The first anti-bullying project took place more than 30 years ago in Scandinavia. Since then, projects have cropped up around the world, mostly taking a similar overall approach: raising awareness of bullying and getting students to engage in activities that highlight its negative effects.

By 2004, enough anti-bullying projects had been introduced in enough places to review their overall impact, including some meta-analyses of their results. Unfortunately, the evidence about their success was disappointing. In fact, some schools actually suffered an increase in bullying during these campaigns—which parallels what we know often happens with other projects of this nature, such as anti-smoking and anti-drug initiatives in schools, anti-crime programs with at-risk adolescents, and anti-pregnancy initiatives for teens.

When I was given the job of coordinating an anti-bullying project in the 1990s in the North of England, I knew very little about the issue. I was simply urged to “get into the schools and do something.” In my haste, I naively thought that anti-bullying meant the opposite of bullying, so I came up with as many activities as I could that promoted friendship and support. Working with a storyteller, I spent two days in each primary school classroom doing a range of activities under the working title of “Storytelling to Promote Friendship.” Activities included stories, poems, songs, drama, pictures, role-play, and games. We ensured children constantly changed pairs or small groups so that everyone worked with everyone else. We were prepared to try anything that we guessed might make the atmosphere in the class friendlier and more supportive.

It was about six months into the project that I attended a government-sponsored anti-bullying conference and quickly realized that my project was different from everyone else’s, which zeroed in on raising awareness of bullying, but not friendship. They involved similar activities—pictures, poems, stories, and so forth—but were all about bullying. This was a surprise to me. Experienced teachers know that giving attention, even negative attention, to any particular behavior tends to reinforce it, so I’d begun with the premise that drawing attention to bullying and behavior associated with bullying might be a self-defeating strategy.

In addition to working with classes in schools, my job included responding to individual referrals of bullying, usually following a complaint from a parent to the local education authority. Most referrals came from parents of children between 7 and 12 years old, and the typical course of action in these cases was to investigate the incident and then punish the bullies. While that may sound sensible, I found the cases referred to me were never so straightforward. Typically, there was a lack of clarity, if not an open dispute, about who was actually doing what to whom. As a result, I decided it was preferable to be able to intervene without making any assumptions about what was going on—at least that way there’d be no risk of unjustly accusing children. Plus, if you wanted to bring about a change in their behavior, labeling children as bullies seemed a poor strategy.

My goal was to avoid giving unnecessary attention to any bullying that might be happening. If a child is unhappy in school, this in itself is a serious concern that requires urgent action, regardless of any rights and wrongs. So I implemented a simple approach: a support group to make the child who’s struggling in school happy once more. The steps are easy. First, I interview the child to find out who the most appropriate students are to be in the support group. Next, I meet with the support group to let them know I want their help and encourage them to come up with their own ideas. Then I schedule a follow-up meeting for a week later with the child and then the group, to check on how things are going and arrange for continued support if needed.

An Unhappy Child

I met 11-year-old Gary and his mother, Linda, after she’d called the local education authority to ask what could be done about her son being bullied and now refusing to go to school. When I called her back, she sounded distressed. I’d normally meet with children like Gary in school, but in this case I arranged to talk to both Gary and his mother at their home the following afternoon.

They lived close to the school in a run-down housing project in a deprived area of the city. Immediately, I noticed that Gary looked much younger than his age. Sitting in their living room on a tattered sofa, I listened as Linda explained that when Gary had started school, he’d had speech difficulties, and though he’d made progress, he was still struggling with reading. He was wetting the bed at night and had unexplained rashes on his hands. As she spoke, he clung tightly to her, even burying his head in her arms as she told me that in trying to reason with the mother of one of the bullies, she’d mentioned the bed-wetting, resulting in the other boys at school finding out and taunting him about it on the playground.

I asked Gary just a few questions. Who was he finding difficult in school at the moment? Who else was around when things were difficult? Who were his friends?

I didn’t ask him any details about what was happening at all, or how he felt, or whether he was lonely or frightened. In my work, I make clear that I can accept and respond to a child who needs support without any explanation. After Gary gave me a few names, I outlined the idea of setting up a group of children to support him in school. Although Linda seemed intrigued, Gary remained adamant that he didn’t want to return to school. I reassured him that it would help, and told him I’d visit his school that very day, set up the support group, and then let them both know if it had gone well. He agreed to stay tuned.

When I arrived at the school, I talked to the head teacher and the teacher for special needs, who detailed the problems Gary’s family had caused for the school. The younger sister would misbehave in class, and the father was aggressive, even having to be escorted off the premises on one occasion. They were aware that Gary had been the subject of some bullying, but they made sure to add that he was “no angel” himself, and that they’d done their best to deal with incidents as they came up. Understandably, parents and teachers often sound defensive when I first meet them, and they’re keen to tell me what they’ve already done to help mitigate the problem. Though it rarely makes any substantial difference in what I do, I always listen out of appreciation for their frustration.

