who bully and undermines the reputation of students who are bullied.

So, which programs work?

The 2010 meta-analysis showed programs that reduce bullying are likely to take more time to implement, involve parent meetings, firm disciplinary methods and improved playground supervision.

It can be hard for schools to know what programs are effective because this takes a lot of time. There are independent scientific organisations that evaluate evidence for program effectiveness. These include Blueprints (US) and the Early Intervention Foundation (UK).

To really know if a program works, research needs to compare outcomes over time between students who receive the program and students who don’t. It is also best to randomly allocate students or schools to receiving the program or not, to help ensure the groups are equivalent in the first place. These types of studies are called randomised controlled trials.

Read more:
Randomised control trials: what makes them the gold standard in medical research?

Programs that have been shown to be effective by randomised controlled trials include the Friendly Schools Program and Positive Behaviour for Learning. The Friendly Schools Plus program helps schools build supportive practices, teach social skills and build partnerships with parents. A randomised controlled trial showed this program reduced victimisation and observations of bullying over three years.

Positive Behaviour for Learning helps schools improve discipline by teaching expected behaviour and establishing clear rewards and consequences. It is widely used in Australian schools. A randomised controlled trial found this program reduced bullying in primary schools.

Schools are under great pressure to visibly take action against bullying. However, caution is needed, especially in high schools, because many programs that sound like a good idea can make bullying worse. Schools should stick with what they know works and only adopt new programs that have been adequately evaluated.The Conversation

Karyn Healy, Researcher, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

  • I don’t think enough is being done to combat bullying in schools. If the anti bullying programs are so affective, why is bullying on the rise and getting worse?


  • Well that’s a worrying side-effect. Bullying has so many devastating consequences that it needs to be addressed in the strictest measures.


  • I moved my son to another school and drag my daughter out because of bully. The teacher has labelled my son as violence in the playground. how I found out about this was it was printed in the school report. I was never told about it. my son is not violence. he was called all sort of names, and even as a young boy grade 2 that time, he said “they were ganging up on me” “what does loser mean?’ ‘ what does stupid mean?’ “. Words that I do not use in the house, he was asking me what the words meant because he was called. Even worst, he was called deaf and dumb because his mother is deaf, but he wasn’t. No matter what I said to the teachers, I ended up talking to the mums about it. They have said that my son was weird, they have said they prefer their kids not to play with my son. Now I moved my kids to another school, now this time my daughter was being bullied. the teachers didn’t do anything to solve the problem. For 1 term of every morning of school time my daughter will be sick in the stomach. She was also getting sick as well, burning herself out of anxiety. I pulled her out and put her to another school. It turned out much better even though I had to drive to 2 schools.
    kids should do video making or some sort of acting about bullies so students can see what other students see what bully is to them. Bully may be visual but bullies can be hidden behind close doors.
    The parents should also acknowledge their actions too because it can play a part of their child’s behaviour.


  • Tackling bullying has to be a number one priority.


  • Something needs to be done about bullying and I could see how programs could help as well as hinder. Parents need to take responsibility for talking to their kids about this prior to being exposed to it in the real world


  • Wow, that’s really interesting about the data behind some of these programs


  • So pleased to hear they are monitoring their ides – I certainly found that bringing it out in the open at the school made it worse for my oldest son at the time.


  • its good to read that they are monitoring the effectiveness of these schemes.


  • Interesting read! All well and good to have programs like these but the schools need to practice what they are preaching


  • My son is moving schools due to bullying that hasn’t gotten any better; a lot of kids are moving schools. The school has an anti-bullying policy but doesn’t adhere to it. I really hope the school wakes up and does something. Surely losing a bunch of students would be a reason.


  • The programs have to be followed up by consistent work by staff and families for them to be successful.


  • Programs like safe school are not about anti bullying. We all know about it now we do t need special programs. The typical “bullied” kids then turn on all the other kids coz they aren’t different enough even if they weren’t the bullies in the first place. Bullies have issues at home address those they are usually verbally and emotionally abused by parents. Stop wasting time on dumb school programs


  • I suspect a lot of bullying has to do with home life. I am sure they are bullied at home and take out their frustrations at school. As one commenter said, it isn’t as bad at Primary School but High School is a whole different matter and anonymous social media posts have only exacerbated the problem.


  • It is such a difficult issue. Certainly more research in this area needs to be conducted. Sometimes as a parent, it is difficult to know how to help.


  • It is just so scarey…I went to school in the 80s and can’t remember bullying being this bad or as common.


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