The primary purpose of this study was to implement and assess a Bully Prevention Program for Kindergarten through grade 8 students. The goal was to develop a program that was interactive and age appropriate for each grade. The program incorporated the reading of a story, an interactive bully-simulation activity that uses a paper doll, and an anti-bullying pledge. Follow up interviews with the teachers indicate that the students engaged with and enjoyed the program. Furthermore, teachers rated the program as successful in reducing discipline issues involving bullying and teasing. The study also surveyed the middle school children at the school to learn more about the prevalence of bullying and attitudes and behaviors related to bullying. Results show that the children are observing a significant amount of bullying in school and that less than half would feel comfortable telling their parents if they were being bullied. Results demonstrate the need for parents to be more active in talking to their children about bullying. Furthermore, more research attention should be focused on the development, implementation, and assessment of evidence-based interactive bully prevention programs.
An Interactive Bully Prevention Program:
Using Story Time, Dolls & Pledges to Teach About Bullying
Bullying is an issue of great concern for today’s youth, parents, and educators. A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself (Olweus, 1993). The goal of bullying is to gain power over and dominate other individuals. There are four forms of bullying: physical (including hitting, kicking, spitting, pushing, stealing, and destruction of property), verbal (such as taunting, malicious teasing, name calling, and making threats), psychological/relational (including spreading rumors, manipulating social relationships, exclusion from a peer group, extortion, and intimidation) and cyber-bullying ( using the Internet, cell phones, social media or other technology to spread rumors, intimidate, threaten or humiliate) (Cohn and Canter, 2003; National Resource Center for Safe Schools, 1999). An imbalance of power, whether real or imagined, is a key component of bullying. Bullies engage in hurtful behavior against those who cannot defend themselves because of size, strength, psychological resilience, physical or mental limitation, or social status (U.S. Department of Justice, 2004; Olweus, 1993).
According to the Department of Education, 1 out of 3 students is bullied at school daily; 160,000 students are absent from school daily due to the fear of being bullied. It is estimated that 13 million American children are teased, taunted and physically assaulted by their peers, making bullying the most common form of violence our nation’s youth experienced in 2012. Schools are no longer the safe haven that they used to be.
School safety is a prerequisite for school success and bullying is quickly becoming an epidemic that interferes not only with school success but psychological and emotional well-being. The World Health Organization’s Bullying Survey (Nansal et al., 2001), which assessed the bullying experiences of more than 15,000 youth in the public school system in the United States, indicates that 53% of boys and 37% of girls report having participated in bullying and 12% of the boys report having participated in bullying on a weekly basis.
Bullying not only threatens a student’s sense of personal safety; bullying is related to academic difficulties. Victims often have difficulty concentrating on their schoolwork, experience declines in academic performance, and have frequent absences from school. Not surprisingly, they are at a higher risk for dropping out of school.
Being bullied is also related to emotional and psychological distress. Many victims of bullying experience loneliness and difficulty making friends. (Lumsden, 2002). They often suffer humiliation, insecurity, and loss of self-esteem and may develop a fear of going to school, depression, and other mental health problems that can accompany them into adulthood (Shellard, 2002; Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2001).
Bullies also experience negative consequences. They are often less popular when they get to high school, have few friends, and are more likely to engage in criminal activity. Bullying behavior has also been linked to other forms of antisocial behavior, such as vandalism, shoplifting, skipping and dropping out of school, fighting, relationship abuse, violent crimes, and drug and alcohol use (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2001). A strong correlation has been found between bullying other students during school years and experiencing legal or criminal troubles as adults. Olweus (1993) found that 60 % of boys characterized as bullies in grades 6-9 had at least one criminal conviction by age 24, compared to 23 % of boys not characterized as bullies.
Bullying also has an effect on bystanders. Those who witness bullying are more likely to exhibit increased depression, anxiety, anger, post-traumatic stress, alcohol use, and low grades (Shellard, 2002). Students who regularly witness bullying at school fear that the bully may target them next and they feel that teachers and other adults are either unable or unwilling to control bullies’ behavior (Shellard & Turner, 2004).
Kim & Leventhal (2008) conducted a review of 37 studies that examined the relationship between bullying experiences and suicide. This study clearly demonstrates that any bullying experience, whether as a victim, perpetrator, or bystander, increases the risk of suicidal ideations and/or behaviors in children and adolescents. In September of 2010, New York State Legislation signed the Dignity for All Students Act into law (NY State Education Department, 2010) requiring schools to take a proactive stance against bullying, including implementing bully prevention curriculums.
