Sjoerd en


Bullying at school

What we know and what we can do

Dan Olweus

What We Can Do About Bullying

An overview of the proposed intervention program can be found on p. 64. Before discussing the specific measures, however, I would like to mention that a few years ago this program was presented in detail to a total of 540 teachers in 20 different schools in Göteborg, Sweden. The teachers were given an opportunity to express their views of the proposed intervention measures (in a questionnaire) and to report whether they intended to use the program in their own classrooms. Briefly stated, 87 percent of the teachers considered the intervention program “good” or “very good.” Further, more than two-thirds of the teachers planned to use at least some of the proposed measures in their own classrooms, and another 25 percent believed they would do so. These results demonstrate that the program is well-founded in the realities of the daily school life, and that teachers feel that it is both possible and desirable to implement the proposed intervention program in their own classes and schools. Similar results have been obtained from a group of approximately 500 Norwegian teachers.

Overview of Intervention Program

General Prerequisites

  • Awareness and involvement

Measures at the School Level

  • Questionnaire survey
  • School conference day on bully/victim problems
  • Better supervision during recess and lunch time
  • More attractive school playground
  • Contact telephone
  • Meeting staff - parents
  • Teacher groups for the development of the social milieu of the school
  • Parent circles

Measures at the Class Level

  • Class rules against bullying: clarification, praise, and sanctions
  • Regular class meetings
  • Role playing, literature
  • Cooperative learning
  • Common positive class activities
  • Class meeting teacher - parents/children

Measures at the Individual level

  • Serious talks with bullies and victims
  • Serious talks with parents of involved students
  • Teacher and parent use of imagination
  • Help from "neutral" students
  • Help and support for parents (parent folder, etc.)
  • Discussion groups for parents of bullies and victims
  • Change of class or school

The above set of proposed measures constitutes a fairly comprehensive intervention program. All of them are considered to be useful in a program designed to counteract bully/victim problems. At the same time, we know now, on the basis of our experience and the analyses to be presented in Part III of the book, that some of these measures may be more important than others for achieving good results. In Part IV I will discuss a possible set of such particularly important "core" components of the program.


The major goals of the intervention program are to reduce as much as possible - ideally to eliminate completely - existing bully/victim problems in and out of the school setting and to prevent the development of new problems.

It is natural that attention is directed in the first plate toward what we called "direct bullying." As previously mentioned, direct bulying involves relatively open attacks on another student and may include words, gestures, facial expressions, or physical contact.

However, reduction and prevention of "indirect bullying" must also be included in our goals. A student exposed to indirect bullying is excluded from the peer group and has problems making friends with other students in his/her class.

There is a clear association between direct and indirect bullying in that students who are targets of direct bullying are usually isolated and rejected by their peers. But there are also quite a few students who are lonely and isolated without being targets of open attacks from other students. An intervention program should also be directed toward this less visible form of victimization.

The goals described above are negatively formulated: They concern the reduction, elimination, and prevention of bully/victim problems. It is also natural to state positive goals which can he expressed in the following way: To achieve better peer relations at school, and to create conditions that make it possible for both victims and bullies to get along and function better in and out of the school setting (Olweus 1978, ch. 9).

For victims, this would mean a greater sense of security at school, greater self confidence, and a feeling of being liked and accepted by at least one or two fellow students. For bullies, "functioning better" would imply fewer aggressive reactions to the environment and asserting themselves in more socially acceptable ways. In essence, this amounts to mitigating the bullies' negative and hostile reactions while at the same time strengthening their positive behaviors.

Awareness and Involvement

Two general conditions are very important for realizing these goals in a school-based intervention program: (1) That adults at school and, to some degree, at home become aware of the extent of bully/victim problems in "their" school; (2) That the adults decide to engage themselves, with some degree of seriousness, in changing the situation.

The research results presented earlier have clearly shown bullying to be a considerable problem in Scandinavian schools (as well as in schools in many other countries) and that no school environment can be regarded as "bully proof." Any time several students are together, especially when they cannot choose the members of the group themselves and when no adult is present, tendencies toward bullying may arise. This is a reasonable general assumption.

But to work concretely with the problems of a particular school, it is essential to collect more detailed information about the specific situation at that school. An excellent way of doing this is to make an anonymous survey with the Bully/Victim Questionnaire (p. 10). As mentioned, the questionnaire yields information concerning the extent of bully/victim problems at the school, the frequency with which teachers intervene and talk to the students involved, the extent to which parents are aware of their children's behavior and experiences at school, etc. Further, the data yield information concerning the absolute number of students (boys/girls) in the different grades who are involved in these problems. It is usually informative to compare the results from the school in question with the responses from the large Norwegian or Swedish groups of students reported on in Part I.

