IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Developing School-Wide Approaches for Bullying Prevention: The Value of Partnerships

By Katherine Taylor (NCSER Program Officer) and Emily Doolittle (NCER Program Officer)

About 22% of 12 to 18 year olds report being bullied at school. Bullying behavior can be obvious (pushing, name calling, destroying property) or more subtle (rumor spreading, purposeful excluding). In whatever form it takes, bullying involves acts of physical, verbal, or relational aggression that are repeated over time and involve a power imbalance. Bullying has a variety of harmful effects, including the potential for a negative impact on student academic achievement. This leads to the question, what can schools do to prevent bullying? In support of Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, we want to highlight two IES projects that have tackled this issue by developing programs that support social and problem-solving skills for students and a positive school climate.

In one project, Drs. Terri Sullivan and Kevin Sutherland at Virginia Commonwealth University developed and tested a school-wide violence prevention model for middle school students, with a special focus on youth with disabilities. The resulting model incorporates elements of a social-emotional skill-building program, Second Step, and a comprehensive bullying prevention program, the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program.

In a second project, Dr. Stephen Leff at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia developed and is currently testing the Partner for Prevention (P4P) program to address aggression and bullying in elementary schools. P4P includes a classroom program, consultation for teachers and playground and lunchroom staff, and community outreach to engage parents in efforts to address bullying.

In both projects, the initial development work was accomplished using a community-based participatory research framework. Both projects used community stakeholder input to develop programs that support social and problem solving skill development for students as well as a positive school climate. Drs. Sullivan, Sutherland, and Leff shared their insights from doing this type of work and collectively emphasized the importance of creating partnerships with schools and attending to the unique strengths and needs of each school.

What are some key elements of developing school-wide bullying prevention programs?

Drs. Sullivan and Sutherland: One key element is to work with administrators, teachers, and other school staff to understand school dynamics that foster prosocial behavior and those that may place students at risk for exposure to bullying behaviors (e.g., places in the school such as stairwells or bathrooms). Another is to have a strong school committee to assist with developing the program in order to maximize the relevance and meaningfulness of the interventions for students and school staff.

Dr. Leff: It is important to understand how the school has tried to address problems such as bullying in the past, as this provides important information about how to work best with formal and informal school leaders, and how your program can complement successful efforts already in place or support in areas that have been challenging. 

What are some keys to successful implementation?

Drs. Sullivan and Sutherland: One key to successful implementation is to monitor implementation progress via the collection of fidelity data, including data on student engagement (which schools are very interested in) and share these data with teachers and other staff, both to reinforce strong aspects of implementation as well as to highlight areas that need improvement. Another is to successfully engage with administrators; the more involved and supportive they are, the more successful implementation will be.

Dr. Leff:

  1. Establishing buy in from the principal, teachers, lunch-recess supervisors, and students.
  2. Developing internal champions within schools to help promote the program and speak to other teachers about the importance of the work.
  3. Discussing how to make programs sustainable is a conversation that needs to occur from day one.

What are the challenges to doing these types of school-wide interventions?

Drs. Sullivan and Sutherland: School-wide interventions are complex and ensuring that each component (individual, classroom, and school) is working well takes considerable effort.

Dr. Leff: These programs can be difficult to implement due to competing demands such as scores on state-wide and national testing. One of the main strategies is to help teachers understand how programs such as ours are able to improve the classroom teaching climate and thereby support academic and social-emotional functioning of the students. 

What have you learned from doing this type of work?

Drs. Sullivan and Sutherland: It’s a two-way street - we as researchers need to work hard to develop trust with the teachers, administrators and school staff, supporting them at every turn which can result in the long-term in a win-win for all parties.

Dr. Leff: One of the biggest lessons learned during the P4P has been how much the partnership between a school and team impacts the success of the program.

These two research studies are ongoing. As study results become available, we will learn whether these innovative interventions show promise for reducing incidents of bullying and improving students' achievement in school. Stay tuned!

Comments? Questions? Please send to IESResearch@ed.gov.