To stop a bully

Is it fair to make this the job of bystanders?

Gavin is “guarding” the slide at recess. He decides who goes up the ladder and who can’t. Amanda tries to get on. “No stinky people!” he says. Amanda looks crestfallen. Leah steps in: “Gavin. That’s bullying. Stop!” Gavin hesitates, then steps aside sheepishly. Amanda scampers up the ladder.

This is what is supposed to happen when a bystander witnesses bullying in a schoolyard. At least that is what they are trying to teach kids in schools across the country.

But I have to ask: Are we betting too heavily on kids to stop bullying themselves?

Schools pay loads of attention to bullying. Much of the effort goes into raising awareness and teaching children how to handle it, including how to stand up to bullies. What schools don’t spend much time on is devising better ways for adults to reduce bullying. One reason for this is some very solid and well-publicized Canadian research by psychologists Debra Pepler of York University in Toronto and Wendy Craig of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., which revealed that children witness a lot of bullying never seen by adults and that kids sometimes intervene to stop it.

When peers do intervene, Pepler and Craig found, they succeed about half the time in stopping the bully. This oft-repeated finding has meant that educating bystanders has become a major focus of recent anti-bullying programs.

I see the point. But I’ve always been uneasy with the idea that kid interveners are the answer to bullying. And it turns out my uneasiness is well founded.

The findings of a study (Pepler was a co-author) conducted at an Ontario camp last summer are telling. Three-quarters of the kids in the survey said it’s a good strategy to tell a bully to stop, but only 37 percent said they’d actually done that the last time they’d seen a kid being bullied. The study’s conclusion: We have to work even harder to give kids the skills that will help them “stand up to bullies.”

Hello? I’d say this study shows that bystander intervention is not all it’s cracked up to be. So maybe we should try something else, like improving playground supervision.

And wouldn’t you know, an international analysis of studies on the effectiveness of prevention programs identified improved playground supervision as one of the most important elements in reducing bullying. Parent training, good discipline and increased awareness were important too. Peer group (bystander) education was well down on the list. That should be no surprise. Even adult bystanders find it hard to step in when someone is getting assaulted on the street.

I credit Pepler, who strongly believes in the potential of bystander education, for acknowledging that adult supervision is important too. “Dan Olweus [the world’s leading bullying researcher] showed that the frequency of bullying on the playground is directly related to the number of supervising adults,” she told me. “Unfortunately, there just aren’t enough teachers to do this type of supportive intervention. That is why we also focus on training and empowering peers to be the eyes and ears on the playground.”

OK, but those eyes and ears will be most effective with better supervision. How could anyone imagine that more bystanders will “stand up to bullies” unless they’re confident there are adults around to protect them. I have no problem with bystander education as part of an anti-bullying strategy. Just don’t put it ahead of adult responsibilities.

Bottom line: If school officials tell you they have a bullying program in place, but can’t show you a plan for improved supervision and a better overall response by adults to bullying, they haven’t done their homework.

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