Bullying, A Serious Business

What Is Being Done About Bullying?

In trying to combat bullying, U.S. educators have modeled their efforts on a pioneering program developed in Norway in the 1980s by psychologist Dan Olweus, Ph.D., of the University of Bergen. Dr. Olweus created his program following a rash of suicides there by bullied youngsters. The program, tested with Norwegian fourth- through seventh-graders, reduced bullying by 50% within two years while improving the overall atmosphere in schools.

One key to this program is its recognition that bullying won't stop until everyone agrees not to tolerate it. "This isn't a curriculum," Dr. Limber explains. "It's incorporated into the school's life. Administrators, teachers, parents, and staff need to know how to intervene." The program also aims to convince students that bullying must be reported.

Dr. Limber and Dr. Olweus are directing a bully-prevention program that is being evaluated as one of 10 model projects in a national violence prevention initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. "Bullying has always existed, but the potential for what can happen is much more serious today," says Katie Moffett, guidance counselor at Liberty Middle School in Ashland, VA, which is testing the program. Moreover, says Moffett, "It used to be that everyone in a neighborhood knew one another and people looked out for one another's children. Those safety nets are not in place any longer, and more kids are at risk."

When Liberty first introduced its anti-bullying program, the school community was hesitant. "Before, children hadn't wanted to talk about being bullied," Moffett says. But when the principal explained to each grade individually that bullying would no longer be tolerated, students began opening up. "They talked about what it's like to see other kids hassled and not know what to do, afraid that if you step in, it will happen to you."

Liberty's program teaches victims how to assert themselves, and works with the bullies as well. But the thrust of the program is geared toward the once-silent majority. Students are asked to include children who are typically left out-to clear a space at the lunch table, say, or draw them into conversations. Many students have responded enthusiastically. "People -- both teachers and kids -- are noticing bullying more," Moffett says. Still, she adds, "This isn't something you can change overnight. It takes time."

The earlier children learn not to bully, then, the better. Nancy W. Sager, an education and behavioral consultant in Englewood, CO, helped create an elementary-age program called "Bully-Proofing Your School," adapting it for kindergartners as well. "We talk about what a positive friendship looks like and feels like," she says. "We talk about what to do if kids aren't being friendly, and the difference between telling and tattling. These are topics all kids can relate to."

Even some preschools are working to give children problem-solving skills that will stop aggression before it starts. Children learn to consider the options before they act: If they want to play with someone's toy, are there better alternatives than snatching it away? How would it feel to be the child whose toy gets snatched? "This is the age when children are developing habits of thought that will guide them through various phases of life," says Dr. Slaby, who coauthored a teaching guide on violence prevention. "We can start to shape those habits in a way that prepares children to be violence-preventers."

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