Myths of Bullying Prevention

Myth 1: Buying a Program Will Stop Bullying (Part 1 of 3)

By Kathleen Keelan

“Bullying is not the issue this year. Get a program in place and move on.” –Administrator, 2012

The very complex issue of bullying cannot be solved by just purchasing a bullying prevention program. Period.

Schools and school districts want the bullying to end, so they have been known to call in the rodeo clowns, movie producers, and cartoon characters. Unfortunately, because of the intricacies of the power dynamic of all stakeholders, the bullying issue cannot easily be handled by any one solution.

Our knowledge of the issue is growing every day. Our understanding of how to stop the phenomenon is slowing improving. One thing we know for sure: it’s not an easy fix.

One instance I was involved in comes to mind. A wealthy private school had an extensive program against bullying, complete with assemblies, posters, and speakers. The teachers were given tokens that they could hand out to the kids when they behaved in such a way that they were not bullying one another. In one case, a student was bullied. The one who bullied him also felt bullied. Both students’ parents hired a lawyer. There was a restraining order awarded so the two could not be in contact with each other. The principal was completely dumbfounded as to how the situation got to this point, considering he had done so much to avoid bullying in the first place. The principal was not prepared to deal with the complexities of the power issues, the community, and the culture of the building.

Like that particular principal, teachers and school officials often feel at rest when they invest in a bullying prevention program, but their job is far from done. Sadly, when it comes to bullying, they can never really let their guard down until they work on the larger and stickier issue—the culture of the building.

People often ask me what they can do about the culture once it is set. Through my experience I believe there are a few things. To begin to curb bullying, we must work on the immediate interactions between the individuals in a school setting, engage the bystanders, and not rely on programs to fix the problem.

The culture that doesn’t tolerate, encourage, ignore, or placidly condone through silence is a culture that will not allow bullying to take place. A culture where the kids do not see the adults bully each other or other students is a culture that doesn’t encourage bullying. A culture where the kids don’t see adults who are trying to gain power for themselves in inappropriate ways is a culture where bullying will not be tolerated.

Rather than depending on a formal bullying program, adults need to set an example. If they see someone being mistreated, they need to respond immediately, even if it is a colleague or another adult who is doing the bullying. If they see a child being mistreated, they need to intervene quickly.

The mantra in the hallway, the bus, and the classroom must be: “We don’t treat each other that way here.”

Adults who witness an episode of bullying should:

  • Stop it with a quick response
  • Educate and be clear about behavior that is disrespectful; saying you are “just kidding” does not make it better
  • Avoid ignoring it or excusing it

Classroom teachers bear much of the brunt of this immediate intervention role. They must:

  • Know the school’s policy so they can tell the students how they violated it (many do not know it)
  • Try to get the facts (much of the time, they argue that do not have the time)
  • Not judge how upset the target is or tell the target how he or she should or should not feel (this requires training and leadership)

So, is there any value in investing in a bullying program? Consider whether the program addresses the above micro-interactions. It must also address “bystander intervention,” meaning will a bystander “step up” on behalf of someone being bullied? Some of the finest researches in the nation have found this to be one of the key factors in bullying prevention.

In a recent meta-analysis by Joshua Polanin, Dorothy Espelage, and Therese Pigott out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found bullying prevention programs were “effective at changing bystander behavior both on a practical and statistically significant level.”

Changing bystander behavior is at least a step in changing culture. We cannot and should not rely on bystanders to handle all of the issues of bullying, but if they are engaged, at least we can feel that they are assisting the adults in changing the culture. Schools can and should purchase a bullying prevention program as long as it has something to do with improving the culture and engaging the bystanders. However, changing the culture takes work, and relying on a bullying prevention program alone is a mistake.

As educators, it breaks our hearts to know that bullying goes on in our schools. It is important that the steps we take are having a positive impact for our sakes and the sakes of our students.

To oversimplify the issue of bullying is unconscionable, mainly because we choose solutions that are oversimplified as well. If we look at it for what it is, a human rights issue, then we will begin to really invest in true solutions that match the severity of the issue. The solutions will require bystanders and other group psychodynamic complex interventions that look at various power differentials in the community.

The myth of a quick fix for bullying prevention should be put to rest for good.

Polanin, J. R., Espelage, D. L., Pigott, T. D. (2012). “A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Bullying Prevention Programs’ Effects of Bystander Intervention Behavior.” School Psychology Review, 41(1), pp. 47-65.

Kathleen Keelan has dedicated her career to preventing bullying by working as a teacher, therapist, presenter, and expert witness in bullying cases. She has been conducting bullying prevention workshops in schools since the late ’90s and also conducts classes and webinars throughout the United States.

Categories: Family, General Education, Positive School Climate | 11 Comments

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11 thoughts on “Myths of Bullying Prevention

  1. Keith Cunningham

    With all due respect to a worthwhile idea; you cannot stop bullying.

    Humans are hardwired by evolution to develop social hierarchy. We do it almost from birth and we do it instinctively. It is the method we inherited to establish social standing and sexual priority.

    Every program has had little no effect on this behavior. In some cases it has actually become worse.