Mapping the extent of the bully/victim problems at the particular school is a good starting point for an intervention program. Even if the amount of bullying occurring in the school is relatively limited, there must be no complacency. The ultimate goal must be to eliminate bullying at school altogether!

Registering the amount of bully/victim problems existing in the particular school often serves as an eye-opener to parents and teachers and makes them eager to take action. Adult involvement in counteracting bully/victim problems is an essential general prerequisite to a school-based intervention program, and it is important that the adults do not view bullying as an inevitable part of children's lives. Also implied in this view is the conviction that a great deal can be accomplished with relatively simple means. At the same time, I want to underscore the fact that increased knowledge of the problems and of suitable countermeasures is of major importance in obtaining good results.

Measures at the Individual Level

Serious Talks with the Bully

If the teacher knows or suspects that there is bullying in the class, he/she should not delay taking action. It is important to initiate talks quickly both with the bully or bullies and with the victim.

The primary aim in dealing with the bullies is simply to make them stop the bullying. The message to the bullies must be absolutely clear: "We don't accept bullying in our school/class and will see to it that it comes to an end." In cases where several students participate in the bullying, it is advisable to talk to them one at a time, in rapid succession. In this way, they will have less opportunity to discuss the matter amongst themselves and to plan a common strategy.

Many bullies, in addition to being fairly tough and self-confident, are good at talking themselves out of tricky situations. One must expect a bully to attempt this when the teacher brings up the issue of his/her participation in bullying. Among other things, he/she can be expected to minimize his/her own contribution while exaggerating the roles played by others. The behavior of the victim will often be portrayed as aggressive, provocative, and dumb, and used as justification for the bullying he/she may "possibly" have participated in.

After individual talks with all of the suspected bullies, it may be useful to assemble them as a group. Once again, they should be clearly informed that no further bullying will be tolerated and that sanctions will be imposed for any future bullying.

It is much easier for the teacher to have these discussions with bullying students if some of the measures previously described have already been implemented, for example, the class rules against bullying. Such measures constitute a background for the students' understanding of the problems and there are then suitable "tools" for counteracting them, such as sanctions and the class meeting. In addition to teacher observations of and individual talks with the bullies and victims, a class meeting provides excellent means of making sure desired changes actually occur and become permanent.

If the measures taken do not lead to changes in the bullies' behavior, it may become necessary to arrange talks with the principal or the parents (see below) present in order to emphasize the seriousness of the situation.

Talks with the Victim

The typical victim is an anxious and insecure student who usually does not want to be the focus of attention. He/she is afraid of getting his/her tormentors into "trouble" by telling adults about their activities. Frequently, he/she has also been threatened with more bullying if he/she should get any idea of tattling. Undoubtedly, such threats cause many victims to decide to suffer quietly for fear of getting "out of the frying pan into the fire." Not infrequently, parents of victims are subjected to strong pressures from their child not to contact the school for the same reason. Doing what they think is best for the child, many parents comply with the child's wishes and entreaties.

Such a decision, however, amounts in reality to doing the victimized child a serious disfavor. And, in the long run, it will probably also prove harmful for the bullies not to have the matter brought into the open. A resolution of the situation may encourage the bullies to develop in more constructive directions.

These considerations make one point very clear: In trying to clear up a bullying situation one must make every effort to guarantee the victim efficient protection against harassment. The matter must be thoroughly followed up until the danger of renewed bullying attempts is completely or almost removed. The victimized student must be able to trust that adults both want and are able to give him/her any help needed. It often makes matters worse to bring up a bullying problem in the class in passing without making sure that the victim gets at least reasonable protection. In order to give the bullied student such protection, close cooperation and frequent exchange of information between the school and the student's family are usually needed.

It is generally advantageous if the teacher or the parents can secure the consent of the victimized child before pursuing the matter. At the same time, it is obvious that many bullied children are so afraid of negative consequences that they do not want to follow adult advice in this matter. In such cases, the adults must take responsibility for unravelling the problem, possibly in spite of the protests of the victim. Afterwards, it often turns out that the victimized student experiences great relief that the matter has at last been brought out in the open. But it must be emphasized once more that the teacher who intervenes in a bully/victim problem will have a special duty to arrange for the protection of the victim.

Sometimes a bullying situation can come to a head and take a dramatic turn, possibly including severe attacks and assault. In such a situation, it is important that the victim and his/her family get professional help quickly to work through the shocking experience. This will reduce the risks of the victim taking impulsive action and of suffering serious long term effects from the incident.

Talks with the Parent

After having discovered that students in the class bully others or are being bullied, the teacher should make contact with the parents concerned - at least if the problem has some degree of seriousness. It is not only reasonable and correct to comply with their strong wishes to be informed; it is also advisable to ask for their cooperation in bringing about change.

