Bullying in school is universal and a range of methods aimed at tackling the problem has
been developed. But which ones are most effective, and in what circumstances? Professor
Ken Rigby takes an overview to identify what different approaches to tackling bullying
Bullying in schools and what to do about it has long been a top issue for schools
throughout world and judging by the attention it is receiving from both
researchers and the media there are no signs of it abating. It is estimated that
about one child in six is being bullied at school on a weekly basis, albeit with
some variations between schools and between countries. And it is widely acknowledged
that many of those children who are repeatedly targeted are seriously distressed and
suffer from high anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts. What progress, if any, is
being made towards eliminating this problem?
There is no shortage of anti-bullying programs each claiming some degree of success.
In a major analysis of evaluated anti-bullying programmes the authors identified 44 of
them and concluded that their implementation in schools had resulted in a reduction of
bullying of around 20%.1 These programs were directed for the most part in preventing
bullying from occurring, rather than dealing with cases when they occurred. What
this means in practical terms is that in a school in which five children were being
bullied, after the implementation of a programme we could expect four cases of
bullying. This is hardly reassuring for the victimised children and their parents.
Certainly it is right that schools should do all they can to provide a positive
social climate, encourage positive relations between the children and help every
child to develop the social skills to cope with aggressive peers. But what is often not
acknowledged is that the causes of bullying frequently lie outside the influence of the
school, deriving from both genetic and environmental factors over which the school
has little or no control. Sadly, only limited attention is being directed towards what
schools can do when the inevitable happens, that is, a child is being bullied and it
needs to be stopped.
There has been little change in the way most schools think about stopping cases
of bullying. The most oft quoted slogan is ‘zero tolerance,’ a dog whistling signal that
means that only punishment will work. According to online surveys of schoolteachers
and school counsellors in the USA as many as 90% of school staff claim that they
would apply some form of punishment in cases of low to moderate severity bullying.2
Schools in England report that by far the most common way of dealing with bullying
is through the use of direct sanctions.3
Types of bullying
How successful are schools when they intervene in cases of bullying? Schools in
England report that they are successful in stopping bullying from continuing in two
cases out of three. Students are far less positive. From studies conducted in a range of
countries, England, Australia, the Netherlands and USA, among those who have been
bullied and gone for help from teachers, only 50% or so report that things improved.
Meanwhile children are exhorted to tell teachers if they are bullied on the assumption
that teachers will stop it. In fact only about 30% of bullied children actually tell. Most
children believe that things will not improve if they tell or that it is shameful to do so.
Clearly teachers need to improve their capacity to deal with cases of bullying. The
first essential is to be clear just what they are tackling. In general terms, bullying may
be defined as the systematic abuse of power. On closer inspection cases of bullying
differ widely. They differ in severity, with some constituting criminal assault, others
insensitive teasing or taunting; in their persistence over time; in the means employed
(such as whether physical, verbal, indirect or through the use of cyber technology);
in the numbers of perpetrators, from one to many; and whether provoked or
unprovoked. Participants in the bullying may also differ significantly: perpetrators
may be remorseful or unrepentant; targets may be personally helpless or capable of
learning how to cope; the contending parties may or may not be open to mediation.
By lumping all cases of bullying together, schools may forfeit the opportunity to
employ the most appropriate method of intervention.
Methods of intervention
Given that bullying can take different forms a range of anti-bullying methods may be
adopted. There are six basic methods of intervention.4
1. The use of direct sanctions – This is the traditional and standard way of dealing
with cases of bullying. The perpetrator or perpetrators are identified and their
culpability assessed. An appropriate form of sanction is decided upon and
applied; for example, a verbal reprimand, withdrawal of privileges, detention,
internal exclusion in a special room, school community service, meetings with
parents, suspension from school or permanent exclusion. It is made clear that
bullyingbehaviour is unacceptable and contrary to school rules. The intention is to
deter incidents of bullying and thereby reduce the likelihood of further victimisation
on the part of the perpetrator(s) and also others. Few systematic studies have
examined the effectiveness of this approach. An exception is the recent British
study which reported claims by teachers that this method was successful in stopping
the bullying in 58% of cases in primary school and 65% in secondary school. More
commonly, direct sanctions are used in more serious and physical forms of bullying.
Indeed sometimes this approach is required by law. However, its use in other cases is
questionable, especially in the light of the evidence that it is ineffective in over one
third of cases.
