By Michael Staton
Photography by Christmas City Studio and Craig Mahaffey ’98

Evidence-based approach to bullying prevention shows promising results in multi-year U.S. study

Orefield Middle School in Pennsylvania adds a new mural to a wall in the school each year. The visual theme changes, but the featured words — respect, compassion, courage, welcoming — largely stay the same.

Whether it’s Scrabble-themed or made up of student signatures, the wall showcases concepts and virtues that can have a marked effect on bullying behavior in schools.

Administrators and teachers know that communicating these concepts should not stop at displaying the desired behavior on a wall. According to Matthew Carlson, school psychologist at Orefield, it takes a whole-school approach that addresses both school culture and bullying behavior.

This evidence-backed approach to combat bullying is pulled directly from the playbook Carlson studied when he trained under Clemson faculty involved with the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, a comprehensive K-12 program that started in Norway.

Clemson faculty and the Olweus program have enjoyed a longstanding research relationship, and they recently concluded a major study of bullying prevention efforts in U.S. schools. Evaluating nearly 70,000 students across 210 elementary, middle and high schools in Pennsylvania over two years, the study revealed significant, sustained positive impacts.

A companion analysis assessed year-to-year changes in a subset of 95 schools over three years. This study of students in third through 11th grades found that an estimated 2,000 students escaped bullying, and 2,000 more stopped bullying others over the course of two years.

Carlson says he has seen comparable results firsthand from Orefield’s year-round program, which starts with a Take a Stand kickoff day involving a series of energetic team-building exercises. A teacher-led band’s version of the Kiss anthem “Rock and Roll All Nite” replaces the word “party” with “study” in the chorus as students move between activities. The day concludes with reflections on lessons learned, and those lessons are echoed throughout the school year.

“This is what it takes to make a difference,” Carlson says. “It has to be more than treating behavior on a case-by-case basis. The more fun it is for students and teachers, the more they’re going to build community and positive relationships that will prevent bullying.”

Olweus’ partnership with faculty in Clemson’s College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences has brought what has seemed to be an insurmountable obstacle in schools down to size. The program’s training helps schools navigate bullying issues and diagnose the problems between individuals, within classrooms and across schools.

NAVIGATING A MINEFIELD

Carlson joined the Parkland School District, home of Orefield Middle, in 2013. District administrators had already adopted the Olweus program, but they were eager to make it more of a priority.

Carlson learned of the Olweus program while earning his doctorate in clinical psychology, but he didn’t fully grasp the importance of a comprehensive strategy to address bullying until going through training delivered by Clemson faculty.

“We deal with a lot of gray area,” Carlson says. “There are times when the student reporting bullying has also bullied other students or even the same student they say is victimizing them. If the behavior has gone unnoticed or unreported for a long time, it can be extremely difficult to make the overall dynamic clear.”

Through training, Carlson has learned to address the situations between students while doing detective work to understand the bigger picture. No two prescriptions are the same; what works for direct or indirect verbal bullying won’t necessarily work for physical or cyberbullying.

Carlson and school staff almost always involve parents; he also works with teachers and administrators who will need to supervise the situation. Sometimes, a counselor will meet with students to help develop strategies to deal with conflict.

According to Carlson, the key steps to addressing bullying incidents are focusing on the behavior — not the person — and recognizing the pattern so that the school can put policies in place that will reduce the likelihood the behavior continues. Following up to ensure that the pattern hasn’t reemerged is just as important.

“[The program] goes so far beyond addressing bullying; it’s more of a community-building program,” Carlson says. “Our kickoff event pre-emptively addresses the pattern of bullying and influences the students’ mindset. It’s really rewarding to work at the systems level to help the whole community come together, and the only reason it’s successful is because we get so many people involved.”

That buy-in is a large part of the reason instances of bullying have decreased in the school significantly since the Olweus program efforts began. It’s also why the International Bullying Prevention Association awarded $5,000 to one of the district’s schools for using best practices in bullying prevention.

“The Clemson Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life serves more than 7,000 schools in the U.S.”

A LANDMARK STUDY

Dan Olweus, developer of the program, says the research, published in August 2018 in the Journal of School Psychology, recorded reductions in student reports of being bullied and bullying others, finding that in all but the eighth grade, reductions in bullying ranged from 11 to 17 percent, while reductions in bullying others ranged between 27 and 37 percent for all grades. The research also found that results were stronger the longer the program was in place.

“All too many young people have their lives more or less ruined by peer bullying during school years,” says Olweus, who has been studying bullying since 1970 and conducted one of the first systematic intervention studies against bullying in the world in the 1980s in Northern Europe. “It is rewarding to see that the program has provided a large number of bullied students safer and better lives and that schools can learn new and more effective ways of preventing these problems.”

In addition to reductions in self-reports of being bullied and bullying others, the study found increases in students’ expressions of empathy for bullied peers and decreases in students’ willingness to join in bullying. Students’ perceptions that teachers were actively addressing bullying also increased after the prevention program was put in place.

Olweus says previous studies in the United States had been modest in scope and length, recording few positive results. He says the recent study’s size sets it apart from previous studies of prevention efforts: “Given the scarcity of positive results from anti-bullying programs in the U.S., this study is a breakthrough.”

Susan Limber, a professor at Clemson and a primary author on the study, says the program’s effectiveness comes from its whole-school approach.

“It’s important to see how a bullying prevention program such as the Olweus program can affect not only the behavior of students, but also students’ perceptions of the school climate that are related to bullying,” Limber says, adding, “Despite some more ingrained behaviors in older students, we still see quite positive responses in later grades. Ideally, bullying prevention should be implemented K-12.”

OLWEUS ABROAD

Limber’s involvement with the Olweus program predates her time at Clemson. She began translating the program for U.S. audiences in the mid-1990s. This translation faced not only language barriers, but cultural, geographic and educational differences.

When Limber and other faculty members arrived at Clemson in 1999 to establish the Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life, the Olweus connection came with her. The institute has become the hub for training and consultation for the Olweus program in North, Central and South America; it serves more than 7,000 schools in the United States.

Jan Urbanski, a research assistant professor in the institute, says the credit lies with Clemson faculty’s refusal to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to a problem that looks different not only from continent to continent, but also from school to school.

“The fact that some countries don’t have a word for bullying can make raising awareness tricky,” Urbanski says. “But our trainers in countries around the world are addressing all the behaviors around bullying if there’s a term for it or not.”

Olweus program materials are now available in Spanish, and trainers have found a foothold in Mexico. Materials are being translated to Portuguese and German, and trainers are now working in Brazil, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Germany, Guam and the United Kingdom.

With every research project, the program has fine-tuned its approach and found new ways to examine and respond to bullying behavior. Every change in training has a ripple effect across Olweus sites internationally. Limber says since the results of the recent study, faculty have drilled deeper to examine how and why it has been effective.

“We’re now interested in better understanding the drivers of success in reducing bullying,” Limber says. “We’re seeing that our interventions work. We’re seeing what changes. Now we’re examining the ‘why.’”

While the “why” is important, so is one of the outcomes Carlson has witnessed.

“Bullying is never going to go away,” Carlson says. “But … students are finally learning that it is not a rite of passage or something that they have to accept.”

“Students are finally learning that [bullying] is not a rite of passage or something that they have to accept.”

Michael Staton is communications and media manager for the College of Education and the College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences.

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