In September 2018, I wrote about the so-called “Trump effect” on bullying in schools, citing a study that found higher bullying rates in GOP districts after the 2016 presidential election. But that piece raised an important question: what should schools do to address and prevent bullying?
The scientific evidence on what works is complicated.
There’s a whole cottage industry of consultants selling anti-bullying programs to schools but academic researchers say there is no proof they work. There are some small studies with positive results. But when reputable researchers study efforts to expand these strategies across schools among many students and compare bullying rates with those at schools that didn’t receive the intervention, there tends not to be a difference. For example, this 2007 review of anti-bullying programs found “little discernible effect on youth participants.”
“A lot of us know the dirty secret that these [bullying-prevention] programs don’t work out in the real world,” said Ron Avi Astor, an educational psychologist at the University of Southern California and an expert in bullying prevention. “All of us talk about it.”
Meanwhile, researchers notice that schools often address bullying in ways that are counter productive. Jonathan Cohen, a psychologist and an adjunct professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, is currently working on a paper about the gap between anti-bullying policies and the scientific evidence on bullying. He found that state policies typically encourage schools to focus on identifying bullies and punishing them. Often a student who is misbehaving and treating another student badly is sent to the principal’s office and punished with a suspension or an expulsion, Cohen said.
“That flies in the face of twenty-some years of empirical research that shows punishing kids is unhelpful,” said Cohen.
Instead, he argues that schools should combine consequences for bullies with mediation, counseling or a learning experience. “Not all, but characteristically, the students who fall into the profile of a mean, bullying person, are in fact people who are struggling with psychological issues,” Cohen said.
Severe punishments can often backfire and exacerbate bullying, according to Christian Villenas, research director at the National School Climate Center. “Sometimes students feel that they were defending themselves and now they’re being punished for it,” he said. “That can end up escalating the issue, online or somewhere else” outside of school.
School shootings and violence have prompted schools to take an even more punitive stance against student misbehavior, experts I talked to said. School boards are responding to understandable parental fears but not factoring in what academic experts and researchers believe to be true.
The current consensus on how to reduce bullying is amorphous. Researchers talk about “holistic” and “multi-faceted” approaches that focus on improving both “school climate” and “social-emotional learning.” It’s a lot of jargon but from what I can tell, they’re talking about building a strong, caring community where students learn to take personal responsibility for their own actions. Rather than targeting the bullies, the idea is to teach everyone to be a better person. Researchers believe that bullying can thrive when it’s socially acceptable and bullying is more likely to be tamped down when it’s not “cool.” (This 2013 report from the American Educational Research Association lays out the research community’s recommendations more thoroughly. Notice that holding a school-wide assembly where the principal tells everyone not to be a bully isn’t among them; experts say these events don’t resonate with kids. )
However, even these community-oriented approaches haven’t been 100 percent scientifically proven to work. What researchers know is that the higher a school’s climate rating — that is, the more that students, parents and teachers think their school is a safe place where people are respected — the lower the bullying rates. Similarly, the higher the social-emotional skills, such as the ability to wait and not react impulsively, the lower the bullying rates. But what hasn’t been clearly proven is that improvements in school climate or social-emotional skills will necessarily lead to a reduction in bullying.
“We’re not seeing climate improvement by itself reduces violence,” said USC’s Astor. Astor’s research is now looking at how academic improvements at schools, combined with school climate improvements, together can reduce violence or bullying at schools.
It’s also unclear how big a problem bullying is and whether it’s getting worse. Many researchers say that roughly 1 in 5 students experiences some sort of bullying in a given academic year, a rate that has been stable for many years. In September 2018, a nonprofit group that regularly surveys students to inform philanthropists called YouthTruth claimed that bullying significantly worsened in the 2017-18 school year and now 1 in 3 students is bullied. (But the organization didn’t survey a nationally representative sample of students. The 160,000 students who filled out their survey were disproportionately from high-poverty urban schools where rates of bullying tend to be higher.)
Meanwhile, many behaviors that might be considered to be part of bullying, such as fighting, have dropped dramatically since the 1990s, according to the federal government’s indicators of school crime and safety.
“We’re seeing a decrease in these [bullying] behaviors but an increase in people claiming bullying,” Astor said. “It’s a subjective category.” As our society changes its notions of what is acceptable behavior, we might be lowering the bar on what is considered bullying. For example, a student who was teased regularly in the 1970s might not have considered the taunting to be cruel enough to cross the threshold into bullying. But a victim of the same teasing now might characterize it that way.
Indeed, confusion over what bullying is and isn’t makes it very hard for schools and teachers to document and track. Cohen points out that many states have advised schools to use an academic definition, which narrowly defines bullying as something that is repeatedly done to be intentionally cruel and by a kid who is more powerful than the victim. Often teachers don’t know for certain if a bullying incident has happened before or if it was intended to be cruel. Sometimes incidents don’t get reported that ought to be.
“This is a scholarly definition which is useful for researchers but it’s very confusing and unhelpful for teachers and school administrators,” he said. Often schools are blamed for not adhering to what the research says but here’s an example of the research community undermining practice.
This story about bully prevention programs was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.