Let's help bullies find healthier rewards

19th December 2008 at 00:00

Do anti-bullying strategies really work? Researchers at the University of Oregon report that, at best, anti-bullying programmes may have helped to raise awareness and "self-perceived competence in dealing with bullying", but they have failed to make significant reductions in its level.

This is a challenging finding for those of us who have spent many years searching for better ways to tackle the problem. But it is just the latest in a number of studies which have failed to support the belief that enthusiastically promoted, whole-school, anti-bullying policies actually lead to less bullying.

We may believe passionately that schools are now better places for having acknowledged the existence of this problem - you only have to think back to the way bullying by pupils and adults often went unchallenged 30 years ago to realise that things have indeed changed for the better. But we surely have a duty to accept these findings at face value and to ask what we need to do to bring about a significant reduction in what is a complex problem with many causes and manifestations.

So what can be done? We have a growing belief that the answer does not lie in ever more complicated psychological or sociological research, nor in the development of yet more sophisticated mechanistic strategies. Professor X's method and Professor Y's approach have certainly given us ways of preventing bullying, and a toolkit of responses for when it occurs. But sometimes we fall into the trap of making a polarised response where we label children as victims and perpetrators, which in turn may set up a false belief that we can always define and fix people.

To change the behaviour of people who bully, we must admit not only that we do not have all the answers, but also that we may have been failing to address properly the most basic of questions: why shouldn't one person bully another?

Up to now, when that question has been asked, it has usually been answered with a description of the effects of bullying on an individual. These tear-wrenching stories are told with the intention of developing empathetic thoughts in the actual or potential bully. These appeals to the emotions influence the behaviour of some children but, evidently, not others.

Make no mistake, there are real, logical reasons why people bully. It can give a sense of power to those who might otherwise feel powerless; picking on the differences of an outsider can strengthen the sense of belonging of members of a group; and cruel humour can indeed be a real, if reprehensible, sort of fun.

The moral counter to these rewards must be weighty indeed and carry the force of philosophical, humanist or religious belief systems, which place the self in a relationship with others and the wider common good. Only then will it swing the balance of a bullying person's behaviour away from the rewards of bullying.

Andrew Mellor and Susan Wheatley are with the Anti-Bullying Network at Edinburgh University.

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