While bully prevention programs are necessary in school, it is important to understand which anti-bullying programs work and which are most effective for children of different ages. Bully prevention efforts vary tremendously from school to school. Some bully prevention programs involve a onetime school assembly. This type of program may not engage all students therefore compromising the learning experience for those who do not engaged. Other programs involve displaying posters against bullying without an accompanying program. In this case, one must question whether merely seeing posters about bullying will actually reduce bullying behavior. Zero-tolerance policies, which suspend or expel bullies, have not been shown to reduce bullying behavior. Instead, according to a review by the American Psychological Association’s Zero Tolerance Task Force (2008) those policies may lead to higher rates of student misbehavior and are also associated with higher rates of student anxiety, alienation, and distrust of adults.
According to the U.S. Department of Education (2011), only 8 % of anti-bullying programs implemented in U.S. schools are evidence-based. The most extensively examined one is the Olweus Bully Prevention Program, a long-term, multi-level plan that addresses students, teachers, parents, and surrounding communities. Backed by several decades of research, its design is formatted for grades K–12 and has been implemented in many schools throughout the United States. It is a very extensive program that involves students and teachers, incorporates weekly sessions with role playing, and promotes empathy and advocacy. While this program has been effective in some schools, it is a rather lengthy program that utilizes a large portion of classroom instruction time. As school teachers struggle to implement the newly added Common Core Curriculum, classroom teaching time is a valuable resource that educators might not relish giving up.
The purpose of this study was to conduct and evaluate an evidence-based interactive Bully Prevention Program for Kindergarten through grade 8 students at two Catholic Schools in Westchester County, New York and to assess teachers’ level of satisfaction with the program. This study examined the use of a short term program that consists of different components that are developmentally appropriate for different grades. The program incorporated the reading of a story, an interactive bully-simulation activity that uses a paper doll, and an anti-bullying pledge. The program utilizes Vygotsky’s (1978) notion of constructivism by providing an interactive learning experience for children that is enjoyable but effective in teaching about the impact of bullying, how to handle situations involving bullying, and how to empathize with the bully, victim, and bystander.
Mendez-Baldwin and Pugliese (2012) piloted the Bully Prevention Program with a similar group of Catholic School children in grades K-8. The Pilot Bully Prevention Program utilized paper dolls and anti-bullying pledges. Teacher evaluations of the program were fairly positive but teachers felt that the paper doll activity that simulated bullying was more effective in grades 2-8. They reported that the younger students did not engage with the activity and that most did not grasp the message or understand how the activity related to bullying. They believed it was too abstract for the children even though it involved a hands-on project.
For this study, the component of the Bully Prevention Program for the younger students, grades Kindergarten to Grade 1, was modified to include a reading of a book about bullying followed by a discussion and anti-bullying pledge. The primary goal of the study was to obtain preliminary empirical support for this interactive bully prevention program that uses different components that are age appropriate. In addition, the researcher aimed to obtain information from the middle school students about their attitudes and behaviors related to bullying.
The study included 403 participants; all were elementary school students from two Catholic schools in Westchester County, New York where the median household income is $75,000. The majority of the participants (95.7%) were Caucasian, 2.3 % were Hispanic, the remaining were African American (1.2%) and other (.08%). The bully prevention program was given to students from kindergarten to 8th grade. The program was conducted by the primary author, an applied developmental psychologist who has over 20 years working with children and adolescents, along with an advanced Psychology student who assisted the primary author.
The middle school students at the two schools, 86 in total, completed the short 10 item survey.
A picture book, Chester the Raccoon and the Big Bad Bully by Audrey Penn was used in the program. In this book, Chester the Raccoon, who is a story book character most young children are familiar with, encounters a bully. With the help of his mother, Chester and his friends learn how to deal with the classroom bully. In addition, 14 paper dolls (7 girls and 7 boys) 24 inches in height, made of cardboard were used in the study. The dolls were designed by the researcher to look like children ages 8-13 years old. The dolls were used for an interactive activity designed to teach children about the emotional harm caused by bullying. Lastly, pledge forms were also used in the program. Pledge forms allowed the students to either draw or write their pledge to end bullying. Students in Kindergarten and Grade 1 were given an ” I’m a Buddy; Not a Bully!” drawing to color in place of a pledge form.
