How to stop bullying in schools: What works, what doesn't

Some common school approaches to bullying actually make the problem worse.

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By Meghan Holohan

Everyone knows bullying is a huge problem, and we all need to work to stop it.

But how? The science is unclear. While school districts across the country spend millions of dollars each year to combat bullying, not all anti-bullying programs work equally — and some of the most common approaches, it turns out, don't work very well at all.

“Do we know definitively all the specific elements? Not quite,” Susan P. Limber, Dan Olweus Professor of Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life at Clemson University, told TODAY. “We do have some strong data that there are programs and efforts that have demonstrated effectiveness.”

“We can’t teach math overnight. It is not a skill you can learn in an hour. That is the whole issue with social emotional learning."

In a TODAY.com survey of more than 1,400 parents, 85 percent say their child has been bullied, but only 45 percent say their child's school takes bullying seriously.

Several recent studies have shown that anti-bullying programs can reduce bullying activity by 19 to 20 percent and reduce victimization by 15 to 16 percent, Limber said. But it depends on the program.

“Some approaches are more effective than others,” she explained.

Common bullying solutions that DON'T work

Many schools simply tackle bullying by hosting an anti-bullying assembly. While that might be a good start, experts agree that an annual address does little.

“(Most schools) bring in a speaker and do an assembly,” Dorothy Espelage, William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of North Carolina, told TODAY Parents. “That doesn’t actually work at all.”

A one-off program cannot address the complex causes of bullying.

“We can’t teach math overnight," Catherine Bradshaw, senior associate dean for research and faculty development in the Curry School of Education and Human Development at the University of Virginia, told TODAY Parents. "It is not a skill you can learn in an hour. That is the whole issue with social emotional learning."

When schools only host an assembly it sends the message to students that bullying isn’t important. That might mean students don’t seek help when they are being bullied or see a classmate being bullied.

“It could inadvertently signal that we are checking off a box that we are doing something about bullying without showing an ongoing commitment,” Limber explained. “Bullying is a complex phenomenon. There are many reasons why children bully, why kids may be targeted. An approach needs to be comprehensive and touch all the risk factors and really can’t be seen as a short-term fix.”

Another common tactic is to encourage the bully and victim to talk through the problem and vow to be nice to one other. While it sounds lovely, in theory, it normally backfires.

“It makes the bullying increase,” Espelage said.

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At least one in four or as many as one in three students has been bullied, according to Stopbullying.gov. Neither the U.S. Education or Health and Human Services departments track how much money the country spends on anti-bullying programs. But as every state requires schools to address bullying, it's a substantial part of local school budgets.

Bullying programs that are backed by research

Over the past year, Clifton Middle School in Monrovia, California has tried a different approach to bullying. The school implemented the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, a research-based program that first started in Norway. Olweus encourages schools to have anti-bullying classes as part of the curriculum and provides a framework for addressing bullies and victims. There's no data on the program's success yet, but already, principal Jennifer Jackson has noticed a change.

“I have seen students going from being bullies to being very empathetic human beings because we pulled something out of them they never knew they had,” she told TODAY Parents. “It is very powerful.”

While having a one-time assembly to address bullying doesn't work, experts agree that there are some ways to reduce bullying in schools. Getty Images

Clifton Middle School has 30 teachers for 685 students in sixth to eight grade. More than half of its students, receive free or reduced lunch, and the district has a lot of economic diversity. About 55 percent of the students are Hispanic, 15 percent white, and 8 percent black. The school is one of several in Los Angeles County to receive a grant to implement Olweus. The school was using a method called "positive behavior intervention support," which gave students clear expectations and rewarded positive action, but did little to address bullying.

“In the world of bullying, which has always existed, everything discipline-wise was getting lumped together. Olweus allows us to separate bullying incidences and discipline. You are not just addressing the bullying and the victim but also the bystanders,” Jackson explained.

Jackson says Olweus focuses on understanding the root causes of bullying, while teaching social and emotional intelligence. One way the program does this is with mindfulness classes and school-wide classes focused directly on bullying and its effects. Staff guide students to stop, think and process before acting, reducing impulsive behaviors. The school even uses therapy dogs to help students struggling with complex and confusing emotions.

What's more, teachers engage students in conversations about bullying and behavior: Often students seem stunned when teachers ask what's wrong.

“There are kids that have actually said, ‘Are you really asking me how I feel?’” Jackson said. “Kids become very vulnerable and open and they share and that allows us to go down a whole different path.”

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What works to prevent bullying

Experts agree that certain things make anti-bullying programs more successful, although research hasn’t conclusively identified every element that works. One key to success: setting goals that are properly communicated to the staff, students, parents and the community.

“You need schools to have very clear policies and procedures around bullying recognition and response,” Espelage said.

A bullying prevention that's integrated throughout the curriculum also makes a difference. Heather Wellman, a seventh grade English language arts teacher, in Pueblo, Colorado, has used novels to explore social and emotional learning concepts around bullying. When her seventh grade students read "Animal Farm" they looked at whether Squealer was a good friend, which ties into the anti-bullying and mental health program Sources of Strength that her school uses. The school — which receives 100 percent free lunches and has 90 percent minority students and most of the district’s homeless students — has grant money to fund its bullying prevention program.

Using fictional characters helps students better identify positive and negative characteristics that might lead to bullying or poor mental health, while better understanding the books.

Sources of Strength encourages students to leverage positive things in their lives, such as helpful adult mentors or healthy activities, to address bullying. For example, the program helps children identify those strong people in their lives so they know where to turn if they do face problems.

Wellman thinks the program's focus on peer mentors is a real asset. It encourages adults to tap 10 percent of its student body to be what she thinks of as “influencers.” These student undergo a day of training with monthly refresher courses on anti-bullying concepts, and they are supposed to lead by example. Wellman recalls a group of peer leaders who noticed one girl accusing another of being "fake." They worried she'd be shunned because of it. The peer mentors approached Wellman about the situation, and she guided them to problem solve using concepts from their anti-bullying program. The girls invited the so-called fake student to join them for lunch.

“I didn’t tell those girls to be nice,” she explained. “They ran with it. It helped alleviate that tension.”

Another tactic proven to reduce bullying: teaching social-emotional learning.

“What we would call social skills,” Espelage said.

This helps students better learn how to grapple with their feelings in a positive way instead of taking it out on others.

“They know what to do when they are bullied and develop skills with social and emotional learning so they can regulate their own emotions,” Bradshaw said.

Experts agree that any anti-bullying program is only as strong as a school's commitment to it. To get results, you have to put in the time.

“These efforts have to be woven in the fabric of their school,” Limber said. “It needs to be part of who they are.”

For more stories like this, see TODAY.com's special section on bullying here.

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