School-wide bullying prevention in early elementary school

School bullying is a worldwide problem, and numerous prevention strategies have been implemented to decrease both the amount of students bullying their peers and the report of individuals feeling victimized. Bullying is defined as a relationship problem, in which aggression and power are applied to harm another individual. Considering SEL-focused programs such as Second Step or Steps to Respect, the current study applies similar ideas, lessons and strategies to decrease bullying and increase social emotional skills and competencies in K-2nd grade elementary school classrooms. The current study also implements the use of social learning theory, to reinforce bystander behavior in the classroom, and this study actively encourages the input and support from teachers and faculty. This prevention study was hypothesizes to decrease bullying, and this hypothesis was supported over the course of three years. Results show that whole-school intervention, including social-emotional development and teacher commitment is key to successful bullying prevention.

Bullying has been defined as a relationship problem, by which power and aggression cause distress for another person (Craig & Pepler, 2003). This imbalance of power is often used to establish dominance, control, and status within a peer group (Pellegrini, 2004; Pepler, Craig, Connolly, & Jiang, 2008). Bullying is presented by repeated acts of aggression, intimidation, or coercion against a victim who is weaker than the one causing harm, which leads to increased feelings of helplessness to escape (Horner, 2011). Worse, many students are in fear of rejection or embarrassment when reporting bullying, thus the number of children being bullied is likely to be much greater than what is published in research (Unnever & Connell, 2004). This is a dangerous yet consistent problem very much present in schools worldwide, yet the solution to reducing bullying in school settings is still a great challenge (Hong 2009; Ayers 2012).

Bullying prevention is critical to provide for younger elementary school students because decreased sense of safety early on may lead to a fear of future bullying (Heydenberk, 2006). Not only does fear lead to greater chances of bullying, but responses from fear may impede students learning abilities; therefore, social emotional skills must be strengthened immediately. By developing social emotional skill and competencies, students develop better skills necessary to show respect and responsibility to their peers and their school community. SEL is used in many schools today, through a variety of programs (Responsive Classroom, Second Step, Social Thinking, Steps to Respect, etc.), as SEL facilitates positive social skills that help students meet their own interpersonal needs and later contribute to society (McCombs, 2004; Kathleen). By increasing social-emotional skills, such as conflict resolution, fighting decreases and sense of safety increases (Aspy, 2004). Additionally, poor social skills and poor affect regulation predict peer rejection, weak attachment and alienation (Aspy, 2004; Batton, 2002). However, it is important to mention that prosocial skills is not enough to solve bullying, but they may stop a situation from getting worse (O’Brennan). For this reason, social learning theory is considered. Kids learn behaviors from their environments or from behaviors modeled and/or reinforced around them. If a child learns that a negative behavior is rewarding, a child will continue to act in a negative way. (Bandura, 1997; Powell and Ladd, 2010).

Part of this problem stems from the way in which adult’s factor into school bullying or prevention programs. Bullying often occurs in transitional areas, like hallways, bathrooms, bus lines or at recess, where teachers or adults are not necessarily watching everyone. These instances of bullying are difficult to report or catch. There have been so many preventions programs in the last few decades, and many prevention programs have not been established long enough (Forgatch, 2003). There has been much success in school-wide interventions and preventions, often at later ages of development, but it still remains to be a great problem (Olweus, 1999; Ttofi and Farrington, 2011). Bullying has been a problem for so long, that teachers may find it challenging to commit to a prevention program; teachers may not become adequately trained, they may be skeptical of the intervention or they may not want to change their classroom ways. Many teachers often are in support of stopping bullying in their school and in their classroom, but usually they have no say in the actual policies of prevention. For the purpose of this study, an empowerment approach is considered. Teachers who are actively applying the intervention also can influence change in the program, by journaling or collecting input on different aspects of the effectiveness.


            The current study was conducted to further the research on bullying prevention, through an altered version of the Steps to Respect program combined with more teacher input and influence. The Steps to Respect program is designed to decrease school bullying problems by fostering socially responsible beliefs, teaching social-emotional skills to counter and prevent bullying, and increasing staff awareness and support. Through increased input and support from teachers and staff, along with social-emotional skill development, the hypothesis of this study is to decrease bullying and increase social emotional skills for kindergarten, first grade and second grade.

The participants in this study were 1922 students, 55% female and 45% male, from K – 2nd grade classrooms in 10 elementary schools were included in this study. Six schools from the Northeast implemented the prevention program in every kindergarten, first grade, and second grade classroom. The four other schools were placed in the study as control groups, with no manipulations applied to the school. All schools examined in the study were public schools with diverse students, made up of approximately 15 students per classroom. A holistic approach was taken to decrease and prevent bullying. Data were collected longitudinally, using an experimental design at both pre- and posttest, which examined effects before implementation, after the first year, and after three years. This program includes facets from the Steps to Respect program and creates more areas for influence from the teachers and administrators involved.  This multilevel bullying prevention includes bullying, teacher commitment and school policy, and bystander behavior, through observation, and self-reports. This randomized controlled designed considered the effects from a whole school-wide program. The program focused on three goals: promoting prosocial beliefs and social emotional skills, reinforcing and modeling bystander behavior, and addressing teacher factors, which included an empowerment approach for teachers to better the program.