A survey consisting of 10 Yes or No questions all relating to bullying within the school was used in the study. The survey was created by the researcher and measured the prevalence of bullying and certain bully related behaviors. Sample survey questions included “Have your parents ever asked you if you have been bullied?”, “Is there someone in your class that acts like a bully?” and “Would you tell a parent if you were being bullied?”.
Procedure/Description of the Program
The Anti-bullying program was designed to teach children in Kindergarten through grade 8 about the harmful effects of bullying and how to prevent further acts of bullying within the school. The program consisted of several different parts, each designed to meet the cognitive abilities of each group of children. The program was conducted in the student’s classrooms over a period of 4 days during the month of October 2014, Bullying Prevention Awareness Month. Teachers and principals were present during each of the program sessions.
The program for the youngest age group (the kindergarten class and grade 1) consisted of reading a book, Chester the Raccoon and the Big Bad Bully by Audrey Penn. In this book, Chester the Raccoon, who is a story book character most young children are familiar with, encounters a bully. With the help of his mother, Chester and his friends learn how to deal with the classroom bully. The researcher read the story in traditional story time fashion, with children sitting in a circle on the floor. After reading the story, the researcher and her assistant led a circle time discussion with the children. The topics covered during the discussion included: 1) the difference between the behavior of a bully and that of a friend; 2) how to deal with a bully at school in a nonviolent way; 3) understanding why someone may act like a bully; and 4) the importance of telling a trusted adult if you are being bullied or witness bullying. After the discussion, the children recited a short pledge about being a buddy not a bully, and then were given a picture of a person with a sticker on it which reads “I’m a Buddy, not a Bully!” to color. The “I’m a Buddy, not a Bully” pictures were displayed in the classroom as a reminder to students about their anti-bullying pledge.
The second component of the Anti-Bullying program was delivered to grades 2-5. It involved completing an interactive Josephine/Joseph Doll activity and writing their own Anti-Bullying pledges. The Josephine/Joseph Doll activity was piloted in a previous study by the researcher using a similar sample of elementary and middle school children. The Josephine/Joseph Doll is a large paper doll that the students were instructed to say something mean to and then cut off a piece with a scissor; this was done to symbolize the harmful effects that bullying can have on a person. After all the children have said something mean, they passed around the doll again and said something nice while repairing the doll with multi-colored tape. This symbolized how after being bullied people are left with emotional scars and damage. After the activity, the researchers led a discussion on bullying. The topics covered in the discussion included 1) what constitutes bullying behavior; 2) why someone may be behaving as a bully; 3) the effects of bullying; 4) the importance of telling a trusted adult; and 5) ways to deal with bullying in a nonviolent way. After the discussion, children wrote and recited their own anti-bullying pledge.
The program for the middle school children (grades 6-8) was similar to the program for the 2nd-5th grade. The children completed the same Josephine/Joseph Doll activity and wrote and recited their own pledges but the discussion for this age group included the following additional topics: 1) Internet safety and; 2) cyber-bullying in addition to the topics covered in the grades 2-5 program.
Middle School Survey
The middle school students (grades 6-8) also completed an anonymous survey in order to measure the prevalence of bullying and other bully related activities. The survey was completed at the end of the Anti-Bully Program. The principals of the two schools obtained consent from the parents allowing the children to complete the surveys. The survey consists of 10 Yes or No questions all relating to bullying within the school and took about 10 minutes to complete. They were completed in the classroom on the same day as the program.
Teacher Follow-Up & Satisfaction
The researcher conducted 2 short interviews with each of the classroom teachers and principals of the two schools. Interviews were conducted in person by the primary researcher at the school. The first interview occurred 1 day after the program and focused on the teachers’ and administrators’ satisfaction with the program and their assessment of how engaged the students were. They were also asked whether they believed the students enjoyed the program. The second interview was conducted 2 months after the program. Teachers were asked to provide feedback about the effectiveness of the program in reducing behavior and incidents related to bullying.
Follow-up interviews with the teachers and principals indicate a high level of satisfaction with the Bully Prevention Program at both schools. 100% of the teachers and administrators at both schools rated the program as highly informative and effective in reducing behavior and incidents related to bullying. Furthermore 100% stated that the children had enjoyed the workshop and easily engaged in the program.