2. Strengthening the victim – This approach aims at strengthening the victim in some
way to resist being bullied. Training may involve instruction in physical skills such as
martial arts or in the use of appropriate social skills, such as “fogging” (Rigby, 2011)5
The latter is a technique that aims at discouraging would-be verbal aggressors by
agreeing that they may believe what they are saying but that it is of no concern to the
hearer. Whilst the use of physical means of resisting aggression is generally considered
unacceptable by schools, acquiring appropriate social skills to cope more effectively
with low level verbal harassment has much to commend it. How successful this
approach can be is unknown. It is clear however that it can only be used in selected
cases in which there are reasonable expectations that the targeted child can acquire
and employ the necessary skills in the situations in which he or she is being bullied.
3. Mediation – This process requires the unforced cooperation of both the person who
has been engaging in bullying and the target of the bullying in seeking a solution
by using the services of a trained mediator, either an adult or peer. About one in
four schools in England use peer mediation, largely to resolve disputes and prevent
the escalation of conflicts. This is a highly desirable approach, but is severely limited
in its application to cases of bullying, because of the unwillingness on the part of
many children involved in bullying, especially the perpetrators, to voluntarily submit
to mediation. However, when children are prepared to seek a solution to their
relationship problems – as can sometimes be brought about by skilful counselling – it
can be extremely effective (see the Method of Shared Concern, below).
4. Restorative approaches – In one form or another, these constitute the second most
employed anti-bullying strategies in schools, with around 70% of schools in England
claiming that they are sometimes applied. These involve getting the ‘bully’, sometimes
termed the ‘offender’ or ‘perpetrator,’ to reflect upon his or her unacceptable
behaviour, experience a sense of remorse, and act to restore a damaged relationship
with both the victim and the school community. Its application may take place (i)
at a meeting with just the bully and the victim, (ii) with a group or class of students
involved in bullying behaviour, or (iii) at a community conference attended by those
involved in the bullying plus significant others such as parents. Reports from teachers
in England claim success in stopping bullying using restorative practice in 68% of
cases in primary school and 77% of cases in secondary school – notably a somewhat
higher rate than that claimed for direct sanctions. Its limitations, however, should be
noted: the offender(s) need to experience genuine remorse without the use of undue
pressure that stigmatises the child and leads to subsequent feelings of resentment. In
a community in which there is an ethos of acceptance of the philosophy of restorative
justice this approach can be most effective.
5. The Support Group Method – This is a non-punitive approach to bullying developed
in England by Robinson and Maines6 and currently being employed in approximately
10% of schools in England. The victim is interviewed first to discover what has been
happening, what effects the bullying has had, and who have been responsible. Next
the perpetrators are confronted at a group meeting with vivid evidence of the victim’s
distress. Those present at the meeting also include a number of students who have
been selected because they are expected to be supportive of the victim. The victim is
generally not present. It is impressed upon everyone that they have a responsibility
to improve the situation. Each student is required to say what he or she will do to
make matters better for the victim. Reported outcomes indicate that the bullying is
stopped in 77% of cases in primary school and 68% in secondary school. Of all the
interventions so far assessed in England the Support Group Method appears to be the
most effective. Its limitations however should be noted. It is generally seen as more
appropriate for younger children and in situations in which the victimised child can be
supported by other students.
6. The Method of Shared Concern – This is also a non-punitive approach, sometimes
known as the Pikas Method after its originator.7 Only about 5% of schools in England
currently use this method. It is used for working with groups of students who are
suspected of bullying someone. The practitioner begins by interviewing the suspected
bullies individually, sharing a concern for the victim
and inviting a helpful response to the problem.
Subsequently the victim is interviewed and offered
support. The possibility of the victim having provoked
the bullying is also explored. When progress has been
ascertained, a meeting is held with the suspected
bullies as a group to plan how the problem might be
resolved. The bullies are subsequently joined by the
victim and an agreed solution is negotiated through
a process of mediation. High levels of success of over
90% have been reported in small-scale studies.8 It is
unique as a method in dealing with cases in which
provocation on the part of the ‘victim’ also needs to
be addressed. Although it can be a time-consuming,
applying this method can produce very reliable and
Linking cases to methods
Rather than adopting one method of dealing with cases, it is recommended that schools
become skilled in the use of a range of methods and apply the one(s) that are most
appropriate to the case. Here is a simplified guide.
Method/Approach When applied
1. The use of direct sanctions
In serious and/or criminal cases and when
there is repeated non-cooperation
2. Strengthening the victim In cases of low level (usually verbal)
harassment when it is believed the victim
can be trained to cope by acquiring more
appropriate and effective social and
3. Mediation When students in conflict both want help
from a trained mediator.
