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Why Anti-Bully Programs Aren’t Working

Our nation’s schools have been intensively fighting bullying for well over a decade, since the Columbine shooting brought the problem of bullying to the public’s consciousness. State legislatures frequently beef up their anti-bullying laws and policies in response to the high-profile bullying related suicides and shootings. The U.S. Department of Education as well has declared the goal of eliminating bullying from schools. Thus there is a good chance that as a school mental health professional you are involved in implementing anti-bullying programs and policies.

If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. If you’re happy with the results of your anti-bullying efforts, keep doing what you’re doing. However, research studies on intensive whole-school anti-bullying programs show that they often produce little benefit or even lead to an increase in bullying. In recent months, leading bullying researchers have been publicly expressing their frustration over the failure of anti-bullying programs to reduce bullying. It is possible, then, that you have discovered that your program is not being as effective as you were hoping. If your school is spending more time and effort trying to stop bullying than it did before it began implementing the program, yet there is no decrease in bullying as time goes by and the same kids continue to be involved in bullying situations despite all your efforts, then what you’re doing is obviously not working. Why?

Scientists speak informally of “the law of unintended consequences.” It means that there are likely to be unintended side effects to just about all of our actions. This idea is expressed by the famous maxim, The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Very few people have bad intentions. But most of the problems in the world are caused by good intentions. When we implement anti-bullying interventions, we are acting with the best intentions. We want to protect children from the devastation of bullying. But our good intentions are no guarantee that the results of our interventions will be only positive. In order to understand why our anti-bullying programs may not be successful, we need to examine the unintended negative consequences of the interventions.

The reason for the failure of an anti-bullying program may be any one or more of the following:

Reason Number One: Instructing students to inform the school staff when bullying happens. This is the leading cause of the failure of schools to reduce bullying. Most anti-bullying programs are predicated on kids informing adults when bullying happens. There is a popular slogan promulgated in schools, Telling is not tattling. School anti-bullying laws are requiring schools to record and report every incident of bullying. Therefore many schools are instructing students that even if they are able to handle the bullying situation on their own, they still have to report it to the school staff. Schools are increasingly adopting anonymous bully reporting systems. There are schools today that will punish kids who observe bullying and don’t tell the school authorities. Good Intention:

  1. We adults need to be informed about the bullying so that we can get involved to make it stop.

Unintended Negative Consequences:

  1. Having kids tell the authorities can only be helpful if the authorities actually know how to make the bullying stop. Without effective techniques, the reporting will have no benefit or cause more harm than good.

  2. The best legal way to get people to despise you is to tell on them to the authorities. Let’s say you and I are kids in school and you’ve been upsetting me. Then I tell the teacher, who proceeds to send you to the principal for bullying me. Is that going to make you like me, respect me and want to be nice to me? Of course not. You will hate me and think of me as a wimp or a punk. You will want to beat me up after school. You will try to get other kids against me. You will try to make me look like scum on Facebook. You will look for opportunities to tell on me and get me in trouble for bullying you. Therefore, future incidents–and probably worse incidents–are almost certain to ensue.

  3. For kids to be able to deal with social difficulties, they need to develop self-confidence and self-esteem. Encouraging kids to tell adults when they are bullied gives them the message that they are not capable of handling the situation by themselves, a message that erodes their self-confidence and -esteem.

  4. People find it convenient to have someone else take care of their difficulties for them. So rather than try to figure out how to deal with bullying on their own, some kids will gladly delegate this job to the school staff.

  5. A sizable percentage of kids refuse to tell the authorities, either because they are afraid the alleged bullies will get revenge against them, and/or they feel it is immoral or detestable to be an informer on their peers. Thus, any program that relies upon students informing adults about bullying is de facto limited in its ability to help.

Reason Number Two: Punishing Bullies Bullying experts almost universally insist that bullying must not be tolerated. Schools must not let bullies get away with their actions and need to punish them. (Many experts don’t like using the word “punishment,” and replace it with the euphemism, “consequences.”) Parents and anti-bullying organizations alike demand that schools punish bullies. School anti-bullying laws make bullying a crime, which means that bullying must be punished.

Good Intentions:

  1. We want to teach kids that it is important to be nice to each other.

  2. A moral society requires that people be punished by the legal authorities for all bad behavior.

  3. We are afraid that if we allow anyone to “get away” with acts of bullying, students will learn that bullying is acceptable and as a result bullying will become rampant.

  4. We believe that punishing bullies will make kids afraid to be mean, and that if they don’t stop being mean, we need to administer successively harsher punishments, culminating with expulsion and possible transfer to special schools for behavior disordered children.

