Bullying: 5 Common Responses to Avoid

While we all want to do the right thing when confronted with a bullying situation, the right response may not always be clear to us. It is clear that some strategies are more effective than others. Here we review a few strategies that researchers suggest are not effective at reducing bullying or stopping it from reoccurring. While some of these may surprise you, others will probably make sense when you consider the reasons why they are not recommended, because they either increase bullying behaviors or make the situation worse.

  1. Zero-tolerance punitive policies: These policies and practices are often put in place because schools want to get tough or convey the message that bullying will not be accepted or tolerated. While we understand the motivation behind these policies, the research results are not entirely positive, as these approaches often send mixed messages to kids and families about how these issues will be handled. For example, when a school uses threats of severe punishment (suspensions, expulsions) to address bullying behaviors, such as a three-strike rule or immediate suspension for one offense, this can really deter students, parents, and teachers from trying to get help for the student who bullies. They may not report the behaviors, or may wait until the behaviors are really extreme. But this type of exclusive and punitive response does not address the underlying reasons for bullying, or shift the norm to getting help for skill development—for both the kids who bully and those who are bullied. Rather, it focuses on punishing the child who bullied, when we know that prosocial skills training for the student who bullies is more effective.
  2. Conflict resolution and peer mediation: While these strategies can help students resolve conflicts, model appropriate social behaviors, and increase communication skills, this method assumes joint peer-led problem solving. Given that bullying is not merely conflict and includes a power imbalance and repetition, victims often do not have the ability or social power to provide a solution to repeated hostile bullying.
  3. Groups for children who bully: Having small groups for treating children who display bullying perpetration behaviors (e.g., anger management) has been found to propagate the negative behaviors. Groups that include both prosocial children and children who bully would be more effective. Importantly, children who bully do not always have self-esteem issues, so it is important not to focus on building confidence alone. Some children with strong leadership skills may bully because it brings a desired outcome, like being popular. Other topics include helping children to use their power for good and using their social status and leadership capabilities to improve their relationships with friends and to help out others in need.
  4. Brief assemblies or one-time awareness events: If a school provides only a quick and simple response such as a school-wide assembly or an awareness-raising hour or pledging event, it is unlikely to decrease bullying behaviors. Similarly, a single teacher may not be able to affect systemic change in the school through these types of events. So a more holistic and systemic approach is needed, whereby the topics of bullying, empathy, and peer relationships should be incorporated into class lessons and highlighted in the curriculum and through daily examples.
  5. Awareness-raising events focused on suicide and bullying: The media has a tendency to use fear-based approaches, emphasizing a causal association between suicide and bullying. Schools may take this approach as well to raise awareness of the two complex behaviors. However, there are increasing concerns regarding suicide contagion effects (this is when exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviors within one’s peer group or through media reports result in an increase in suicide and suicidal behaviors; Flannery et al., 2016; Holt, Bowman, Alexis, & Murphy, 2018). Schools should be extremely cautious about focusing on this link (see National Academies of Sciences, 2016). Suicide among children is a highly challenging issue with increasing concern. Thus we strongly encourage that you get the advice and help of a mental health expert, guidance counselor, or school psychologist in how best to address this issue with your students.

Catherine P. Bradshaw, a professor at the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia, and codirector of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence, lives in Charlottesville.

Tracy Evian Waasdorp, Ph.D., M.Ed. is a research faculty member in the Department of Mental Health at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and a research scientist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. 

This post is an excerpt from Catherine and Tracy’s forthcoming book, Preventing Bullying in Schools: A Social and Emotional Learning Approach to Prevention and Early Intervention (W. W. Norton), publishing January 7, 2020.

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