Combat bullying by empowering whole school

Combat bullying by empowering whole school rather than focussing just on bullies and victims

By Silja Saarento and , | December 2015 

Targeting prevention efforts at the entire peer group supports expression of anti-bullying attitudes and makes it harder for bullying to carry on.

Schools’ anti-bullying strategies sometimes fail because they focus too narrowly on bullies and their victims. Our research demonstrates that preventive work should encompass the whole school culture, empowering bystanders to express disapproval and to intervene on behalf of victims.

“In groups where trust, respect and friendship tend to be lacking, bullying can be the ‘glue’ that holds the group together. However, the group, if aware and empowered, can put a stop to the bullying or maintain it, depending on how individuals react.”

We found that children and adolescents were empowered if they understood how their group’s behaviour could support bullying. Bullying behaviour was reduced if students practiced withdrawing social rewards from bullies and understood ways to help victimized peers. Targeting prevention efforts at the entire peer group supported expression of anti-bullying attitudes and made it harder for bullying to carry on.

Every time we learn of a case of bullying, it’s important to tackle it. Bullies should hear that the behaviour is unacceptable, that they must change their behaviour. Victims should be told that their mistreatment was wrong and should be shown support. However, rather than simply fighting fires like this, it would be more effective to invest in prevention of bullying.

The consequences of failure are considerable. Victimisation by bullies can lead to school avoidance as well as to self-esteem problems, depression and anxiety. It has even been linked to suicide. If we don’t intervene with perpetrators, their behaviour can carry on into the adult workplace. Bullies tend to be more involved in delinquent behaviour as they grow older, as well as dating violence and general aggression in relationships. And children who have only been witnesses of bullying can be harmed. They may experience anxiety, perhaps because they fear for themselves or feel empathy for the victim.

Finland’s KiVa anti-bullying program, which operates in several other European countries as well, conceives of bullying as a group process. So it explicitly targets bystanders to raise students’ awareness of group processes in bullying and encourages them to support victimized peers rather than reinforce the bullies. Such programs have increased the likelihood that students will intervene as bystanders and has decreased their tendency to reinforce bullies’ actions. Evidence shows that preventive school-based activity can also reduce online bullying because it influences children’s views about bullying.

Teachers are important in setting the tone. Our research shows that children who perceived their teacher to increasingly disapprove of bullying were less likely to bully later on. Victimization declined most in classrooms where teachers conscientiously followed anti-bullying curricula.

Effective programs start with understanding how bullying functions for perpetrators and for the whole group. In groups where trust, respect and friendship tend to be lacking, bullying can be the ‘glue’ that holds the group together. Such groups often have weak anti-bullying attitudes – children tend to think that bullying is OK and that victims deserve it. In these circumstances, bullying can provide a semblance of cohesion for the group, albeit at the victims’ expense. It also allows perpetrators to improve their status, making them popular and visible in their peer group. And other children may believe that if they intervene, they will also become unpopular and perhaps become the bully’s next target. However, an aware and empowered group can withdraw status from the bully. The group can put a stop to bullying or maintain it, depending on how individuals react, by showing they are against the bullying.

There are evidence-based programs designed to teach children about accepting others as they are. Before talking about bullying, they talk about respecting others. The KiVa program begins by teaching about emotions, group dynamics and the principle of inclusion, rather than tackling bullying straight away. For example, when school starts, a new group of children forms. It’s important at that point to know how relationships between children are forming, to create opportunities for everyone to get to know one another, and help prevent a dysfunctional atmosphere from being created.

Once children have key skills – for regulating their emotions and respecting their peers – then the learning moves to bullying and what members of the group can do to prevent it, or how children’s behaviour might reinforce bullying. KiVa, for example, offers a variety of activities for children to practice not being passive around a bully. They can do group dramatic role playing and can experiment with electronic learning environments through online games.

Bystanders are important. Their silence can offer enough social reward to sustain bullying. Often only a minority of students show support for victims by actively intervening or otherwise offering support by talking to victims after an incident has taken place. These defenders can play a major role in determining not only whether the bullying continues but also how it affects victims. Those subject to bullying often say that the worst part wasn’t the incident itself, but the fact that no one defended them. Defenders can be crucial in helping a victim recover.

In many parts of the world, there is a welcome desire to reduce bullying. But too little of what people do about bullying is based on sound evidence. Policy makers should support evidence-based approaches to bullying, such as KiVa.


Saarento S & Salmivalli C (2015), The Role of Classroom Peer Ecology and Bystanders’ Responses in Bullying, Child Development Perspectives, 9.4

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