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Bullying Prevention: What Works? What Doesn’t? (Part I)

Bullying Prevention: What Works? What Doesn’t? (Part I)

Written by Frank DiLallo | |

On Martin Luther King Day I had the fortunate opportunity to attend an anti-bullying educator workshop hosted by Lenawee County Intermediate School District, sponsored by Judge Gregg Iddings of Lenawee County Probate Court.

The featured presenter for the day-long intensive and evening parent event was nationally recognized expert Stan Davis. There were many insights and evidence-based findings shared by Davis, which are worth highlighting, but too numerous to detail in one article. Thus, this is part one of a three-part series on bullying prevention strategies. In this column, the focus will be on least effective and the next two articles focus on most effective.

Davis is a bit of a ’60s throwback, wearing a ponytail and long gray beard. But don’t let this fool you. He is highly professorial and speaks with passion, conviction and a wealth of experience. Davis was actively involved in the 1960s U.S. Civil Rights Movement and spent most of his career as a school counselor, author and speaker on bullying prevention. Recently retired, Davis conducts numerous trainings and maintains the website as a resource for parents, educators and youth. He is the co-founder of the International Bullying Prevention Association.

During the workshop, Davis made it clear that all bullying cannot be prevented. He enumerated a spectrum of bullying prevention strategies, from least effective to most effective and research gleaned from more than 13,000 youth, grades five to 12, in 31 U.S. schools to back up his claims, found in his most recent book, “Youth Voice Project,” coauthored with Dr. Charisse Nixon, associate professor of developmental psychology at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, in Pennsylvania.

Davis paralleled lessons learned from historically ineffective anti-drug campaigns from merchandise, such as posters, wrist bands and pencils. One comical example stood out, with schools giving students pencils inscribed with “Too Cool To Do Drugs.” Unfortunately, with each sharpening, the initial well-intentioned message digresses to “Cool To Do Drugs” and “Do Drugs.”

Davis juxtaposes similar ineffective approaches in anti-bullying efforts which include the use of highly popular wrist bands, bully prevention kits (offering “everything to make your school a bully free zone”), one-time presentations (which have been shown to have little effect past two weeks), forced apologies and signing pledges to not bully. Although Davis sites no harm in employing the use of anti-bullying merchandise, one-time presentations or pledges, there is no evidence to suggest these work.

Davis stresses the current bully, victim and bystander vernacular is not helpful. The overuse of these nouns causes excessive emotional upheaval, possibly stigmatizing and labeling youth, due to skewed and questionable media links between bullying and suicide, blurred definitions and mixed elucidations.

The least effective “Self” strategies under the guise of “Don’t act like a victim,” with percentages, include:

  • Told them to stop (22 percent: Things got better, 46 percent: Nothing changed, 32 percent: Things got worse)
  • Told them how I felt (25 percent: Things got better, 44 percent: Nothing changed, 32 percent: Things got worse)
  • Pretended it didn’t bother me (28 percent: Things got better, 50 percent: Nothing changed, 22 percent: Things got worse)
  • Walked away (no stats given).

The least likely to have a positive effect from “Adult” strategies are making statements that begin with “You should have….” and when adults:

  • Told me to change (22 percent: Things got better, 42 percent: Nothing Changed, 36 percent: Things got worse)
  • Told me to solve it myself (22 percent: Things got better, 39 percent: Nothing changed, 39 percent: Things got worse)
  • Told me to stop tattling (most harmful adult action): 18 percent: Things got better, 35 percent: Nothing changed, 47 percent: Things got worse).

The least effective “Peer” strategies include:

  • Peers Confronted (peers told mistreaters to stop angrily or calmly): 36 percent: Things got better, 37 percent: Nothing changed, 27 percent: Things got worse).
  • Peers asked to stop: 35 percent: Things got better, 41 percent: Nothing changed, 24 percent: Things got worse).

On a potentially harmful note, Davis cautioned the use of exaggerated declarations or misguided “facts” that emphasize negative outcomes to shock or scare youth into changing behaviors. A focus on negative outcomes never translates to positive outcomes. Remember back to “This is your brain, this is your brain on drugs” and “Reefer Madness.” These approaches to “educate” and reduce harmful behaviors often backfire or are short-lived, resulting in a loss of credibility with youth, potentially causing more harm than good.

Case in point, is the documentary film “Bully” directed by Lee Hirsch, which premiered in 2011. The movie was heralded as an advocacy tool against bullying, helping to facilitate an anti-bullying movement focused on the many negative outcomes of bullying, including suicide.

Emily Bazelon, author of “Sticks and Stones,” cites concerns about possible suicide contagion or “copycat syndrome” from youth viewing the film and states, “The movie’s depiction of a boy who committed suicide is utterly one-sided, factually questionable and could pose a real risk to some vulnerable young viewers.”

Stay tuned for what works in bullying prevention!

Click here for Part IIClick here for Part III

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