What’s the latest on effective bullying prevention programs?

What’s the latest on effective bullying prevention programs?

by Sheryl Hemphill, PhD

The high prevalence and negative impacts of bullying perpetration and victimisation are well-recognised. Most of us are now familiar with the three core components of bullying:

  1. The perpetrator intends to harm the victim;

  2. The perpetrator repeats his/her actions over time; and

  3. There is a power imbalance between the perpetrator and victim (i.e., the victim cannot easily defend him/herself against the perpetrator).

Schools work hard to have comprehensive bullying prevention policies and to implement programs to prevent bullying. But with so many programs out there, which ones have been shown to work?   

A recent review
There are a number of systematic reviews on the effectiveness of school-based bullying prevention programs. A recent one, published earlier this year in the International Journal of Bullying Prevention, was conducted by Hannah Gaffney, David Farrington, and Maria Ttofi from the University of Cambridge. They used a meta-analysis to combine and analyse the results of 100 independent evaluations. The studies were drawn from countries world-wide. There were two studies from Australia included for bullying perpetration and three for bullying victimisation.

Unlike previous reviews, this review and meta-analysis included randomised controlled trials (the gold standard but not always possible in school settings) and other study designs that may be more feasible in school settings.

Studies that had not been published in academic journals were also included (i.e., grey literature). This meta-analysis focused on school-based bullying, so it did not include studies of cyber-bullying. The collection of studies was current to the end of December 2016.

What was found
Overall, the school-based bullying programs were effective in reducing bullying victimisation by around 15-16% and perpetration by about 19-20%.

The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program had the largest effects on bullying perpetration. Other effective approaches were KiVa, Second Step, and Steps to Respect.

For bullying victimisation, the NoTrap! Program had the largest effects. Bullying Proofing Your School, the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, Steps to Respect, and KiVa were also effective.

Common components in effective programs
The review and meta-analysis considered the program components common to the effective school-based bullying prevention programs. These included:

  1. A whole-school approach
  2. Peer involvement (targeting bystanders, in-class group exercises, being peer-led).
  3. Parent and teacher involvement (e.g., inviting parents to information evenings, training teachers to implement the program curricula)

Suggestions for educators
There were a couple of other key points made in this meta-analysis:

  1. Given the strong effects of the NoTrap! Program on bullying victimisation, Gaffney and colleagues suggested online forums moderated by trained students may an efficient and cost-effective way to reduce bullying victimisation.
  2. The effectiveness of a program may differ for bullying perpetration versus victimisation.
  3. Educators need to investigate the effectiveness of programs in their country or region before choosing one to implement.
  4. School staff need to conduct a pre-intervention survey to learn more about any bullying occurring in their school and then choose a program that will address those areas.

What we don’t know
The authors of the meta-analysis emphasised that very few bullying prevention programs have been evaluated multiple times; only four programs had been evaluated 3 or more times. In the 100 studies of the meta-analysis, 65 different programs were included. Clearly, more research is needed to replicate studies of the effectiveness of programs. Further, the suitability of programs will vary in different locations due to cultural differences. Further research is needed on the effects and suitability of particular programs in different countries.

Further information
Gaffney, H., Farrington, D.P, & Ttofi, M.M. (2019). Examining the effectiveness of school-based intervention programs globally: A meta-analysis. International Journal of Bullying Prevention, 1, 14-31.

Sheryl Hemphill, PhD, is a freelance writer, presenter, and researcher focusing on sharing research findings with schools and the broader community. She holds Adjunct/Honorary positions at La Trobe University, the University of Melbourne, and Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.