Schools in the experimental group were provided with a school-wide program guides, in-service trainings, two weekly classroom lessons, and the inclusion of randomly assigned teacher groups for collaboration monthly meetings.

Program guide. The program guide consists of supported research, skill lessons (focused on social-emotional learning), methods to adapt modeling and reinforcement bystander behavior, example lesson plans, and open-ended lesson plan pages for teachers to write up ideas or to write about their observations. Group size is also included in the guide, instructing teachers to apply different types of groups: whole-class, direct instruction, small group discussion, and game lessons. Example lesson plans might include an interactive warm-up activity, for example, through song, and then an introduction of the topic; then, continuing onto a playful and hands-on activity that puts this topic into practice (similar to the Second Step prevention program). About an hour a week is required for this classroom instruction, but a teacher is a encouraged to use more if he or she so desires.

In-service staff trainings. Researchers and professionals pair up with administrators and counselors of each school to go over the core instructional guide and program content. Three in-depth classroom sessions are given, and then teachers break out into teams. Teachers, in groups of two, have half an hour to create a 25-minute lesson, as the program requires. Following this, the teachers each present their lessons, interacting with the rest of the faculty as if they are the students being taught. After each team presents, all staff discuss which lessons might be more empowering. To conclude the training, the researchers and professionals give out classroom materials for these new lessons, and they put on a skit of their own to leave the teachers with a lasting image of what this sort of teaching looks like.

Teachers. Teachers have a special role in this prevention program, in addition to leading these lesson plans, filling out surveys, and committing to this program. Teachers are suggested to journal about their lesson plans, for the first three months (12 hours), in their guidebook or in a book of their choice. This will prepare teachers with information to improve the program, track their own improvement and their class improvement with the program, and hopefully encourage discussion. In the first three months, teachers will be allowed to submit suggestions for the general program. If the researchers and principles agree on a suggestion, the suggestion will be adapted, with flexibility for teachers.

Consent. Both students and teachers had to give consent to participate in the program.

Students required parental consent for surveys to be administered. Teachers had to give consent for two reasons. All teachers completed the consent forms, agreeing to compensation with annual increases. Teachers also consented to monthly randomly assigned teacher gatherings to share improvement, observations and suggestions for the program that might be applied as the program continued. Attendance is taken at the monthly gatherings, and compensation is docked if poor attendance occurs. Also, teachers in the experimental school classrooms agreed to bimonthly classroom observations.


Student surveys on behaviors and school life. Students are given a survey of a 39-item test, comprised of both the Children’s Social Behavior Questionnaire and the School Life Survey. The Children’s Social Behavior Questionnaire is a 15-item measure, asking kids to think about their relationship with other kids. An example of a prosocial behavior question is “Some kids try to cheer up other kids who feel upset or sad. How often do you do this?” and students must respond with never, almost never, sometimes, almost all the time, and all the time (Crick and Grotpeter, 1995). Six subscales assess the relative frequency of certain types of aggressive (relational and overt), prosocial behaviors and loneliness. The School Life Survey is a 24-item, two-part measure, assessing frequency of physical, verbal and relational bullying as perpetrator through nine yes or no responses (ie, in the past four weeks have you…I told other students that I would hurt them); and assessing this as the victim as both perpetrator, by including fill in the blanks for certain items (ie, this student broke my things on purpose) with: the number of times it took place during the past four weeks, the name of the student(s) who did it to you, and his or her grade. These surveys were combined in order to compile a larger sized survey, asking similar questions on bullying and peer relationships in different ways.

Observational coding. In previous research (Frey and Snell 2005;Frey and Snell 2000; Pepler & Craig 1995), playground bullying has been observed and then coded by focusing on bullying problems and underlying systems, which might add to bullying or victimization. This might include the students social skill, the peer relationships, bystander behavior, or adult intervention. The strategy was comprised from a variety of continuous focal individual samples, and then behavior was coded according to a system of categories: bullying, encouragement of bullying, no bullying aggression (indirect aggression, uninvolved from any power imbalance), Agreeable social skills (neutral or positive behavior toward a peer), and Argumentative social behavior (coded for nonaggressive, direct negative acts or words toward another classmate).

Classroom assessment. Before researchers and professionals go into each school, the Assessment Profile for Early Childhood Programs (APECP) is administered to help the faculty trainers understand what improvements need to be made or reinforced.  This observation method looks at effective classroom management, instructional support and SEL-supportive environment. As a formative measure, instruments are evaluated in a more comprehensive-manner in order to make improvements. A software provides an extensive analyses and detailed survey on the practices in the classroom, concerning safety (109), learning environment (73 items), scheduling (34 items), curriculum methods (49 items), interaction (61 items), and individualizing (25 items). However, the number of items per category vary depending on the age group.

Interestingly, the results of the pre-post tests presented decreases in bullying, but not much more significant in comparison to similar studies. It was predicted that teacher empowerment and influence would have a greater impact in making the study more supported by faculty. While the scale used were shown to be both reliable and valid, perhaps there is a key that research has been missing. This study was limited as the researchers did not manage time too well. Many training sessions were rushed and teachers did not have time to go to all of the workshops. However, there was a decrease in bullying, and most teachers chose to keep the program and adapt it to their future classroom.



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