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Anti-bullying strategies need an evidence base

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Experts studying the problem of bullying say adult reactions to it can do more harm than good. When dealing with bullying, the most effective interventions come after listening to the bullied person and tailoring a response which is specific to them.

Commonly used anti-bullying strategies don’t seem to have made a big difference to the amount of bullying that is happening, for instance encouraging students to speak up about bullying potentially opens them up for more severe retaliation if confidentiality is not provided.

Associate Professor Barbara Spears of the University of South Australia, the Chair of the Australian Universities Anti-Bullying Research Alliance says, "For some time we have been suggesting that a whole school approach is required to deal with bullying, and the evidence suggests that this does help to reduce bullying, but it is not the complete story."

"We also need to have differentiated, tiered intervention and prevention strategies: some universal information for everyone, as well as targeted and specific approaches that are tailored to the needs of particular students in that community, whether they are perpetrating or experiencing victimisation, or standing by while it happens."

"As schools also reflect the communities around them, it is important that all aspects of each community work together to prevent bullying and support those who have been victimised. Bullying is everyone’s problem, not just a school’s. We must listen to our young people and do better to model alternative solutions to bullying, aggression and violence."

Professor Marilyn Campbell of the Queensland University of Technology is another leading expert on bullying, and a member of the Australian Universities Anti-Bullying Research Alliance. She said that both past and present approaches to bullying have often been ineffective.

"The most general advice to young people who were bullied used to be ignore it and walk away," said Campbell.  "With the knowledge of the often devastating harm that bullying can cause we have changed our advice to say to the bullied student to tell an adult. In a school context that is usually a teacher."

"However, bullying in schools is not significantly decreasing. Perhaps we are not responding to young people in the most effective way."

"Instead of listening and hearing what the young person wants us to do we usually investigate and punish. This often brings more humiliation to the bullied student because of the lack of confidentiality and sometimes, if the bullying is severe, more retaliation, increasing the bullying."

Professor Phillip Slee of Flinders University noted that, “Some groups are particularly vulnerable, such as children on the autistic spectrum, those who are LGBTQI, and those with special educational needs and disabilities.”

Bullying has an economic cost to the community and it is crucial that interventions proceed from a strong evidence base; while some work, others can do more harm than good.

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