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In the wake of society’s newfound awareness about bullying, many schools are rushing to implement anti-bullying curriculum to try and address the problem. The U.S. education system has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in anti-bullying campaigns in recent years. (Cloud, 2010) But before school administrators and parents push for often expensive antibullying curricula to be paid for from already strained budgets, it’s important they have realistic expectations about just what these programs accomplish (and know what types of programs actually work), so that precious money and resources are well-spent.

The effectiveness of anti-bullying education programs

Unfortunately, those anti-bullying education programs which do exist have tended to produce little or no gains when independently studied. Psychologists Susan Swearer and Janice Delucia-Waack, from the University at Buffalo’s Center for the Prevention of Bullying, Abuse, and School Violence, note that “no U.S. program has been shown to significantly reduce the slings and arrows of the school yard. In fact, according to a 2008 report, the average teacher reported more bullying after intervention than before.” (Swearer & Delucia-Waack, 2010) One shouldn’t read too much into this uptick in bullying after school programs are implemented; this is likely attributable to greater awareness, and thus, a slight increase in reporting of bullying incidents. But it does illustrate that solving the bullying problem isn’t as simple as ordering up an intervention program.

Although numerous programs claim to have research backing their effectiveness (usually funded by the program as part of a sales and marketing campaign), these results tend to disappear under closer scrutiny. A large meta-analysis conducted in 2008 by University of Oregon researchers concluded that school bullying interventions were only modestly effective at best, and “it should not be expected that these interventions will dramatically influence the incidence of actual bullying and victimization behaviors.” (Heller, 2011, p. 87) So to the dismay of politicians and community activists who like to pretend that a quick fix is only a bill or regulation away, whittling away at the bullying epidemic is going to require more work than that.

This isn’t to say that there is no hope for progress, or that bullying education programs are useless. Rather, it simply means that the type of superficial programs typically implemented don’t go far enough. School education programs can preach to kids about bullying and its effects, but to truly address the root causes of bullying, especially in middle and high school, a school’s efforts need to go deeper than this. Bullying is a multi-faceted problem with many roots, ranging from the way parents inadvertently encourage bullying to the tremendously negative media culture which not only condones but glorifies hostility and bullying of all types. Countering this influence can’t be accomplished simply by ordering up a seminar or having the kids watch a classroom video. It requires a comprehensive ongoing approach.

What to look for in a school bullying program

To effectively make a dent in bullying, schools need to look at developing / implementing a program that addresses the following areas of need:

1. An effective bullying prevention program needs to be comprehensive. It should address issues of social and emotional intelligence, not simply be aimed at bullying in particular. Ideally, principles of emotional intelligence would be a normal part of K through 8 education right alongside math, but with school budgets being slashed up Freddy Cougar-style as it is, this is unlikely to happen. School principles and administrators can, however, urge teachers to use the free resources we offer for social/emotional intelligence in their classrooms.

2. If a school district is serious about preventing bullying, it needs to implement programs at all grade levels, starting early in elementary school and continuing at least through junior high. You wouldn’t expect kids to master calculus by talking about it once and then ignoring it for years. Social skills need just as much work to develop.

3. It needs to include teacher training as part of the effort. Teachers are on the front lines so to speak, and need to be actively involved in any anti-bullying initiative.

4. Programs need to target bystanders, not just victims and bullies. Bystanders are the most malleable and potentially influential part of the bullying environment. Dr. Stuart Twemlow, co-author of Why School Antibullying Programs Don’t Work, has found that schools which focus efforts around punishing bullies and counseling victims have higher rates of violence than those that aim to curb the problem by reaching bystanders. (Cloud, 2012)

5. All programs should be based upon restorative, inclusive principles. Any program that is based on bully-punishment or which makes bullies out to be “bad seeds” is a bad program, no exceptions.

Keep in mind that we offer free anti-bullying curriculum materials for grades 3 through 6, and also have a number of stand-alone anti-bullying materials for kids of all ages, with additional resources in development. We generally allow schools and districts to reproduce these materials in bulk as needed, (please send us a quick email first about your plans) so we would encourage you to utilize them as much as possible.

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