Bullying is widespread, it can destroy lives and even lead to suicide. But some methods of intervention can worsen the situation. A new worldwide study claims a whole-school approach is the best way to tackle the problem effectively. Photograph: Getty
BULLYING is often seen as an essential aspect of the human condition, something that young people must learn to endure or try to avoid. But this casual acceptance is both misguided and deeply damaging to the victims, say the experts.
"The idea that what went on in the Big Brother house was acceptable if it was 'just bullying', rather than racism, has badly missed the point about what bullying does to people," says Andrew Mellor, a former teacher and manager of Scotland's Anti-Bullying Network. "It can destroy lives. It can lead to suicide. It is demeaning to any institution that allows it to happen."
Bullying is widespread, he says, but it is not inevitable: "We know that, because it is not consistently seen in all societies and all institutions.
Research around the world shows large variations among schools."
Evidence about what works in schools has been mounting since the 1970s, when bullying first began to be taken seriously and studied scientifically.
But research since then has produced results that are often confusing and sometimes disturbing.
A newly published international review of school anti-bullying initiatives - A systematic review of school-based interventions to prevent bullying, by Rachel Vreeman and Aaron Carroll (Indiana, 2007) - reports that the use of certain common techniques "sometimes worsens bullying and victimisation".
This supports several previous evaluations, which have found almost no decrease in bullying, and in some cases even an increase.
For their research, Dr Vreeman and Dr Carroll, both of the Indiana University School of Med-icine, classified anti-bullying initiatives around the world into broad groups, depending on the type of intervention. Most studies, their survey revealed, were of whole-school or curriculum interventions, with the latter, classroom-based, efforts emerging as less effective - and making things worse. A third type of intervention was classed as "social skills groups" - and here, too, the research studies generally found no improvement.
"The way these worked was by selecting children who were bullying or were being bullied, to work in groups on social and behaviour skills," says Dr Vreeman.
Two mechanisms, she believes - arising from focusing on individuals - help explain the disappointing outcomes from social skills groups. "The very act of selecting the victims and putting them in groups can make them even more isolated and stigmatised. Meanwhile, the bullies, through increased contact with aggressive peers, may be learning to become more aggressive," she says. "The clear message from the research is that bullying is a systemic problem so it demands a systemic approach. A whole-school approach is needed to tackle bullying effectively."
Whole-school approaches are multi-disciplinary, she says. They use a combination of "schoolwide rules and sanctions, teacher training, classroom curriculum, conflict resolution training and individual counselling". They aim to alter the school environment by involving people at all levels - from individual pupils and peer groups to teachers, managers and support staff.
But even within this broad grouping, the research reveals a wide variation in effectiveness. The reason can be traced, Dr Vreeman believes, to widely varying levels of commitment among teachers and managers to the intervention programme implemented at their schools. "There is evidence to suggest that the intervention needs to be specific to a school's culture - the country it is in, whether it's in a rural or urban area, and so on. By increasing levels of commitment among members of the school community, this makes intervention more effective."
Ken Rigby, a professor at the University of South Australia, is a world authority on bullying and peer victimisation. He says schools need to take a balanced view of the research. "An appraisal highlighting negative outcomes can be discouraging and play into the hands of the cynics who say: 'Told you so; bullying is part of human nature. Kids must learn to put up with it'."
But equally deplorable is the "Pollyanna perspective", he says. This involves closing our eyes to negative findings and "proclaiming that we can just stamp it out" and all will be well. "Obtaining a balanced view of how successful anti-bullying interventions can be is not easy."
Professor Rigby feels that discussions of anti-bullying interventions often exaggerate the bad news. So, too, does Andrew Mellor: "It is difficult to make comparisons, because the research has rarely been done in a consistent way. This paper does a good job of trying to pick the essence out of a great deal of research from different countries.
"One difficulty it doesn't mention is that many languages have no word for bullying. So the Scandinavians, who led the way in this kind of research, had to borrow a word from English. In French and Italian there is no word for it. I was in Spain recently and they were all talking about bullying - which is not a Spanish word. In all these countries the concept of bullying did not exist until very recently."
Britain, on the other hand, has recognised the bullies and how they behave in schools for a long time: "In this country we know about bullying - it's just that we have ignored it for far too long. That is changing," says Mr Mellor.
This otherwise desirable change can, however, bring problems of its own, particularly when it comes to evaluating the effectiveness of anti-bullying initiatives. These problems go some way to explaining the negative findings.
An anti-bullying programme raises everyone's awareness of bullying, says Professor Rigby - particularly that of the pupils, whose self-reported perceptions underpin most research studies. "They begin to see actions as bullying that they had not considered to be bullying at all, especially those involving indirect forms, such as exclusion and rumour-spreading," he says. "The reporting of bullying is likely to increase during the course of an intervention, leading us to underrate actual improvements in behaviour."
While accepting that this can explain some of the negative findings, Rachel Vreeman, lead author of the paper, points to a genuine mechanism by which attempts to tackle bullying can make things worse.
"Interventions that take place only in the classroom without any whole-school change can focus attention on the small number of children who are doing the bullying," she says.
"This can mean they experience more... celebrity, if you like. They take the increased attention, even though it is disapproving, as reinforcement for their behaviour."
On the whole, the findings of the Indiana University research study accord with Andrew Mellor's direct experience in Scotland and his interpretation of previous research. He likewise cautions against methods that can make matters worse.
"People often want to use mediation. It is wholly inappropriate," he says.
"Bullying is about an imbalance of power. Why expect someone who has been seriously affected - possibly traumatised - to sit down and talk things over with the person who has been doing the bullying? It does not work.
"Anti-bullying is a whole-school issue. It is about the ethos of a school, the values that are set in it, the way discipline is interpreted. I am convinced that the work we do in schools to defeat bullying is effective.
But we have a long way to go still."
It is worthwhile casting a wider net to include some approaches that "do not come with an anti-bullying label", Mr Mellor believes. "Restorative practices can be really helpful. So, too, can all the work being done to involve young people in decision-making.
"Adults aren't often around to intervene directly in bullying incidents. We have to rely on the young people themselves. We have to empower them. It does take time to beat bullying. It is about slow, steady development work.
There is no magic bullet."
Anti-Bullying Network: www.antibullying.net A systematic review of school-based interventions to prevent bullying, by R Vreeman and A Carroll, Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 2007
Ways to handle bullying
1. Begin with a clear definition: bullying is hurtful behaviour against the less powerful. It is usually repeated.
2. Recognise that it can take many forms: consider the power imbalance and why the actions are unjustified.
3. Discover how power is being abused.
4. Prepare an anti-bullying policy devised by teachers, students and parents. This should contain: a statement of the school's stand against bullying; a definition with examples; a declaration of the right to be free of bullying; the responsibilities of those who see it happening; how incidents will be dealt with; an undertaking to evaluate the policy.
5. Work with pupils. Aim to convince them it is in their interests to beat bullying, then to turn those feelings into action. Workshops can include role-playing then discussing an incident; writing an essay about a conflict; watching a video or reading a book such as Cat's Eye, by Margaret Attwood.
6. Deal appropriately with incidents. Many schools adopt the method of shared concern. Perpetrators are identified and spoken to without threats.
Where bullying continues, sanctions may be applied.
7. Work with parents: restraint is needed in interviewing parents of bullies or victims. If met with denial, a school must take firm action.
Adapted from research-based anti-bullying guidance for schools, by Ken Rigby at the University of South Australia: www.education.unisa.edu.aubullying The method of shared concern: www.education.unisa.edu.aubullyingconcern.html