In addition, it is often appropriate for the teacher to arrange a meeting in which both victim(s) and bully(ies) as well as their parents participate. The aim here is to have a thorough discussion of the situation and to arrive at a plan for solving the problem. One important aspect is to try to establish some degree of cooperation with the parents of the bully(ies) and to make them exert their influence over the child in an appropriate way (see below). If the victimized child has had his/her clothes or possessions damaged as a result of the bullying, it is reasonable to raise the issue of monetary compensation (for example, from the allowances received by the bullies) in this context.

The meeting should not be a one-off event. It should be followed up with other meetings in which an evaluation of the situation can be made. It is of course also important to make sure that things agreed upon in the meetings are actually carried out. Meetings of this type make it easier for both the teacher and the parents of the students involved to make contact with each other, either by telephone or in person, to exchange information. Under favorable circumstances, relatively positive relationships between parents of the bully(ies) and those of the victim can develop. This is often an important step toward a solution of the problem.

In many cases, however, it is obvious even before a meeting has taken place that there are tense and hostile relations between the families of the bullies and of the victim. In such cases, it is probably advantageous to meet with one family at a time, before getting them together. If in the teachers' judgment a joint meeting would be difficult to handle, it might be appropriate to include the school psychologist or the counselor.

What Can the Parents of the Bully Do?

Even though it is the school's primary responsibility to clear up bully/victim problems in the school, parents can do a great deal to improve the situation. As previously described, children who are aggressive toward peers (and adults) have a clearly increased risk of later engaging in antisocial behavior such as criminality and alcohol abuse. It is therefore important to try to help bullies change their hostile and negative attitudes and behavior toward the environment. Several suggestions about what parents of bullying children can do, will be presented. Some of this advice relates to what was presented earlier on rules, praise, and sanctions (pp. 81-7).

The parents must make it clear to their child that they take the bullying seriously, and that they will not tolerate any such behavior in the future. If both the school and the parents give consistently negative reactions to the child's bullying, the chances that the child will change his/her behavior are considerably increased.

As discussed earlier, aggressive children and youths often have problems conforming to rules, and their family relationships may be chaotic and disorganized. Given this background, it is essential that the parents work together with the child to try to agree on a few simple family rules for living. These rules should preferably be written down and posted in a conspicuous place in the home.

It is important that the parents give the child much praise and appreciation when he/she follows the rules agreed upon. As mentioned earlier, it is easier for the child to change his/her aggressive behavior, if he/she feels liked and appreciated at least to some extent.

If the child breaks the agreed rules, however, it is essential that some form of negative sanction or consequence follows. In connection with discussions about family rules it is also natural to raise the question of possible consequences when such rules are violated. Before bringing the matter up, the parents should have to some extent considered what kind of consequences might be appropriate (see pp. 86-7 for general views on the choice of sanctions). The consequence should be associated with some degree of discomfort or unpleasantness, but corporal punishment must not be used.

As a rule, bullying and other unwanted behaviors occur when adults are not present or do not know what the children/youths are doing. Accordingly, it is important for parents to try to get to know who their child's friends are, and what they usually do. A good way of finding out more about this is of course to spend time together with the child and his/her friends. Being together with the child also provides opportunities for common positive experiences and for a better understanding of the child's personality and reactions. In this way, a more trusting relationship may gradually develop which can make the child more inclined to listen to and he influenced by the parent. The parents may then also be able to help their child find less aggressive and more appropriate reaction patterns. Perhaps the activity, physical strength, and need for dominance of many bullies can be used in more constructive ways, for example, in the form of forceful assertion within a set of rules, as in soccer, football, or ice hockey. Perhaps the child also has some special talents that parents can encourage him or her to develop?

What Can the Parents of the Victim Do?

 If parents know or suspect that their child is bullied, and the school has not informed them about the situation, they should contact the child's teacher as soon as possible. The goal should be to achieve cooperation with the school about the problem, along the lines discussed above.

Because the typical "passive victim" is a student who is anxious and insecure, with low self-confidence and few or no friends, it is important for the parents to try to help the child become "better adjusted” - quite independently of any current bullying situation. One way to increase the self-confidence of a victimized child is for the parents to encourage him/her to develop potential talents and positive attributes. This may help the student assert him/herself, preferably also among peers.

At least among boys, the typical victim is often physically weaker than his fellow students, and may even have a kind of "body anxiety". It is therefore desirable - if there is only a hint of interest or tendency in this direction - that victimized students undertake some kind of physical training, and that they try to engage themselves in some suitable sport. Even if the possibilities for them to assert themselves in sports are limited, the physical exercise can result in better physical coordination and less body anxiety which will increase their self confidence. This in turn leads to the child's "sending out different signals" to his/her environment which may improve the peer relationships.

