Guest column: Prevention in schools and affirmation at home stops bullying

By Anne Williford, Associate Professor and Ph.D. Program Director, School of Social Work, Colorado State University

a child in front of elementary school with an uncertain look on her face
At home, parents and caregivers can support children who may be involved in or have witnessed bullying. One of the best strategies is to talk with children about their experiences at school, and in particular about their interactions with friends and other classmates.

We know what works for bullying prevention. Decades of research clearly show the effectiveness of prevention strategies for bullying. The United States federal government has issued guidelines. A school’s climate and culture is an essential component of bullying prevention and intervention.

So why do children continue to be involved in bullying as perpetrators, victims, and/or bystanders? National Bullying Prevention Month in October reminds us that bullying remains a worrisome problem for children, parents, educators, and policymakers alike.

The national data support prevention, but the data also show bullying involvement varies across childhood and adolescence, with rates ranging from 30% to 50% for those involved as perpetrators and/or victims. Rates of bystander involvement are even higher. Approximately 70% of students reporting they have witnessed bullying.

Bullying prevention or intervention practices, strategies, or programs can work efficiently and effectively. Schools must start with a climate that is safe, equitable, and positive — for staff and students alike.

The science of bullying

Bullying is a distinct form of aggression that is predicated on a power imbalance, meaning that children targeted by bullying are often perceived as weaker in some way — for example in physical size or social status — and therefore less likely to defend themselves.

While physical acts of bullying (hitting, kicking, or physical intimidation) are less common, verbal bullying (hurtful name-calling, taunting) and relational bullying (social exclusion, gossiping) are found to commonly occur and become more prevalent as children age, with most bullying behavior peaking in middle school.

In recent years, cyber bullying has become a cause for great concern. Social media and text messages can be hard for youth to escape. There is widespread access to these technologies and the potential exists for a single act—like a social media post—to be seen immediately by a wide audience of peers.

All forms of bullying carry significant consequences for those involved, with the most pronounced impacts on those targeted by their peers. As a result, parents, educators, and policymakers commonly seek effective solutions to this concerning problem.

Addressing bullying at school and at home

Effective school-based prevention programs do exist and are commonly implemented across the nation.  The impacts of school-based prevention programs are significant. An example is KiVa – an anti-bullying program developed in Finland.

KiVa works to strengthen bystander intervention by improving peer responses to bullying incidents and has been shown to reduce bullying and peer victimization in recent investigations.

At home, parents and caregivers can support children who may be involved in or have witnessed bullying. One of the best strategies is to talk with children about their experiences at school, and in particular about their interactions with friends and other classmates.

If a child reveals they may have been the target of bullying, it is important to talk with the child to get details of the incident. These conversations are crucial; talking with the child allows parents to use a wide range of tools for intervention:

  • Affirm the child’s feelings: “You were right to tell me this.”
  • Try to determine if this is an isolated event or on-going problem.
  • Offer solutions such as how to avoid the bully.
  • Identify supportive peers and adults who can help.
  • Follow up multiple times to make sure the bullying has stopped.

If a child has been accused of bullying, it is important to keep in mind that while this is something to take seriously, it does not mean that the child is a bad kid. Parents can reframe the situation into a teaching moment. Making sure the child understands the incident as bullying and emphasizing that bullying is harmful for the peer targeted are both critical.

Resources for bullying prevention and intervention

Regardless if a child is involved in a bullying incident or simply a witness, it is important for parents and schools to work together to solve the problem. There is no doubt of its presence in schools, but schools can work to build positive climates.

In my collaborative work, schools receive guidance on developing effective policies and practices to prevent bullying. In particular, it is important for schools to define clearly what bullying is, including what behaviors are specifically prohibited.

It is highly recommended that schools also consider establishing policies that specifically prohibit gender-based bullying as well as racially-biased bullying. There is evidence that LGTBQ youth, students with disabilities, and racial/ethnic minority students are at higher risk of being targeted by their peers.

There are a number of additional resources to support students and families. In Colorado, Safe2Tell is an anonymous hotline to report incidents of bullying and other threats to school safety. The hotline is also an excellent resource to help a child or adolescent in need and can be reached at 1-877-542-7233. Reports can be submitted online or via their mobile app.

colorado state university school of social work associate professor anne williford
Anne Williford

Anne Williford is an associate professor and Ph.D. program director in CSU’s School of Social Work. Her research focuses on the etiology of youth violence, particularly emphasizing ecological factors that contribute to the development and maintenance of aggressive and violent behaviors in peer, school, family, and community settings. A critical aim of her research and scholarship is to identify effective prevention and intervention strategies to mitigate aggressive behavior and promote positive behavioral health outcomes among children and adolescents.

Read more about Williford’s latest research.