Recent studies on bullying and peer victimization have shown that the problem is more serious than expected. The very positive results of a Norwegian anti-bullying program that reduced bullying by up to 50 percent stimulated other European countries to tackle bully/victim problems in their schools. However, these programs have not been as successful as the Norwegian program in reducing bullying. Researchers in Belgium sought to determine why the Norwegian results were not replicated in other studies.
The Norwegian study found that the purpose of most bullying behavior is to gain dominance or status among peers. By joining the bullying or providing an audience, peers themselves consistently reinforce bullies’ behavior. When no or few negative consequences follow upon such aggressive acts, bullying behavior increases. Norwegian researchers argued that programs should restructure the social environment by implementing clear rules against bullying, thus reducing the positive consequences of bullying and increasing negative ones.
This resulted in a program that actively involved parents, peers and teachers. It also aimed at creating a warm and positive school atmosphere. The school-based strategy included activities for individual students involved in bully/victim problems, for parents and teachers, and for peer groups. The program increased adults’ and students’ awareness of problems of peer aggression and victimization and enhanced active involvement in solving these problems.
The Flemish Study
In the current study, Veerle Stevens, Ilse De Bourdeauhuij and Paulette Van Oost, University of Ghent, Belgium, evaluated the behavioral effectiveness of a
school-based anti-bullying approach. In 18 schools, 1104 primary and secondary students aged 10-16 were involved in the program. This study had a pre-test/post-test design with two experimental groups and one control group. Because the Norwegian program provided extensive support for the schools involved, Stevens et al. sought to determine whether students benefited from a school-based anti-bullying intervention and whether or not additional help and ongoing support from the research group was essential in obtaining positive results. These researchers analyzed results from elementary and secondary schools separately.
The Flemish anti-bullying intervention, developed from the principles of the Norwegian program, included a manual describing the objectives for the three parts of the program. First, intervention focused on the school environment. School staff developed an anti-bullying policy, including clear definitions of bullying and victimization that sent the message that bullying would not be tolerated. Second, curriculum-based activities for the peer group focused on clear class rules, problem-solving strategies and social-skills training to help students intervene directly in bullying incidents. Third, students directly involved in peer aggression, as either bullies or victims, were the focus of intervention. Bullies were encouraged to repair the damage they had caused by doing something for the victim or the class group. Intensive support was given to the victims of bullying. This included emotional help, enhancement of social skills and strategies for handling incidents more effectively.
Schools either received training with ongoing support from the research team, received training alone, or served as control groups without any intervention. In training sessions that totaled about 25 hours, both teaching and non-teaching staffs at the experimental schools were trained to tackle bullying incidents more effectively. In addition, schools with ongoing support received individualized feedback on intervention strategies during the implementation
Each student completed one extensive self-report questionnaire as a pre-test and two post-intervention measures. Students were given a very clear definition of bullying that differentiated it from teasing or fighting.
Interventions more successful at elementary school level
Pre-intervention reports showed that significantly higher levels of bullying and victimization occurred in elementary schools. Post-intervention reports revealed that intervention programs affected students at the elementary and secondary levels in different ways. Interventions were more successful in reducing bullying at the elementary level. Both elementary treatment groups showed significant reductions in bullying incidents after intervention. At the secondary level, the intervention did not achieve such significant reductions in bullying. Stevens et al. conclude that the lack of positive outcomes in other studies is probably due to their mixed-age student samples. They further assume that children’s developmental characteristics at different ages affect the probability of positive outcomes. Although there was less bullying to begin with at the secondary level, adolescents tended to conform less to anti-bullying rules. In addition, program implementation in secondary schools was complicated by complex timetables and the schools’ departmentalized structure. These researchers found that additional, ongoing help from the research group was not crucial to obtaining positive results from an anti-bullying intervention program.
Elementary schools, in particular, seemed to be skilled enough to implement the program without external help. These Flemish researchers consider that the success of the original intervention program in Norway may have been due in part to the fact that that intervention was part of a nationwide campaign. The suicides of three children who had been bullied at school had caused a national outcry and an impetus to improve conditions in the public schools. Stevens’ study demonstrates, however, that school-based anti-bullying intervention can be effective in reducing problems with bullying, especially at the elementary level.
“Bullying in Flemish Schools: An Evaluation of Anti-Bullying Intervention in Primary and Secondary Schools” British Journal of Educational Psychology Volume 70, Number 2, June 2000 Pp. 195-210.
Published in ERN October 2000 Volume 13 Number 7.