The nine elements of an effective whole-school approach to preventing and responding to bullying
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Since 2009 there has been a huge growth in research into bullying and schools to expand our knowledge and understanding about bullying.
As bullying prevention programmes are tested in more challenging and diverse environments, we learn more about what works and what doesn’t work. The evidence tells us that a successful bullying prevention programme is based on best practice and evidence-based approaches that are embedded in a comprehensive and coordinated school-wide approach.
Research evidence indicates there are nine core elements to an effective school-based bullying prevention approach. These elements are inter-linked – each is important to making bullying prevention and response more effective. For example, data are needed to assess local needs, and strong leadership support is critical to policy development, implementation and professional learning.
1. A supportive school and classroom climate and ethos
School bullying is often linked to climate and ethos. This is about the school's core values, attitudes, and beliefs that go through every aspect of school and classroom life. Climate and ethos determine the wellbeing of students and staff, and how effectively a school responds to and prevents bullying behaviour.
Work that improves classroom climate can help address factors that promote bullying. When a school promotes inclusion and respectful behaviour on a daily basis, bullying is much less likely to happen.
A positive school climate makes all students and staff feel safe, respected, and understood and valued. It nurtures both academic achievement, and social and emotional development. A positive climate helps to build a school where positive behaviour is the norm and students actively work to stop or prevent bullying.
For further information on supportive school and classroom climate and ethos within a bullying prevention approach refer to Taking Action - supportive school and classroom climate and ethos
2. Strong leadership support
Leadership is critical. All school leaders should make sure that steps are taken to challenge and respond to bullying. A common feature of schools with a successful bullying prevention and response programme is a proactive school principal who champions effective bullying responses and prevention.
Research shows that the most effective schools have the support of their senior leadership team and at least one senior staff member coordinating their bullying prevention efforts. The principal should create and empower a leadership team that focuses on all aspects of school safety, including bullying, and school climate.
For further information on leadership within a bullying prevention approach refer to Taking Action – strong leadership
3. Involvement of parents, carers and whānau
A positive school climate creates a caring ethos that sets the tone for all relationships in the school community. It’s important to communicate and closely work with parents, carers and whānau.
Communicating with parents, carers and whānau adds strength and depth. It helps life at home to reinforce the actions of the school, and helps parents and carers develop their own skills and attitudes. Parents, carers and whānau need to be fully informed, consulted often, and recognised as equal partners in the bullying prevention process.
For further information on involvement of parents and whānau within a bullying prevention approach refer to Taking Action - involvement of parents and whānau
4. Gathering and analysing data
Data collection is a critical dimension of bullying prevention. Schools need a clear picture of the nature and extent of bullying problems in their school so they can plan an appropriate response.
Schools should use data-driven evaluations of school climate and bullying, including looking at incident reports to see where steps can be taken to strengthen school culture, or identify any vulnerable students who need more support. Start with a pre-test and measure regularly after implementing any programme.
For further information on gathering and analysing refer to Taking Action - gathering and analysing data
5. School-wide professional learning and development (PLD)
Many school staff struggle with how to manage student conflicts, build students’ social skills, and encourage a sense of responsibility for others. Evidence shows that bullying rates are lower when senior leadership is strongly committed to professional development, and staff are trained to recognise bullying and effectively handle incidents. Minimal training can help, but more intensive training can make a much bigger difference.
For further information on professional learning and development within a bullying prevention approach refer to Taking Action – Professional learning and development
6. Effective and supportive policies
For policies to be effective, the whole school community needs to share the same perspective on preventing and responding to bullying. To establish a shared understanding of bullying, it is important to work with all members of the school community. A school’s policies and practice on behaviour, diversity, and challenging prejudice are key.
For further information on effective bullying prevention polices refer to Taking Action – Effective Policies
7. Student leadership, agency and voice
Actively involving students in designing and reviewing initiatives, and creating opportunities for them to learn skills and take a lead, can have a major impact on effective bullying solutions. A clear understanding of what students think about bullying will help to develop the most appropriate approach to bullying prevention for your school. Research shows that most bullying takes place away from adults, so surveying students gives essential information on the nature of bullying.
For further information on student agency refer to Taking Action - student agency
8. Universal approach (universal actions targeted at class and school level)
Extensive research has shown that the way programmes are designed and implemented may be as important as the content of the programme itself. The most effective take a whole-school approach, are implemented over a long time, and involve many different aspects not just one single component.
A broad-based focus on wellbeing that emphasises strengths is a key start and is more effective than focusing only on bullying behaviour. A universal whole-school approach develops a culture where it is the norm to talk about feelings and wellbeing, where it’s okay to have a problem and ask for help, and where the whole-school population has the skills and attitudes to support those with greater needs.
For further information on universal approaches refer to Taking Action - universal approaches
9. Targeted approach (early response and targeted support)
A targeted approach that is integrated with a universal approach, can help those with bullying problems and alleviate any emotional and behavioural issues at the start.
An initial assessment of a student’s needs will help shape a plan setting out how the student will be supported, and who will take what action. This should be followed by regular reviews to check how the plan is working. Both short- and long-term approaches are needed, including using school data to regularly review policy and procedures and to monitoring progress.
For further information on targeted approaches refer to Taking Action - targeted approaches