New Voices: together against bullying

Suzy Clarkson with the latest in our series for budding writers (see for more information)

As a child and adolescent with ‘ginger’ hair, I was, like many other redheads, subjected to regular bouts of name-calling. I lacked the knowledge and skills to handle it, and I began to believe that this one observable trait defined me and determined my self-worth. When I asked for help, I was regularly told by adults to repeat the adage ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me’. This was not an effective tool to stop the name-calling, nor was it a strategy that equipped me to deal with the hurt. Now as an adult, psychology student and concerned parent, my interest and research lies in how schools can reduce and respond to bullying, and how social psychological research on bullying can contribute to proactive school practice.

Bullying is a universal phenomenon. Approximately one in ten children worldwide experience being bullied (Currie et al., 2012). It has been defined as the exposure ‘repeatedly and over-time, to negative actions’ (Olweus, 2005, p.5) or the ‘cruel and repeated oppression by the powerful over the powerless’ (Rigby, 1996, p.11). In the last two decades, the media have reported on the predominantly unsuccessful efforts of policy makers and educators to reduce the bullying prevalence rates in the UK.

At the same time, international government reports and academic research have highlighted the consequences of bullying. These are far-reaching, affecting not only the well-being of the victim and perpetrator in the short term, but also producing effects that can persist into adulthood, impacting on subsequent relationships, mental well-being and life opportunities. Victims of bullying are significantly more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders, including anxiety (Graham & Juvonen, 1998), and are twice as likely as non-victims to be depressed in later life (Ttofi & Farrington, 2012). A victim’s health risk behaviour can also be heightened, including substance abuse (Molcho et al., 2004) and suicidal behaviour (Kim et al., 2005; Klomek et al., 2007). News headlines and government reports, in the UK and beyond, suggest that bullying can be a factor in homicide (e.g. Anderson et al., 2001), and in both planned and actual massacres. For the perpetrator, bullying behaviour is a strong indicator of future delinquency, antisocial behaviour (Merrell et al., 2008), and psychosocial problems (Nansel et al., 2004).

Such links have focused public and government attention on the moral imperative to address school bullying. For many years, social psychologists examined bullying as a dyadic relationship, between the perpetrator and victim, without considering the social context. More recently, they have recognised the importance of social context and the influence of peer clusters, school classes and school climate. This triadic approach explores bullying as a group process and has produced insights into the perpetrator’s motivation to bully and the probability of persistence. The approach has also highlighted the limited support experienced by the victim.

Christina Salmivalli and her colleagues (1996; interviewed in the April 2014 issue) were the first group to systematically investigate the influence of the bystander on school bullying. A bystander is present at an incident, acting as an observer or witness. Salmivalli (2001) suggests that bystanders are not neutral and that all pupils present during a bullying incident play a role. She identities two primary roles, perpetrator and victim, and four bystander roles: assistant of the bully, reinforcer of the bully, outsider and defender of the victim.

The prime motivation for the bully’s behaviour is the pursuit or maintenance of power and status within the group, with ‘victim selection’ being based on characteristics such as submissiveness, low power, and low self-esteem (Salmivalli & Isaacs, 2005). These characteristics permit the perpetrator to repeatedly demonstrate their power, with a low probability of confrontation. For the perpetrator’s power and status to be renewed and established they require an audience; pupil reports suggest that there are other peers present in 85 per cent of bullying incidents. Salmivalli et al. (1996) found that the bystander’s reaction to the bullying incident could positively or negatively affect the perpetrator’s behaviour. Therefore interventions that involve influencing bystander behaviour can contribute to reducing, or even eliminating, the motivation to bully.

This research is the basis of KiVa, a comprehensive school-based anti-bullying programme developed and evaluated by Professor Salmivalli and her team in Turku University (see KiVa was commissioned in 2006 by the Finnish government, due to their concern that bullying rates had remained static over the previous decade (despite a legal requirement on schools to possess their own policy to safeguard their pupils from bullying).

