A school-wide anti-bullying program that really works?

Students sit in a school-wide morning assembly, at Seekan School, Bangkok. Thailand. Photo: Charlie Edward/ Shutterstock.com
A school-wide anti-bullying program that really works?
20 December 2012

Schools invest scarce time and money to put a stop to bullying and end the misery that it inflicts on children. Can they trust that the programs they adopt really work? Maybe not, according to reviews of the evidence. However, a new study encouragingly finds that one program makes a small but reliable difference.

For kids whose school days are made hellish by bullies, help is needed and needed soon. The damage they face goes beyond the classroom – emotional scars can last for years.

Fortunately, schools have begun to take the problem seriously, and many have adopted new anti-bullying programs. School leaders can take pride in having done something to stop bullying, and victims can trust that their lives and opportunities to learn unimpeded will improve.

Or can they?

Recent evidence of the effectiveness of anti-bullying programs has not been encouraging. Under the scrutiny of hardheaded evaluation, the hopes and promises of many programs have faded.

Comprehensive reviews find that whole-school bullying prevention programs, including several highly lauded ones, have negligible effects. Some outcomes may improve but most do not – and some even get worse.

Even some of the positive findings are suspect. Too often, studies rely on weak methods. One methodological review of anti-bullying programs identified deficiencies in all the 31 program evaluations it examined. Too few studies have rigorous controlled designs with proper statistical analysis.

But does this mean that schools should despair of finding school-wide anti-bullying programs that work? Encouragingly, a new study offers reliable evidence of modest benefits from one program.

Steps to Respect

A recent study published in School Psychology Review takes a more rigorous approach to evaluation than many previous studies. A team at the Social Development Research Group at the University of Washington set out to test a program developed by Committee for Children, a non-profit organization in Seattle.

The program, called Steps to Respect, aims to foster a positive school climate and change norms about the acceptability of bullying. The logic is straightforward. Bullying should be labeled as unfair and wrong. Positive relationships and empathy for students who are bullied should be encouraged. Kids as well as adults should be enlisted in the effort to change.

A whole-school approach can directly counter actions of the bullies, but it also aims to do something more: to make bystanders more willing to intervene rather than goad bullies on. Peer pressure can do much to change the bullying culture of a school.

Steps to Respect includes classroom lessons for kids in third, fourth, and fifth grade (around ages 8-10). The lessons are geared toward helping kids improve their social skills, manage their emotions, and seek help. At the school level, staff members are trained to implement school-wide policies and monitor hotspots where bullying often occurs.

The logic of the program is that new awareness and concern among students, peers, and staff should change school norms about bullying and victimization, reducing the level of bullying.

Toward better evidence

To evaluate the program, the researchers recruited 33 schools – a large enough number to avoid the common problem of comparing only a handful of schools. They assigned them randomly to a treatment condition (Steps to Respect) and control condition (no intervention).

Within each school, the study selected third-, fourth-, or fifth-grade classrooms for study. The sample overall included 128 classrooms in the schools and 2,940 students in the classrooms.

At the start of the school year, the investigators surveyed staff about the school atmosphere, surveyed teachers about student behavior, and surveyed students about their beliefs and actions. At the end of the year, to test the effect of the program, the study repeated the same surveys.

If done well, the design ensures that the two groups of schools differ little, except one goes through the intervention and the other does not. The good-sized number of schools makes it easier to dismiss the worry that any difference comes from statistical chance.

Small but consistent benefits

Did the intervention help? According to staff surveys, the environment in the Steps to Respect schools changed for the better. The staff reported that school leaders were more committed to stopping bullying and students were more willing to help others.

Teachers reported that they observed less physical bullying (pushing, shoving, or tripping weaker students). However, they did not report less nonphysical bullying. It proves harder to stop kids from hurting others with words than with punches.

Perhaps most telling are results from the students themselves. Compared to the control schools, the intervention schools improved on 5 of the 13 measures. Students in the intervention schools said that teachers did more to prevent and stop bullying, students did more to help others being victimized, and the school did more to control bullying.

However, the impulse to say mean things about others stubbornly persists. Student accounts confirmed teacher accounts about verbal bullying. Intervention students reported no improvement in being teased or teasing others.

Good methods matter

Overall, Steps to Respect improved about half of the study outcomes. Even if modest, these program benefits can have a big impact. When applied to a large population of schools and students, a program with small but reliable effects can save hundreds or thousands of kids from the misery of bullying. Ideally, the value of the program will be replicated by independent investigators at other sites.

Indeed, Steps to Respect has been certified as a promising program by Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development. This means the program meets exacting standard for quality and impact. Adopters can trust that it really works.
Schools adopting a program have to make a choice: select one claiming large effects but based on flawed methods or one claiming small effects that appear real. Steps to Respect gives evidence that can make the choice easier.

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Reference:

Brown, E. C., Low, S., Smith, B. H., & Haggerty, K. P. (2011). Outcomes from a school-randomized controlled trial of Steps to Respect: A bullying prevention program. School Psychology Review, 40(3), 423-443.

Prevention Action has covered this article as part of it's "What works" coverage

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