Emphasising interpersonal qualities and building up esteem and altruism help to deal with the problem. Henry Hepburn reports on new research
Reports of bullying were reduced by a third in a study that used positive psychology with Year 7 pupils - 11- and 12-year-olds - at King James Secondary in Knaresborough, Yorkshire. It helped ensure pupils did not "see bullying around every corner", as one of the researchers put it.
Ian Rivers, a supervisor of the research and head of psychology at Edinburgh's Queen Margaret University, said: "We never asked any negative questions or addressed any negative issues. We asked not 'What's wrong?', but 'How do we make it better?'"
The results, which came to light at the recent conference of Respectme, Scotland's national anti-bullying service, were measured against a control school, which used standard personal and social education approaches but had no lessons on bullying.
The positive psychology approach, thought to be applied to bullying for the first time, led to a "significant reduction" of incidents reported, with a particularly big drop in name-calling. In the control school, there was no significant increase or decrease in bullying.
Pupils in the positive psychology group also reported feeling significantly better about their physical health and their family.
The report said: "Developing their own inter-personal qualities was a key focus in this intervention and may have been particularly rewarding for those pupils (bullies and victims alike) who experienced low self-esteem, and in re-structuring pupils' views towards amiability, altruism and team spirit."
For the study, 206 pupils completed questionnaires about bullying before and after a series of eight weekly 50-minute sessions involving positive psychology, held during PSE lessons.
"Pupils focused on how they could build on what they had in positive interpersonal attributes to address the key issues of bullying," said Andrew Richards, who led the study while at York St John University.
In one session, each pupil designed a poster to depict an "interpersonal qualitystrength", which had to include a statement mentioning that quality. "Fairness includes everybody" was one example.
However, the study did not improve pupils' feelings about school, themselves and friends, and there were no significant differences in mental health. The report suggests it was "overly ambitious" to expect discernible mental health improvements in such a short period.
In addition to the positive psychology and control groups, a third group addressed bullying more directly.
"In this school, where we just focused on talking about bullying, the incidence increased because of what we did," Mr Richards said. "It looks like talking about bullying issues increases reports of bullying."
This rise is largely thought to be because pupils' definitions of bullying are often quite narrow before they take part in anti-bullying work. "You can potentially hyper-sensitise pupils to bullying, so that they see bullying around every corner," Mr Richards said.