Kiva is the Finnish adjective for ‘nice’, as well as an acronym for kiusaamista vastaan, which means ‘against bullying’. The KiVa programme offers concrete tools for teachers and pupils to tackle bullying. It has two core components: universal and indicated actions.

Universal actions are proactive and directed at the class and school level, including three sets of developmentally appropriate lessons covering the age range 7–15 years. The lessons aim to enhance the pupils’ awareness about the role of the bystander in the bullying process, and to increase the pupils’ empathetic understanding of the victim’s plight. Lessons also provide safe strategies to defend and support victims. Various activities encourage class and group discussions, to help children reflect upon their feelings and attitudes. An online game, linked to the lesson content, reinforces the behavioural skills of ‘I know, I can, I do’. ‘I know’ repeats and tests what has been learnt, ‘I can’ rehearses taking learning in to action, whilst the ‘I do’ reflects on motivation and actions. Other universal components include a parent website, school assemblies, posters and playground tabards for staff to demonstrate the commitment and coordination of the school.

Indicated actions are triggered in response to confirmed incidents of bullying. The strategies are scripted and involve bullies committing to a plan to support the victim. At the same time the class teacher encourages prosocial children to also support the victim.

The programme was first evaluated in a randomised controlled trial with 28,000 pupils in Finland. Significant reductions were found in self-reported bullying and victimisation (Kärnä et al., 2011a). Following this, a nationwide trial with 150,000 pupils found significant reductions (Kärnä et al., 2011b), and the programme is now implemented in over 90 per cent of schools in Finland.

My interest in the KiVa programme began whilst studying a social psychology module on my undergraduate degree. I was fascinated to learn about how research findings from social psychology had been employed to improve the lives of so many people. I listened thoughtfully to lectures that involved programmes that improved children’s social skills and behaviour (Incredible Years), eating habits (Food Dudes), and reduced bullying (KiVa). However, due to my personal experiences, KiVa captured my attention. When I discovered a vacancy for a Masters of Science by Research Scholarship with Professor Judy Hutchings, to evaluate KiVa in Wales, I didn’t think twice. On completion of my master’s I applied to be a Research Project Support Officer for a Wales-based RCT of the programme. This position is giving me with the opportunity to study for a PhD and become one of only three accredited trainers of the KiVa programme in the UK.

My MSc thesis evaluated the UK pilot trial of KiVa, which included 14 primary schools from Wales, funded by grants from the Welsh Government, and three from Cheshire (pupils aged 9–11 years). The trial found KiVa to be effective in reducing self-reported victimisation and bullying, and acceptable and suitable for teachers and pupils (Hutchings & Clarkson, in press). Teachers reported that KiVa had a positive impact on children’s well-being and prosocial behaviour, and on the class and playground atmosphere. These positive results, however, should be interpreted with caution, as the pilot trial did not include any control schools: it was an opportunistic study following the inclusion of KiVa on a list of programmes eligible for Welsh Government grants. The results from this pilot trial have informed the present RCT in Wales, run as a partnership between the Dartington Social Research Unit and Bangor University. It targets all of Key Stage 2, 7- to 11-year-olds, in 20 primary schools. Phase 1 of the trial saw 11 schools implement the programme with the other nine schools on the control waiting list. Phase 2 of the trial commenced in September 2014, with all 20 schools implementing the programme. The data are currently being analysed.

On my academic and research journey I have acquired many skills, learning about the challenges of real-world intervention trials, liaising with international developers, media companies, and schools. Throughout my time, I have been supported by a diverse range of people from Bangor and Turku Universities, and from the Social Research Unit at Dartington. Social psychology forms the building blocks of KiVa, and it is rewarding to see so many people coming together to promote a more proactive method for tackling bullying in UK schools. The robust evidence from Finland, alongside growing data from the UK, could enable public finance resources to be wisely invested on an evidence-based anti-bullying programme. I feel extremely fortunate to work on such a worthwhile and personally meaningful project.

Suzy Clarkson is KiVa Research Project Support Officer, Centre for Evidence Based Early Intervention, Bangor University
[email protected]


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