4. Restorative approaches In cases when the perpetrator can be
induced, non-coercively, to become
sincerely remorseful and act restoratively.
5.The Support Group Method In cases of bullying by groups of
perpetrators who are prepared to meet
with the practitioner plus other students
and offer support for the victim.
6. The Method of Shared Concern In cases of bullying by groups where the
suspected perpetrators individually agree
to help to reduce the distress of the victim
and subsequently participate in group
meetings to resolve the problem.
In selecting a method of intervention it is important to recognise the wide diversity of
cases that come to one’s attention. Different cases may need a different approach and
schools need to consider the following issues carefully:
a. The nature of the case must be considered carefully before any decision is made.
b. In some cases new facts may emerge or a given approach may prove to be
unworkable – and the teacher may need to try something else. For instance, a
perpetrator may appear remorseful and cooperative and yet repeatedly persist in
the bullying. Direct sanctions may then be seen as necessary.
a. The intervention methods are not mutually exclusive, for instance direct sanctions
may be used together with some training to help or strengthen the victim to
become less vulnerable to attack.
c. Practitioners may need some training in how to apply the methods; for example,
in conducting restorative practice meetings, mediation sessions, and individual
and group meetings when applying the Method of Shared Concern.
d. The effectiveness of an intervention may depend upon the proactive work.
undertaken by the school. For instance, methods that involve the unforced
cooperation of students, as in the Support Group Method, are likely to be
more effective when students are encouraged to develop desirable social and
Among researchers in the field of school bullying it is widely agreed that the application
of knowledge and understanding gained through years of research is grossly inadequate.
This is particularly true of methods, such as the Support Group Method and the Method of
Shared Concern. Around 90% of schools in England never employ these methods.9 Many
teachers are unfamiliar with these methods or are confused about their nature. Yet there is
a substantial evidence-based literature available to educators, providing strong evidence
of their effectiveness, especially in cases of bullying perpetrated by groups. Education
about these methods is rarely available in teacher training courses. It is accessible,
however, through training packages and DVDs.10 There is, no one method that provides
all the answers. Optimum education about bullying should seek to match the method
with the nature and circumstances of the case.
1. Current levels of effectiveness in tackling cases of bullying are generally disappointing,
as indicated in school reports of intervention outcomes and especially from reports
provided by students.
2. By far the most popular method of dealing with cases of bullying is the application
of direct sanctions, regardless of the nature of the bullying. Although this method
is sometimes justified, its effectiveness overall in stopping cases of bullying from
continuing is not greater than that of other methods.
3. Six different methods on intervening in cases of bullying may be employed by schools,
the choice depending on the nature and circumstances of the offence.
4. Teacher education is currently inadequate in preparing teachers to tackle cases of
Ken Rigby is Adjunct Professor, University of South Australia
1. Ttofi, M. M., & Farrington, D. P. (2011). Effectiveness of school-based programs to reduce bullying: A systematic and
meta-analytic review. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 7, 27–56.
2. Bauman, S., Rigby, K., & Hoppa, K. (2008). US teachers’ and school counsellors’ strategies for handling school bullying
incidents. Educational Psychology, 28(7), 837–856.
3. Thompson, F., & Smith, P. K. (2011). The use and effectiveness of anti-bullying strategies in schools. Research Report
DFE-RR098. London: HMSO.
4. Rigby, K. (2012). Bullying interventions in schools: Six basic approaches. Wiley/Blackwell.
5. Rigby, K (2011). What can schools do about cases of bullying? Pastoral Care in Education., 29, 4, 273 -285.
6. Robinson, G., & Maines, B. (2008) Bullying: A complete guide to the support group method. London: Sage.
7. Pikas, A. (2002). New developments of the Shared Concern Method. School Psychology International, 23, 307–336.
8. Rigby, K., & Griffiths, C. (2011). Addressing cases of bullying through the Method of Shared Concern. School Psychology
International, 32, 345–357.
9. Rigby, K. (2011). The Method of Shared Concern: A positive approach to bullying. Camberwell, Vic: ACER.
10. Thompson, F., & Smith, P. K. (2011). The use and effectiveness of anti-bullying strategies in schools. Research Report
DFE-RR098. London: HMSO.
11. Maines, B. & Robinson, G. (2011). The Support Group Method Training Pack. Bristol: Lucky Duck Books.