By taking part in sports or in activities where he/she has a certain talent, the bullied student will probably get in contact with peers whom he or she has not met earlier. A new environment can be quite important as the boy or girl will not be evaluated here on the fixed negative conceptions of his/her "value" that many classmates may have, this provides a "new chance" for the victimized student. The experience may become quite important if the child is able to acquire at least one friend from among the new group.

To improve the child's situation at school, parents can encourage the child actively to make contact with some calm and friendly student in the class (or in some other class). It is an advantage if the two have something in common, for example similar interests or a similar personality disposition. A starting point could he that the other student is also lonely and isolated from his/her peers. Because socially excluded children are often not very skilled in their attempts at contact, it is important for the parents (or, for example, the school psychologist) to help the child by giving concrete and detailed suggestions about how to initiate contact. They must also he prepared to give a lot of support and encouragement, because the child, due to earlier failures, will tend to give up in the face of the slightest adversity.

If parents discover that their son or daughter is bullied or excluded from the peer group, they naturally increase their efforts to benefit the child and protect him/her from disappointment. Although this is meant only to benefit the child, it may have unwanted negative consequences in the long run. An "overprotective" attitude on the part of the parents can increase the child's isolation from his/her peers and create attachments to the adult world which actually inhibit the process of establishing contacts with peers. Against this background, it is important for the parents consistently to support the child's possible tendencies toward engaging in contacts and activities outside the family. At the same time, parents should try to follow discreetly what happens and, to a certain extent, "engineer" conditions for positive developments.

As discussed earlier, the provocative victim's own behavior may contribute to bullying. An important task in this case is for the parents (and the teachers) carefully but firmly to help the child find reaction patterns that will irritate his/her environment to a lesser degree. It may help a great deal if the provocative victim can improve his/her "social skills" and acquire a better understanding of the "informal social rules" of the peer group. In addition, provocative and passive victims have certain features in common - such as insecurity and lack of self confidence - also making it natural to follow the advice and suggestions given above for the passive victim.

The provocative victim, however, often has a quick temper and, like the bully, may have problems submitting to a set of rules. Accordingly, it may also be appropriate to use some of the measures discussed in connection with changing the behavior of the bully. Often there are components of "hyperactivity" in the behavior of the provocative victim. In more difficult cases of this kind, additional help from a child psychologist or psychiatrist with special expertise in this area may be necessary.

Use of Imagination

The teacher can of course use the school situation and his/her knowledge of the students in many different ways to help bullied or bullying students find more appropriate reaction patterns. The general guidelines for doing this were sketched in the previous two sections (What Can the Parents of the Bully/Victim Do?). As an example, he/she can let the victimized child carry out, together with one of the more popular students, a task of some value to the class and then present the results to the class. North American research has shown that such arrangements can increase the popularity of the less popular student (Strain 1981). The teacher, however, must choose tasks for the victim with care so that the student will not find him/herself in a situation that he/she cannot handle. In such a case, the results might be the opposite of what was intended.

Another approach would be to try to establish informal cooperation with some friendly and resourceful students in the class who are not involved in bullying. It is a great advantage when such "key students" are willing to display active disapproval or bullying, for example, by protecting the victim to a certain extent, or by "neutralizing” the bully.

Discussion Groups for Parents of Bullied or Bullying Students

In order to help students with relatively large adjustment problems, and also their parents, it may be advisable to invite parents of bullied or bullying students to take part in discussion groups led by a trained therapist or group leader. Parents of children of different "categories" - bullies and victims, respectively - should be in separate groups, as their problems are usually of opposite kinds. After the groups have met for some time, however, it could be useful to split them up, and let the parents of bullying and bullied children meet in the same group. This may help both categories of parents to see the problems from the other side.

Change of Class or School

For many reasons, it is desirable to solve an identified bully/victim problem "in place," using the measures described within the class and the school, lint if the problem persists in spite of repeated attempts to solve it, a change of class or school could present a solution.

When there is an unfortunate combination of aggressive students in a class, the school should, after consulting with the parents of involved students, distribute these students among different classes, or possibly even among different schools, Good results can often be obtained by splitting up such a "gang." The prospect of an aggressive student being moved, unless the bullying stops, can, of course, also be used as pressure to bring about change.

The first solution to consider should be to move the aggressive students, and not the victim. However, if such a solution does not seem viable, the possibility of moving the victim to another class or school could also be considered if such an arrangement appears to be promising. Under all circumstances, such moves should be carefully planned and prepared, with the concerned teachers and parents consulting with one another. In this way, the chances of a successful outcome will increase.