Unintended Negative Consequences:

  1. Researchers have discovered that punishing children is a poor way of getting them to behave better. Both the American Psychological Association and the National Association of School Psychologists have issued research-based position papers advising against punitive approaches to discipline, explaining the myriad ways in which punishment causes more harm than good. If punishment for discipline infractions is counterproductive, it is likely to be counterproductive for bullying as well.

  2. Some kids will, indeed, stop engaging in bullying behavior in order to avoid punishment. However, when punished, many kids will get angry not only with the kids who got them in trouble but also with the school staff for punishing them. They are likely to want revenge and to do something even worse. This creates a cycle of increasingly serious incidents and punishments.

  3. In the long run, children will learn to behave the way we do. We want to teach them to be nice to people. However, it is not nice to judge and punish other people whenever we don’t approve of their behavior. When we judge and punish kids for not behaving the way we approve of, we are teaching them that it is their right to judge and punish people for not behaving the way they approve of.

  4. Many children are happy to find that the school punishes their bullies. The school thereby unwittingly rewards them for being victimized and informing on their bullies. Thus, they are likely to create, either intentionally or unconsciously, additional situations in which they feel victimized so the school will punish their bullies.

  5. In our concern for victims, we tend to forget that the alleged bullies are also flesh-and-blood children. The cycle of punishments and revenge may destroy their school career. If we send them to special treatment programs for behavior-disordered children, we may be accelerating them on the road to a life of crime and incarceration. Anti-bully activists often cite statistics showing that a high percentage of bullies end up going to jail, as justification for treating alleged child bullies like criminals when they are kids in school. The activists fail to consider that treating students like criminals can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  6. No one likes being punished for being a bully, and parents don’t appreciate having their children labeled and punished by the school for being bullies, either. The alleged bullies’ parents are likely to defend their own children and accuse the school of treating them unfairly, resulting in increased hostilities between parents and the school administration.

  7. A moral society is not about human authority figures punishing everyone for all their bad behavior. That would describe a totalitarian police state. Firstly, such a society would be a practical impossibility, for we all behave badly at times, and conducting trials to determine guilt and punishment when we behave badly toward each other would consume all our waking hours. Secondly, this process would greatly intensify people’s anger and hostility towards each other. Thirdly, it would destroy morality, for our behavior would be based on avoidance of punishment rather than on the desire to do what’s morally right.

Reason Number Three: Teaching kids about the harmful effects of bullying Many anti-bullying programs expound to kids on the harmful effects of bullying to its victims. Professional speakers who were victims of bullying, or whose kids were victims, are being paid thousands of dollars to present at assemblies where they give tear-jerking accounts of the horrors they or their children had experienced. We have condemned the old “Sticks and stones” slogan as a lie and replaced its second half with endings such as, “…but words can hurt me forever,” or “…but words can kill me.”

Good Intention:

  1. By informing children how incredibly harmful bullying is, we are encouraging them to refrain from engaging in such behavior.

Unintended Negative Consequences:

  1. Many children will, indeed, refrain from bullying other kids once they hear these heart-wrenching stories. But how will kids who have internalized these stories react when they are on the receiving end? Will they think, Oh, it’s no big deal. I won’t pay it any mind? No. They are far more likely to think, Oh, no! I’ve just been bullied! How horrible! I’m being terribly injured for life! So they are likely to become even more upset than if they had never had these lessons. And by getting upset, they will be reinforcing the bullying, so the bullying will escalate.

  2. Kids who take these lessons to heart are likely to feel justified in carrying out revenge against their perceived bullies for committing such horrible acts against them.

Reason Number Four: Instructing students to stop being passive bystanders and to actively take the side of victims against bullies This intervention has become extremely popular, with many bullying experts declaring it to be the best way for a school to solve the problem of bullying. Some programs are based solely on enlisting the help of student bystanders.

Good Intentions:

  1. Bullies feel encouraged by other students watching and laughing when they pick on their victims; therefore we need to get students to stop being passive bystanders.

  2. Students are more aware of bullying than the staff is, so they are in a better position to intervene when bullying occurs.

  3. The bullies are more likely to stop bullying when their peers stand up against them than if the staff does.

  4. Having students stand up directly for the victims avoids putting them in the uncomfortable role of informers.

  5. Teaching kids to stand up for other kids builds their character.

Unintended Negative Consequences:

  1. Many kids don’t want the responsibility of being security agents in lieu of the staff, and will resist this role despite adults’ urging.

  2. As in reason #1, it gives kids the messages that they are helpless to deal with social difficulties on their own and that society must provide for someone to always be there to save them.

  3. There is no guarantee that bystanders will put a stop to any given bullying incident. Just as kids are being enlisted to help the victims, the bullies may respond by enlisting their own friends to help them, causing the situation to escalate. In a case reported in New York City newspapers in 2009, a teenaged boy was killed while standing up for a girl who was being insulted by a group of other boys.

