• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Tuesday 23rd June, 2009

Researchers tussle over anti-bullying evidence

Claims that a proven anti bullying program has not passed a stern enough test among children living in impoverished neighborhoods has raised fresh questions about the transferability of prevention models.Writing in the Journal of School Violence, Jun Hong from University of Illinois questions whether the success of the The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program would readily translate to tougher conditions outside its familiar development territory. But Hong’s claims that Olweus has only been tested in upper and middle-class areas are resisted by the US implementers. Research associate Marlene Snyder has responded to Hong’s paper by pointing out that there have been a number of trials showing positive results in low-income, inner-city and ethnically diverse areas, such as Philadelphia, Chula Vista in California, and throughout Arizona. She says these schools were successful in receiving grants because they were in low income, high crime, inner city schools. But she acknowledges that none of these has used the most rigorous experimental methods, and she agrees with Hong that implementation remains a daunting issue, not just in poor neighbourhoods but in all schools. She emphasizes the need for fidelity to the program for success, offering the following analogy.“People go to the doctor to get help with a weight problem. The doctor says ‘don’t eat as much, eat low calorie foods and exercise more’. Some people actually follow these directions and think their doctor is very smart.”“Then there are those who listen to the doctor but don’t change their habits. They don’t lose weight and might even gain some. Those people say the doctor is wrong or his diet doesn’t work.” Much that same logic goes for prevention programs when they are introduced into general practice, she suggests. Olweus provides a framework and training to enable schools to prevent bullying but it relies on a concerted effort by all involved in order to succeed. A great deal of effort is put into selecting sites where the program is likely to work, she says. “We spend a lot of time on readiness with our schools to help avoid training staff who really aren’t going to make a commitment to success.”The scale of bullying problems in poor areas is likely to be dramatically elevated and that degree of prevalence may affect how the program works, Hong writes. He cites one study that showed that three to six percent of preschool children in the general population had behavior problems, but the figure rose to 30% in low-income areas. Olweus has been proven to reduce bullying where it is a relatively isolated problem, but he questions whether the same approach is likely to be effective where it is widespread. He goes on to challenge the logic of some of the program’s key elements in such conditions, suggesting that because it was developed in Norway it did not consider the scale of impoverishment likely to be encountered, particularly among African American and Hispanic teenage parents.The program’s premise is that bullying is not just an individual problem, but a school-wide issue. It addresses the whole system at individual, classroom and school levels. Hong highlights certain aspects that may be weakened by the realities of conditions in low-income areas. Olweus recognizes that how children are treated at home may affect their behavior problems in school. Thus an element of the program involves engaging parents, but it is likely to be compromised if they are in conflict with one another, or resort to harsh or inconsistent discipline or simply do not have time to monitor their children’s behavior or to attend anti-bullying workshops. Another part of the program involves teachers intervening with both victims and perpetrators, but he argues that teachers in poor neighborhoods are less prepared to take on this role, and less likely to be knowledgeable about behavior problems or qualified to handle them skilfully.So the underlying rationale that sees teachers as role models and refuges may be severely undermined. As to solutions, he suggests offering free childcare and transport to parents attending program sessions and increasing elements of teacher support in poor neighborhoods. Something the Olweus implementers say already takes place routinely when they are setting up the program in deprived areas. As well as pushing for a new evaluation of the Olweus approach, he says any new study must ensure that the instruments used to measure results are culturally relevant to poor communities, which in the US and UK usually contain high concentrations of ethnic minorities. Future evaluations must also try to measure the major stressors that affect residents in low income areas and are likely to be a factor in other aggressive behavior. • For more about the Olweus program’s successes, see, for example, "An important drop" in the Seattle school bucket.See: Hong J S (2009), “Feasibility of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program in Low-Income Schools”, Journal of School Violence, 8, pp 81-97 and Black S A and Jackson E (2007), “Using Bullying Incident Density to Evaluate the Olweus Bullying Prevention Programme”, School Psychology International, 28, p 623

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