Can bullying be stopped?

by Mario Piacentini
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

The latest PISA in Focus tells some basic facts about bullying. First, bullying is widespread. Second, all types of students – boys and girls, rich and poor – face some risk of being bullied. Third, bullying is strongly associated with low performance and psychological distress. Fourth, the quality of the school climate is related to the incidence of bullying at school.

Reports of bullying are alarmingly high in almost every country. Some 4% of students across OECD countries reported that they are hit or pushed around by other students at least a few times per month. Another 8% of students reported they are hit or pushed a few times per year. Around 8% of students reported that they are frequently the object of nasty rumours in school. Physical bullying is less common among girls, but girls are more often victims of more subtle forms of harassment, such as nasty rumours, that can be just as harmful as more visible types of violence. Recently arrived immigrant students are often the target of bullies.

Bullied students are more likely to underperform at school, and schools where bullying is more frequent perform at much lower levels in PISA than schools where bullying is less frequent, even after accounting for other student characteristics, such as socio-economic status. As in general for analysis based on PISA data, we cannot really talk about a causal impact. However, results from PISA confirm a rich body of evidence showing that the stress experienced by victims of physical or relational bullying can lead to anxiety, and in some cases depression, and makes it very hard for victims to concentrate on school tasks and perform well at school.
The basic message is clear: we must do more to reduce bullying in schools. With cyberbullying on the rise, action is more urgent today than it has ever been. But can bullying be stopped? Evidence shows that it is possible to considerably reduce the incidence of bullying. PISA data suggest that environmental factors, such as the attitudes and behaviour of the teaching staff, can influence the extent to which bullying problems will manifest themselves in school. Schools where teachers can keep the class quiet when they teach, and where students perceive they are treated fairly by their teachers, have a lower incidence of bullying than schools with a poor disciplinary climate and negative teacher-student relations. Reducing the incidence of bullying is thus easier in a school environment characterised by warmth, attention and interest from adults; firm limits on unacceptable behavior; and adults who act as authorities and positive role models.

Creating a school culture that helps curb bullying requires a whole-school approach, with co-ordinated engagement among school staff, students and parents. Several of the anti-bullying programmes that have proved to be successful (such as the KiVA initiative in Finland or the School Learning Environment Plan in the Spanish province of Castilla y Leon) include training for teachers on how to handle bullying behaviour and its associated group processes, anonymous surveys of students to monitor the prevalence of bullying, and strategies to provide information to and engage with parents. Programmes also need to be long-term, and frequently monitored and evaluated to be effective.

Bullying will not disappear any time soon; but with a joint effort by schools, parents and students, going to school can become a healthier and happier experience. Public policy can support the implementation of anti-bullying programmes at schools and facilitate more research and evaluations to increase the effectiveness of these programmes.

PISA in Focus No. 74: How much of a problem is bullying at school? 
PISA 2015 Results (Volume III) – Students’ Well-Being
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)
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Photo credit: Bully symbol for download @shutterstock 

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