Addressing Bullying in Schools: Theory and Practice

Countering bullying needs to be a collaborative effort.
Despite awareness, bullying is not going away and is becoming more common in many places.

Although bullying among students in schools has been going on as long as schools have existed, it was only in the 1990s that the issue began to attract the close attention of educators and the general public. Increasingly, Departments of Education, schools and researchers have sought to overcome the problem, but with generally disappointing results. Recent surveys reported by UNESCO based on longitudinal surveys worldwide have indicated reductions in bullying that have been modest in size; in many cases there has been no change and, in some countries, significant increases have been reported.  At the same time, countless studies have shown that schoolchildren who are repeatedly bullied at school are likely to suffer mental health problems, a worsening in academic performance and in a disturbing number of cases opt for home schooling.

Unsurprisingly, numerous suggestions have been made on how bullying in schools can be reduced, with instructions on what schools should do. The emphasis has generally been on what is considered practical, often without much consideration as to why. Personally, I am swayed by the writings of an American social psychologist, Kurt Lewin in the 1930s, who famously said: ‘There is nothing so practical as a good theory.’

But what is such a theory that can help counter bullying?  Lewin put it in a formula:  B = f (P. E). ‘B’ was for behaviour; ’P’ for Person and ‘E’ for Environment.  Behaviour was seen as an interaction between P and E.  Although various definitions of bullying have been proposed, it is generally agreed that it involves aggressive behaviour repeatedly directed towards a less powerful person. Hence, as a behaviour, bullying may be viewed as determined by person factors, such as aggressiveness and intolerance of frustration, and also by environmental factors, such as an abusive home background and negative peer group influence at school, all in interaction. As an example, person and environmental factors may interact when an intolerance of frustration leads a student to act in accordance with negative peer group norms and repeatedly attack a defenceless person of an ethnic group towards whom there is group prejudice.

But how does the theory help? It does so in drawing attention to what causes bullying. First, there is the environment in which the student has lived and still lives. This includes the home, the school and the wider community. Clearly, the influence of the school in these areas is limited, though work with some families on cases of bullying may be both welcome and helpful. However, the greatest influence a school can make is through providing a school environment that discourages aggressive behaviour and encourages cooperation. Numerous packages for teachers have been devised to help students to develop positive social skills and related qualities, such as empathy and the capacity to resolve conflict. The best known of these is Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). Some have been found to work in reducing bullying, but only when classroom teachers are committed to wholeheartedly implement a relevant program. Indeed, such programs have sometimes made worse. Hence the need for considerable discussion and teacher preparation beforehand.

Teachers commonly identify students who are prone to bully or become victims, or fit both categories: that is, they see who are the persons more likely to be involved directly in bullying. They see that cases of bullying are likely to continue unless some change is induced in the personality or character of those directly involved. Controversy has raged about whether teachers or counsellors can, or even should, act to induce necessary change. Sometimes among teachers there is a denial that genetic factors can, under some circumstances, make bullying more likely or less likely. The evidence now is that both genetic and environmental factors may contribute in causing bullying. But what does this matter to the teacher, as distinct from the researcher?

The answer to this important question is of prime interest to those who intervene in actual cases. If there is a strong predisposition in a student to hurt others, this must be taken into account. It may become a matter of working individually with that student and/or seeking specialised help. Interventions may entail helping him or her to handle frustration and anger better, for instance through the cultivation of mindfulness. In the interest of preventing some other children being hurt, the use or threat of negative consequences or sanctions may sometimes be necessary.  At the same time, personalised attention may be directed towards helping students who are often victimised by peers and may be helped to develop greater assertiveness skills and greater resilience.

Research suggests that most bullying in schools involves groups, and can best be handled by working with group members involved in the bullying. A range of intervention methods have been devised to make this possible. The best known method is Restorative Practice. This can take place at an arranged meeting at which ‘offenders’ are required to attend and brought to appreciate and acknowledge the harm that their bullying behaviour has caused, and do so in the presence of the ‘victim,’ and promise to act restoratively.  This method may, or may not, involve the use of sanctions or punishment. In any event, the practitioner must ensure that the promise is a genuine one, acceptable to the victim and the outcome carefully monitored.

Two more methods have been devised that are non-punitive and can be applied in non-criminal cases of bullying. They are known as (i) the Support Group Method and (ii) the Method of Shared Concern. In different ways, they require the practitioner to engage closely with groups of students to work through the bullying problem. In the former, identified ‘bullies’ must attend a meeting together with other, non-involved students who have volunteered to assist in resolving the problem. The latter method is more complex, and commences with one-on-one meetings with identified or suspected perpetrators, at which the practitioner shares a concern over what has happened and requires them to say how they will help. This is followed later by a group meeting with all of them to work out an agreed solution, to be shared and discussed with the ‘victim’ who is invited to join them at a final meeting. The effectiveness of these methods is well supported by research. My own book (Rigby, 2023) provides detailed instructions on how - and when - to undertake alternative methods of intervention. 

The emphasis in this article has been on what teachers can do in preventing bullying and resolving cases of bullying. It should not, however, be concluded that achievement is single handed, whether on the part of a principal or an individual teacher or counsellor. Countering bullying needs to be a collaborative effort, which includes student bystanders (many are keen to do what they can to discourage it when they see it). Parents can play a part, especially if good relations can be established over how cases can be handled. Bullying can become a police matter and their involvement can, on occasions, be necessary. Finally, the whole school - staff and students - need to be aware of what has been agreed on how bullying is to be countered at their school and where their responsibilities lie. In this context the School Anti-Bullying Policy can be a dynamic document rather than an act of conformity or even window dressing.  

I have in this brief article indicated some of the things that schools can do to reduce bullying, proactively or reactively or (preferably) both. My assumption throughout is that teachers need to be aware of why they are acting in particular ways to stop the bullying. There is a need for a general theory, backed up with empirical findings, as in the formulation by Lewin. From there on, it is up to teachers to discover what has been suggested as modes of intervention, and, if possible, devise their own, bearing in mind always that there is no one method that fits all cases, but that that some methods do fit particular cases better than others - and there is indeed much to learn.

Ken Rigby, PhD, OAM, is an adjunct professor of social psychology at the University of South Australia where has been engaged since 1969 as a lecturer in Psychology and as a social researcher. Before that, he was employed in schools for 10 years as a schoolteacher, first in England and then in Australia, latterly as a senior master in a High School teaching English and History. His academic qualifications are in Economics from the University of London; a Postgraduate Certificate in Education from Leicester University and; and a PhD in Psychology from Adelaide University. For his research into school bullying and engagement with schools, he was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in 2021. He has published widely in academic journals (over 100 publications) and 24 books, including an autobiography, Oddly Enough, in 2023.

Rigby, K. (2023). Interventions in cases of bullying in schools: a training manual for teachers and counsellors. Melbourne: Amba Press. See Interventions in Cases of Bullying in Schools – Amba Press

Image by Mikhail Nilov