Middle School Survey
Twenty-six (30.23 %) of the participants responded “No” to the question: Have your parents ever asked you if you have been bullied?” Twenty-two (25.59%) of the participants indicated that they would not feel comfortable speaking to a parent if they were being bullied at school. Forty-five (52.33%) of the children responded that they have been bullied and 31 (35.88%) indicated that they have said something mean or nasty about someone on social media. Eighty- four participants (97.67%) said they felt sad for children who were bullied, and 85 (98.84%) of the participants are aware that children and teens have committed suicide due to issues related to bullying.
The results demonstrate the need to continue bully prevention efforts. About half of the students surveyed indicated that they have been bullied at school and more than 1/4 of the students admitted to having said something mean or nasty to someone on social media. Despite wide spread efforts by schools and other bully prevention campaigns, to raise awareness about bullying and bullying prevention, bullying is still occurring. Bullying is quickly becoming one of the most serious issues facing schools today (Olweus, 1994).
Bullying is related to emotional distress and even suicide. Bully victims are between 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims (Kim & Leventhal, 2008). Kim & Leventhal (2008) provide a systematic review of 37 studies conducted on children and adolescents that examined the association between bullying experiences and suicide. Despite methodological and other differences and limitations that were found in the 37 studies, the review clearly illuminated that any participation in bullying increases the risk of suicidal ideations and/or behaviors in youth.
The current study also highlights the need for parents to communicate more with their children about bullying. Less than half of the children indicated that their parents have asked them if they have ever been bullied at school and less than 30% said they would feel comfortable telling their parents if they had experienced bullying at school. Parents must open the lines of communication with their children and this communication must include discussions about bullying. Children must feel comfortable talking to their parents about bullying experiences as the emotional stress caused by bullying is something that they will need their parents support and help to deal with. Parents must be encouraged to directly ask their children about their experiences being bullied at school.
Mendez-Baldwin, Cirillo, Ferrigno, & Argento’s (2015) study of social media usage and cyber-bullying among teens revealed a significant association between being friends with your child on social media and their likelihood of talking to you about cyber- bullying experiences, demonstrating that parents are key factors in their teens’ experience and exposure to cyber-bullying. Mendez-Baldwin, et.al. (2015) also yielded a correlation between parents who monitored their children’s activity during middle school and the students’ likelihood of telling an adult about cyber-bullying. Thus, as children transition through middle school to high school, parents should be encouraged to become involved in their children’s virtual world.
The researcher recommends that schools include parents in their bully prevention efforts. Unfortunately, there are still a large number of adults who believe that bullying is just a part of normal childhood and these parents may not realize the impact of bullying or prevalence of bullying among today’s youth. Furthermore, since most parents are aware that schools are implementing bully prevention programs, they may not realize that they should continue these efforts at home as well. Schools can play a role in encouraging parents to speak to their children about bullying. This is essential for addressing the spread of bullying and helping to make schools the safe zone that they should be.
Further research should address the role of parents in bully prevention. One suggestion might be to survey parents and examine their attitudes about bullying. This should include an examination of their behaviors related to teaching and communicating with their children about bullying. This may be a necessary first step in understanding how to help parents promote anti-bullying behavior and Internet safety in their children.
Research efforts directed at examining the effectiveness of bully prevention programs are also warranted since must school districts are conducting bully prevention, but studies continue to demonstrate that bullying is still occurring. Bullying interferes with school success and is related to emotional, mental health, and legal problems that can accompany children into adulthood. Effective bully prevention is essential in order to secure a bright future for today’s youth.
Furthermore, more evidence-based bully prevention programs are needed. This study suggests that short term programs that are interactive and age appropriate may be effective. Based on teacher reports, children easily engaged and enjoyed the short story, Josephine/Joseph doll that simulated bullying, and the pledge components of the program. Furthermore, teachers reported fewer behavioral problems and incidents related to bullying. This study is limited because the program was only implemented at two Catholic Schools in Westchester County, NY. Another limitation is that the teacher follow-up period of 2 months was relatively short and does not address whether the initial benefits of the program were long lasting. In addition, the program should be repeated and tested more rigorously using a randomized controlled trial design which Howard, Flora, & Griffin (1999) suggest, in their literature review of bully prevention programs, are lacking. Nonetheless, the current study does present some preliminary support for the utility of an interactive bully prevention program which involved the use of paper dolls to simulated bullying, story time, and pledges.
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