Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

What Works to Stop Bullying

by Steve Johnson

We've had a year of polarized debate about bullying. On one side we have those who believe the bullying that resulted in the suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi is a form of anti-gay discrimination and that those who disagree are homophobes. On the other side are those who are convinced that liberals and gay rights groups are advancing some kind of "homosexual agenda" under the guise of an anti-bullying curriculum.

One thing is clear: We're not going to stop bullying in our schools until we stop bullying each other over how to address the problem. Let's make a New Year's pledge to talk about bullying the way we'd like to see our kids talk to each other. Let's focus on proven strategies that can accomplish what all people of goodwill want: an end to the harassment of vulnerable children.

Here's what we know works to reduce bullying in schools:

  • Educating, not just punishing, the perpetrators.
  • Training bystanders to be allies of the victim.
  • Not allowing the isolation or taunting of any child for any reason.
  • But these simple steps seem not to satisfy those who must fit bullying into their preconceived ideas about what is wrong with American education. They tend to be divided into two camps:

    Camp 1: Bullying is an anti-social, aggressive act by an isolated individual, which should be dealt with as an individual behavioral offense by punishing the bully. The call for more of a systemic response is just an excuse to smuggle a homosexual or other left-wing "tolerance agenda" into the schools.

    Camp 2: Bullying is all about the culture of the school, and school culture is a reflection of intolerance in the larger society. What's called for is a complete re-socialization of the students through a tolerance curriculum.

    Were there any evidence supporting either of these positions, we might be able to declare which camp is right and then proceed to conquer bullying. But in fact, a long history of research on bullying shows neither is an effective approach.

    Bullies do, indeed, engage in anti-social behavior. They need to be confronted with that behavior and told why it is inappropriate, and they need to experience negative consequences for what they have done.

    But punishing them is not enough. Children need to be told what they should have done instead of bullying, and they need to commit to doing that in the future. Unless aggressive children go through this kind of process, their anti-social behavior will increase rather than decrease.

    By the same token, a strategy of re-socialization is also insufficient. Yes, bullies often reflect the prejudices and intolerance of the larger society. But a re-socialization approach assumes that we can change people and their beliefs in a way that no social science tells us we can do. Most of the anti-bullying programs based on re-socialization have no social science behind them; there's no valid research that suggests that they are helpful.

    Unlike approaches based on ideology, successful anti-bullying programs are quite practical and concrete: They use anonymous surveys to sample the current climate within the school. Then they go about changing the culture of the school by working primarily on bystander behavior. They make it OK for students to report bullying by altering the notion of what students consider tattling.

    Successful anti-bullying efforts address precursor behaviors to bullying, like exclusion, with rules that children understand - "You can't say, 'You can't play.' " And, while good programs do not blame the victims, they do include social skills instruction for children who are picked on to help reduce the chances they will continue to be victimized.

    Most important, successful programs change the bystander behavior of adults. They challenge false beliefs among teachers and parents about the nature of bullying - that being bullied "builds character," that "boys will be boys." In short, they make clear that adults must not stand by when bullying takes place.

    None of these components of a successful anti-bullying program is particularly difficult to learn or expensive to implement. What these programs do require, though, is for both camps in the debate to put their ideologies aside long enough to put the proven strategies to work.

    Steve Johnson, a former teacher and principal, is director of character education at Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. He is the creator of the Character-Based Literacy Curriculum, which is widely used in California counties.

    This article appeared originally in the San Francisco Chronicle.

    December 2010


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