  4. It can be intimidating to stand up to someone who is bigger and stronger and may have many friends. Many kids wouldn’t want to be put in a situation where they can get hurt by getting involved, and their parents wouldn’t want them in that situation, either.

  5. It requires students to be judges in bullying situations. Judge is a serious and delicate function that requires wisdom and experience. It is not always obvious who are the “good guys” and “bad guys” in a given situation. In fact, many people learn to use their apparent weakness to their advantage by creating hostile situations and getting others to do the fighting for them. This is very common within the family, when weaker or younger children learn that they can cry and get their parents to take their side against their bigger and older siblings. Children discover the same tactic works in school when others are willing to stand up for them.

Reason Number Five: Teaching kids how to recognize bullies Many anti-bully programs involve teaching kids how to recognize bullies, and may have the students conduct sociograms to identify their classmates who are bullies.

Good Intention:

  1. In order to combat bullying, students need to know what a bully is. Then they can stop being bullies and know how to identify the kids in their class who are bullies.

Unintended Negative Consequences:

  1. Anti-bullying programs seek to promote tolerance, respect and inclusion among students, but teaching how to identify bullies may unwittingly promote intolerance, disrespect and exclusion. It teaches kids to have no tolerance or respect for anyone who treats others with any kind of intolerance and disrespect, to isolate them and to group together against them. In other words, we are unwittingly encouraging them to engage in the very kind of behavior we are trying to discourage.

  2. It is human nature for us to think of ourselves as the good guys and others as the bad ones. Leon Festinger’s theory of Cognitive Dissonance posits that people justify themselves to avoid recognizing that what they are doing conflicts with their own values. Teaching kids how to recognize bullies is likely to validate their beliefs that they are good and their opponents are evil. We are reinforcing their feelings of self-righteousness, and people can be decidedly mean when they feel self-righteous.

Reason Number Six: Trying to create a completely safe school environment The federal mandate today is to create a completely safe school environment. The US Department of Education in August 2010 declared the goal of eliminating bullying from schools. In many states, schools will be denied No Child Left Behind funding if they fail to demonstrate that they have guaranteed student’s safety from bullying. Children cannot concentrate when they live in fear of bullies, and they deserve a school environment free of fear. Therefore, it is our responsibility to provide them with a completely safe school environment. School staff are now required to constantly monitor children’s social lives to prevent any bullying from occurring. Many schools are eliminating recess and shortening lunch periods to prevent the chance of children hurting each other. Some schools have forbidden all physical contact among children, teaching them to “high-five” each other without touching and to play the game of tag by stepping on each other’s shadows rather than tagging their bodies. Some school districts are hiring “recess coaches” to make sure that an adult is constantly supervising students’ play activity.

Good Intention:

  1. We want children to feel safe in school so they are free to learn and to have positive social relationships.

Unintended Negative Side Effects

  1. Developmental psychologists almost universally tell us that children need to experience negative social interactions and to have the opportunity to be in unsupervised social settings in order to develop social skills, meaningful relationships and resilience. When adults constantly monitor children’s social lives, we prevent them from experiencing the natural interactions and hardships they require for healthy development.

  2. The attempt of adults to prevent children from being overtly mean to each other does not necessarily make them want to be nice to each other. Many will seek subtler or less detectable ways to be mean. That may help explain why cyberbullying and relational aggression have been increasing in recent years while overt physical aggression has been decreasing.

  3. Bullying researchers have found that kids who are victims of bullying tend to be overprotected by their parents. Overprotecting children in school is hardly likely to turn them into children who are immune to bullying. When they find themselves in less protected environments, they will have no idea how to cope.

  4. It promotes in children an unrealistic and unhealthy expectation that society must provide them with complete safety throughout life.

  5. It gives children the feeling that adults don’t trust them to deal with other people on their own, thereby undermining their self-confidence.

  6. Parents are being informed that it is the school’s responsibility to provide their children with a completely safe school environment. Since this goal is impossible, many parents inevitably become outraged at the school when their children are bullied. Our country is witnessing a proliferation of lawsuits by parents against schools for failing to stop their children from being bullied.{/tabs}

Is there, then, a way to avoid the negative side effects of anti-bullying interventions?

While it may be impossible to prevent all negative consequences, there is a way of minimizing them. The best way is by using good psychology.

First, this requires us to stop promoting the popular but irrational and harmful belief that schools are responsible for providing kids with a completely safe environment, for such a belief can only lead to hostility between the school and parents.

Secondly, we need to function as mental health professionals rather than law enforcement officers. We promote mental health not by protecting people from problems but by teaching them how to solve their problems on their own. When kids attain the wisdom to deal with their bullies without anyone’s help, the bullying disappears quickly, kids become happier, more self-confident and popular, and schools can better perform their mission of educational establishments while reducing the likelihood that they will be taken to court by disgruntled parents.

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