Reducing bullying in primary schools: What does the research say?

Reducing bullying in primary schools: What does the research say?

Bullying in Australian schools is a serious problem, with over 20% of males and 15% of females aged 8 to 18 years reporting being bullied at least once a week†.

The repetitive nature of bullying can have harmful, leading to permanent effects if failed to be addressed.  A pilot study of an anti-bullying program has successfully reduced instances of bullying in primary schools by up to a quarter.

Little People, Big Talks

Developed specifically for Australian audiences, the ‘Big Talks for Little People’ program, has been successfully implemented in a number of primary schools throughout South Australia, and is now looking to expand to the rest of the nation.

Funded by Breakthrough Mental Health Research Foundation and Chris McDermott's Little Heroes Foundation, the program is the work of Flinders University researcher Professor Phillip Slee, who said the program came about following the worldwide success of his similar education program, the P.E.A.C.E. Pack.

“Its focus is on social emotional learning – so helping students develop good decision-making  for establishing positive peer relationships," Slee said.

“It also picks up on elements that are important for young people to grasp around coping with conflict, developing resilience in the face of adversity, and a range of other skills."

The program sees primary school-aged students participate in a six-part lesson plan focusing on key aspects that include emotions, resilience, conflict management and exclusion. As a way of tracking progress, the program asks participants to self-evaluate their skills, both before and after the program, as well as a third time later in the year to see if skills have been retained.

“By teaching the students something about relationship skills and teaching them something about managing feelings and emotions and conflict resolution, the level of bullying significantly declined," Professor Slee said.

“We found that the module was effective in teaching kids about how to better understand their feelings and emotions and how better to express them, and that this program significantly reduced the levels of anxiety amongst those kids who were most anxious.”

Keeping things relatable for children

The program’s content centres around cartoon-like characters called ‘Peeps’ (short for ‘people’), specifically designed to not have an identifiable gender, nor can one identify features of the character’s culture or race.

Instead, these characters have particular characteristics and colour palettes, which Professor Slee says enables them to be readily identifiable from a child’s point of view.

They also have their own interests, “There’s one there that's a bit oriented toward technology, there's another of the peeps that's oriented towards being interested in sports, etc.,” he said.

“Associated with the ‘peeps’ or the ‘people’ in the cartoons are the ‘feels’. The ‘feels’ are the feelings that emerge out of certain situations and the ‘feels’ portray different emotions.

“For example, one of the short animations demonstrates a conflict situation that arises between two kids (or between the two peeps). It shows that conflict is there, and that the feels are expressing emotions like sadness or anger, etc.

“What the teachers do under those circumstances is show the animation in the course of the lesson and then use a range of different prompting questions to ask of the kids.

“The teachers are then prompted to talk a little with the kids about what they have seen, ‘well, have you seen this happening? Has this ever happened to you? If you saw it happening to another child. what would you do about it?'

“The scenarios are really quite simple, but the kids really enjoy them, and that enables the kids to pick up on feelings about being bullied or dealing with disappointment.”

As a result of the successful pilot, the program was again funded to run again in 2022 across South Australian schools in metropolitan and rural areas.

“This time, in addition to the findings that were replicated from the first pilot study, what we found was that the program was significant in terms of helping children and particularly those who were being bullied.”

“One of the things that we did with each of the schools is implement a 'friendship bench'. The benches were provided by the Breakthrough Mental Health Research Foundation and Chris McDermott’s, Little Heroes Foundation. Each of the participating schools got a specifically designed friendship bench to encourage kids to sit down and chat to one another at recess and lunch time.

“If they saw somebody sitting on the bench, then the lesson discussed the possibility of approaching the person and talking with them to reduce levels of isolation and loneliness.”

“What we found was that the kids were saying things like, ‘I really like just sitting down and talking about our feelings’, and ‘Sometimes what's on the outside doesn't match what's on the inside’.

“They talked about learning how not to bully other kids. They learned more about how to express emotions and how to respect other kids’ emotions that they were expressing.”

Social Emotional Learning skills a key focus of the program

Research into the program and its results have determined higher levels of social emotional learning skills amongst participants. Those taking part formed positive peer relationships, higher self-esteem and self-concept, as well as happiness regarding personal skills and schoolwork.

“These skills are associated with social emotional learning by developing good relationship skills, developing the power to make good decisions, and being able to resolve conflict,” Professor Slee said. "Those social and emotional learning skills are actually learned – we're not born with them in the fuller sense of the term."

“What we do know, is that where children are provided with the opportunity to develop social emotional learning skills, that it has a significant impact on feelings of safety at school and on feelings about being confident with their academic ability.

“There's a strong relationship between good social emotional learning skills and academic performance, in terms of helping children, help other children to develop their own skills in a stronger sense.

“The reason that we need to be teaching these skills – particularly around social media for example – is that it teaches young children about how to make good decisions.

“In terms of things like social media, it's providing kids with the opportunity to think about their actions, and think about alternative ways of behaving, which gives them greater skills.

“Because of those greater skills, they are able to make better decisions, develop better relationships and support other children.”

This story originally appeared as a media release from MCERA.