    Children very quickly adapt to external limitations placed on their behavior and seek new more innovative methods of expressing this naturally occurring behavior. When it is no longer tolerated at school it takes place away from school. When the school extends their control over this behavior, often illegally, the students shift focus again, often into cyberspace. Schools then extend their reach into this area, always illegally, and the children respond by shifting local again. Each effort to control this genetically driven behavior forces it into more creative and often more destructive behavior. The illegal aspects of the suppression carries with it a lesson that the law no longer serves to protect freedoms but to suppress people.

    Worse it empowers the “victim” into using the anti-bully adult monitors as unwitting co-conspirators in their efforts at revenge. Which has the net effect of upping the ante and the level of tension surrounding the actions of everyone.

    Best suggestion. Follow the advice of the animal kingdom. Let children work it out and only get involved when the behavior becomes a educational distractor.

    • I believe the last sentence it the key, it can become an educational distractor. If our mission is to educate then it is our mission to help curb the bullying best we can. Your point is well taken that children’s behavior is naturally occurring. However, adults cannot allow the evolutionary hierarchy to play itself out within our school walls. If there is one thing we can do to prevent any of the mistreatment then we have a deep obligation, all of us, to do it. Common sense steps taken by committed people can and will make a difference certainly more than a passive approach that leaves things up to “nature” to take it’s course. Thank you for your ideas-very interesting perspective!

      Kathleen Keelan

      • Keith Cunningham


        I agree, when it becomes a distractor is the key to when intervention is required. Thoughtful monitoring, constant vigilance and appropriate responses will insure a safe environment where children can be effective learners and establish their own place in their social structure.

        Our mission is to educate, not modify human behavior. We cannot train a lion to be a herbivore, nutrition issues aside, they are hardwired for predation. The same applies to humans we are hardwired as social beings and that requires establishing our place in the tribe. The opportunity to eliminate that trait was lost when we followed the course of evolution that took us away from that of the bonobo.

        As adults we have no choice except to allow social hierarchy to play out at school. Only when it occurs under these controlled circumstances can we insure that it happens safely. The real danger is when it occurs away from the oversight of responsible adults. By trying to suppress it completely we insure that we are always playing catch up.

        That is game we can not win.

        Thanks for your response.


  2. Barbara Silva

    Because of the long-term damage done by bullying we must step in and protect those who cannot protect themselves. Some statistics:
    15% of all school absenteeism is due to fears of being bullied, 1 out of every 10 students who drops out of school does so because of repeated bullying, every 7 minutes a child is bullied, there are suicides because of bullying and we have all heard of specific cases.

    I do not know if we are hardwired to develop a social hierarchy, but we cannot stand by and allow so many students to be afraid and to feel unsafe. Also, students who are bullied suffer from the effects for years to come, even into adulthood.

    • Keith Cunningham


      Like most statistics your numbers conceal more than they reveal.

      Let me ask the following questions about your data.

      What was the population surveyed?
      What percent of the population was surveyed?
      How were those surveyed selected?
      What is the confidence index on the results?

      All of these factors are critical to the actual validity of your data and to the extrapolation of future actions and applicability.

      To date, I have yet to read any valid studies that confirm the positive statement you posit that “students who are bullied suffer the effects for years to come, even into adulthood.” While on the face of the statement it seems logical, every good social scientist acknowledges that much of human behavior is counterintuitive. That is people with minor physical challenges often turn out to be among our highest achievers, the will to thrive appears to trigger the drive to exceed.

      The studies on the hardwiring of human behavior is still in its infancy. During my very first behavioral psychology course in 1972 I listen to a highly respected professional in the field proclaim that “Other than suckling and the fear of falling humans were born without any natural instincts. All behavior is learned.” That attitude has inhibited the study of human behavior and only now as the old guard retires or expires are studies being funded.

      Obviously, I am strongly advocating that we are not the sum total of our genetic nature but it is a critical component of our pattern of behavior.

      I agree that we cannot allow bullying to get to the point where students are physically afraid for their safety. By the same token we must always be cognizant that our efforts to stifle minor unwanted behavior, that is now being characterized as bullying, we are actually increasing the physicality of the action and moving it away from the relatively controlled environment of the school.

      Again, I am not advocating that we ignore physical actions or threats, just that we recognize that low level “teasing” does not warrant our intervention.

    • Keith Cunningham

      Apologies for the typos. Editing posts from my iPhone is extremely difficult.

    • I agree there is a real cost to education for allowing bullying to take place as you point out with these statistics. Again, the mission of the school is to educate. At the most basic level we cannot complete our mission unless the students feel safe enough to learn. So, even if we are to remove moral obligations it is difficult to escape the conclusion that if it is all all possible we are required to help stop bullying.

      Kathleen Keelan

      • Keith Cunningham


        What Statistics?

        Barbara posted a numbers generated by a “study” but no citations or science to back up those numbers.

        As for “moral obligation” are we not equally obligated to teach children that ultimately they are responsible for themselves?

      • I think that if is a true bullying situation is is unfair to ask a child to deal with it by themselves. As adults we we should intervene when it reaches this threshold. That being said, I agree with you we should also make teaching young people they are responsible for themselves a top priority.

        Kathleen Keelan

      • Keith Cunningham


        We agree completely. So where do we draw the line on “real” bullying?


      • I like to a defintion like the one created by Dan Olweus, a Norwegian researcher. A person is being bullied when he/she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to
        negative actions on the part of one or more other persons.

        Kathleen Keelan

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