Making bullying prevention a priority in Finnish schools

by Christina Salmivalli
Professor of Psychology at the University of Turku, Finland

Worldwide, an average of 10% of children and youth are targets of on-going negative treatment by their peers at school. 

Bullying is aggressive, harmful behavior which is targeted repeatedly at one and the same individual. Apart from its repeated nature, bullying can be differentiated from occasional conflicts or fights in another respect as well: it occurs between children who are unequal in their strength, power, or social status (for instance, a physically stronger or older child harassing a younger/weaker peer; several children mocking one target; a self-confident child attacking someone who is very shy and socially anxious and thus finds it difficult to stand up for him/herself; or a highly popular child harassing someone who is viewed negatively in the peer group). Due to such inequalities, bullying has also been called systematic abuse of power. Bullying often takes place in the school context, not because that would be an environment that especially invites, or creates bullying problems, but simply because that’s where children spend a lot of time together: as coming to school is not voluntary, you cannot stay away even if you are not treated well.

According to PISA studies, Finnish 15-year-olds are among the best in reading literacy, mathematical literacy, problem solving, and scientific literacy . However, in Finland, as in many other countries worldwide, bullying has been a concern for several decades.  Early attempts to reduce bullying included awareness-raising and legal requirements for schools to develop antibullying policies. These actions were not, however, enough to change the prevalence rates of children and youth who were bullying others or themselves victimized.

In 2006, The Finnish Ministry of Education made a contract with the University of Turku concerning the development and evaluation of a national antibullying program that would provide educators concrete tools to address bullying. The KiVa Antibullying Program was developed and evaluated in a stringent study including 134 schools representing all provinces of Finland. The findings were strikingly positive, showing that KiVa not only reduced bullying and victimization significantly, but also improved school liking, academic motivation, and academic performance, and reduced anxiety and depression among students. KiVa is now implemented in 90% of Finnish schools providing comprehensive education. Feedback from schools has been extremely positive, and KiVa seems to be effective in reducing not only traditional, but also more modern forms of bullying such as ‘cyberbullying’ occurring via modern communication technologies, such as mobile phones or the Internet.

KiVa has received a lot of international attention. In 2009, the program won the European Crime Prevention Award. As the program developers have received numerous requests about implementing KiVa abroad, the University of Turku now sells licences to international partners wishing to disseminate the program in their countries. Evaluation studies testing the effectiveness of the program are starting in the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United States. 

Reducing bullying is an important goal in itself,, but it also has numerous beneficial effects on the general well-being, school liking, and academic motivation of all students. The Finnish example shows how joint efforts from the part of politicians, researchers, and schools can lead to significant improvements in the everyday lives of numerous children and youth.

About the author
Christina Salmivalli has been conducting school based bullying research for over 20 years and is a leading international researcher in this area. She is the principal investigator in the project developing and evaluating the national KiVa Antibullying Program in Finland. She has published numerous international research articles, reviews, and book chapters on the topic of school bullying, and she has been leading several large-scale projects funded by Finnish and European funding organizations.

Photo credit: A1 Media/Mika Kurkilahti. © KiVa project.

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