At this point, I suggested a support group for Gary would be an appropriate intervention since no one would be accused of anything, possibly unfairly, and the children involved would enjoy participating. A support group typically consists of students whom the child finds difficult, two or three other children who were around when things were difficult, and any friends or potential friends—about five to eight children altogether. The children in this case included all the ones Gary had named. I met with them in an empty classroom as the special needs teacher observed. A couple of the children looked somewhat sheepish to be there, but I simply introduced myself as someone who helps children who are unhappy in school. The group was aware that Gary wasn’t happy, but we didn’t pursue any reasons why this might be. After all, this wasn’t a meeting to investigate incidents or possible causes, or to identify who was to blame for the situation.

Quickly, I got to the point. “I need your help to make Gary feel happier,” I told them. “I’ve chosen you because I know all of you can help me. You know Gary better than I do, so I’m sure you can think of ideas that might help. Does anyone have a suggestion, maybe just a small thing, something you can do for the next week, that will make him happier in school?”

In most groups, someone will think of a suggestion right off the bat. Occasionally, I may need to wait, smile patiently, and reassure them that I only want a small idea. In this group, someone offered to sit with Gary in the dining hall, and another said he’d watch for Gary at playtime to make sure he wasn’t alone. As they each made a suggestion, I wrote it down with their name while complementing their initiative. This showed the whole group that making a suggestion would get approval, and as expected, the other children quickly followed suit. Once all the members of the group had a part to play, I summarized and complimented the plan by saying, “I’m so pleased you’re all going to help me with this: Peter by sitting with him at lunchtime; Ben by watching out for him, and Ethan by playing with him at playtime; Carl by telling him some jokes; Susie by bringing him some sweets; and Freddie by helping him in class.”

At first, I always make a point of asking them to help me, not the unhappy child, since they may feel no particular impulse to help the other child but are usually keen to help an adult. I wanted to capitalize on this, so to wrap up, I told them, “It looks to me like you’ve come up with a really good plan. I’m sure the group will be successful and Gary will be happier in school over the next week. You’ve all been very helpful. Thank you so much.” The group looked quite pleased at this. Smiling, I added, “I’d like to know how you get on. May I see you all again in a week’s time, so you can let me know what you’ve managed to do?” They nodded. “Okay, next week, I’ll send for you. I’ll look forward to that. Good luck! I’m sure your ideas will help Gary feel a lot happier.”

When I returned to see Gary and his mother, he still didn’t want to go back to school. In the end, we decided that his mother would take him in the morning and leave him only after the other children had gone into the building, with an agreement to take him home at lunchtime too. Because Gary was so anxious, I arranged to visit him in school a couple days later, rather than waiting a week as I normally would.

The next morning, realizing just how difficult it might be for Gary’s mother to get him to school, I called to check in. Although she’d managed to get him inside the building, she was clearly distraught at the thought that he might be suffering and warned me that if he were bullied that morning, she wouldn’t insist that he go back in the afternoon. So I was relieved when he was present in school the next day and smiling broadly when he came to see me. Almost tearfully he said, “I never knew I had so many friends.”

A week later, when I returned for the normal follow-up, he said things were even better because, as he put it, “They weren’t so fussy any more. It was just normal.” I asked him what exactly was better, and he said that Ben had asked if he wanted to join them on the playground. Every time he told me about something that was better, I drew attention to it and praised him for it, even if it was likely someone else had initiated it. It was important to notice that he’d had to make changes too and give him the positive feedback he needed to keep taking those chances.

I saw the group, without Gary present, immediately after and invited them to tell me if they’d managed to help and if so, how. As they said something they’d managed to do, like including him in games, I praised the sensitive and careful way they’d shown support. When I asked if they thought he was happier and how they knew, they said he was smiling, talking more, and laughing. I then congratulated the whole group on their wonderful plan and asked if they’d keep going for another week, which they were all willing to do. After all, they hadn’t been asked to do anything too difficult, or anything they didn’t volunteer to do, and I made sure they felt fully appreciated.

Usually, I’ll return to review the situation one more time to ensure that the pattern of interaction has changed. If it hasn’t, the meetings with the support group will continue until everyone is satisfied that the child is much happier. In this case, when I phoned Gary’s mother a couple of weeks later to ask how she felt he was getting along, she said that Gary was “a different boy” and enjoying school. He’d even insisted that in the future she allow him to stay at school at lunchtimes again.

What’s Going on Here?

In the first two years of my project, I used a support-group approach in 50 primary-school cases of bullying, and the results were reviewed and published in Educational Psychology in Practice. In short, bullying had ceased in 47 of these cases. Importantly, the bullying hadn’t grown worse in any of them, as can sometimes happen when punishment is used. But the most astonishing finding was the speed of the effect. Setting up a support group stopped any bullying immediately in 80 percent of cases and in less than six weeks in 94 percent of cases. Moreover, using a support-group strategy, in which all children involved are winners, seems to have a long-term effect: bullying recurred in only a very small minority of referrals, usually instigated by students who hadn’t been in the original group.

So what’s going on here? As these results were well beyond my expectations, and staff in schools were equally amazed at how long-term difficulties could be resolved so simply, I went on the hunt for explanations, which I found readily available in any good introduction to social psychology. Factors that make individuals likelier to help others include when they’ve been specifically asked and have agreed to help, the need for help is unambiguous, they know for sure their action is appropriate, they’ve been given responsibility and a specific task to do, and they know they’ll receive feedback. These factors are enhanced in a group context in which they know their suggestion has been accepted, they identify with a successful group, and commitments have been made during group discussion. In this sense, unhelpful behavior becomes unacceptable to the group because it endangers the success of the group as a whole.

The speed of effect was more challenging for me to explain—until I stumbled across the principles of brief and solution-focused therapy, which emphasize the importance of focusing directly on the solution and ignoring the problem as much as possible, using existing strengths that children can bring to the situation. Students’ knowledge of their lives in school makes even young children skilled at knowing the small but significant actions they can take to help make another child happy. In fact, one of the best suggestions I ever heard was from a little girl who said, “I’ll watch out for him coming in through the gate in the morning and smile and say hello!”

Case Commentary

By Signe Whitson

If there was a one-size-fits-all way to bring an end to bullying among schoolchildren, it would’ve been implemented long ago. But getting a handle on bullying in schools and in cyberspace is a complex challenge, which leaves many professionals and parents feeling overwhelmed and helpless. That’s the bad news. The good news is that “big” solutions are trumped every day by the small, yet powerful acts that supportive peers and adults carry out to show bullied young people that their feelings matter, they’re worthy of kindness, and their dignity will be made a priority.

Young’s work in establishing peer-based support groups for vulnerable young people demonstrates the profound and lasting impact of these small acts. Detailed school policies and procedures, followed up by lengthy lectures at misbehaving students, rote (read ineffective) punishments, and endless conferences with indifferent caregivers have proven time and time again to be no match for the 10 minutes it took Freddie to help Gary in class or the 30 seconds Carl spent engaging Gary in the kind of humor that helped the 11-year-old boy feel human again.

The beauty of the approach detailed in this case study is, indeed, its simplicity. In aiming “to make the child who’s struggling in school happy once more,” Young shed the bullying focus of her anti-bullying project coordinator role and intuitively focused instead on fostering the kind of connections among young people that promote genuine support and enduring friendship. By replacing traditional finger-wagging and punitive anti-bullying programs with solution-focused, supportive acts of friendship, she was able to genuinely alter kids’ behaviors—no small feat, as all of us who work with school-aged children know. What’s more, this highly effective process (which documented that bullying ceased in 47 of 50 cases) had little to no monetary cost, worked quickly (in less than six weeks in 94 percent of cases), and seemed to have a long-term impact. Not to mention the boost of character-building empathy given to the support group members, who went from acting as bullies and bystanders to being helpers and healers.

Professionals and parents often ask me to define for them the line at which they should intervene in, or stay out of, young people’s social struggles. While there’s obvious value in allowing young people to find solutions to their own problems, it’s also true that inherent in bullying is a power imbalance that kids aren’t able to overcome on their own. In carefully selecting support group members, clearly defining their role and responsibilities, and following up with the students regularly, Young intervened actively—and yet still indirectly enough that the students could reap the benefits of independently helping one another. As a school counselor, I’m eager to use her support group methods with my own students.


Illustration © Sally Wern Comport

Sue Young

Sue Young, BA, PGCE, MEd, spent her teaching career working in inner-city schools in the North of England. Since taking early retirement, she’s given presentations and training about solution-focused work in schools in many different countries in Europe, the US, South America, and Japan. She’s the author of Solution-Focused Schools: Anti-Bullying and Beyond. 

Signe Whitson

Signe Whitson, C-SSWS, is a certified school social work specialist, international educator on bullying prevention, and author of four books on the topic of bringing an end to bullying, including the just released 8 Keys to End Bullying Activity Book and Companion Guide and Friendship & Other Weapons: Group Activities to Help Young Girls Cope with Bullying