Forget zero tolerance policies or one-day awareness events. A series of studies points to limited evidence that they actually curb bullying behaviors among children and teens.

Instead, schools and communities really need to implement intensive, long-lasting programs that are regularly assessed and monitored — and also train parents, says Amanda Nickerson, PhD, a professor of counseling, school and educational psychology at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. A 2011 meta-analysis conducted by Maria Ttofi, PhD, found that school-based interventions that met the above criteria helped decrease bullying by 20 percent to 23 percent, and victimization by nearly 20 percent, on average (Journal of Experimental Criminology).

Dr. Amanda Nickerson directs the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. (Credit: © 2014 University at Buffalo)Since 2011, Nickerson has directed the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention, which seeks to reduce bullying by developing effective tools to change the language, attitudes and behaviors of educators, parents, students and society.

The center — the only one of its kind nationwide — was established in 2010 thanks to a gift from University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education alumna psychologist Jean M. Alberti, PhD, who was disturbed that many educators viewed bullying as "normal, kids-will-be-kids behavior."

"If an adult exhibited these bullying behaviors to a child, we'd call it child abuse," Alberti says. "Why do we allow children to do it to other children? We teach children to be kind and compassionate rather than self-centered, and we teach them to wait their turn rather than allowing them to push their way to be first all their lives. We need to teach them in this same way to not bully each other."

Since its launch, the center has conducted research; developed presentations, fact sheets and anti-bullying toolkits for students, parents and educators; and hosted conferences and colloquia for researchers, educators and community agency professionals. While the center does not offer a specific degree, its 10 faculty affiliates — who represent diverse fields of psychology, including school, counseling, clinical, educational and developmental — conduct research and teach courses relevant to aggression, human behavior in multiple contexts and intervention in schools.

Most important, its work has focused on staying true to the science around bullying abuse prevention, says Dorothy Espelage, PhD, educational psychologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and a member of the center's advisory council.

"This is the first center on bullying that has concentrated on outreach while also serving as a gatekeeper for good science and weeding out non-evidence-based work," she says. "That's important because as the area of bullying has gained interest, we've been moving away from the science with the pressure for quick fixes."

Providing guidance

One of the center's first projects was an assessment to pinpoint the types of programs or interventions schools were already using to deal with and/or prevent bullying, Nickerson says.

"We found out that many of the most common strategies were very reactive in nature — disciplinary consequences for the bully, talking to the bully and the victim, notifying parents," she says. "There didn't seem to be much of an overall prevention angle to it, or much focus on systematic parent and school staff training on bullying."

To enhance those efforts, Nickerson and her staff developed a clearinghouse of evidence-based information about bullying. Because bullying has become much more newsworthy since the 1999 Columbine shooting and the rash of "bullycides," as the phenomenon of bullying-related suicide is being labeled, many laypeople are speaking on the topic, often propagating misinformation, Nickerson says.

"For example, when I hear people call bullying an epidemic and say that almost every child is bullied and no one can escape from it, I think they're really just talking about people being mean or someone insulting you, which is not the same as bullying," she says.

The center defines bullying as a form of aggressive behavior characterized by intent to harm, repeated occurrence and an imbalance of power between the bully and the victim. Among its most popular resources are research-based presentations, toolkits and fact sheets that schools, teachers, mental health professionals, parents and students can use to better understand bullying. The center's presentations also comprise data on bullying's prevalence among children and teens, why it happens, who is most likely to bully, who are most likely to be victims, and how parents and teachers can prevent such abuse.

The center's website also offers a guide to school-wide bullying prevention programs, reviewing the evidence base for nine popular programs and offering guidance on how to review and select one.

Nickerson says that at first, she was reluctant to pull together a list of programs because she didn't want people to think that "simply implementing a program is going to solve this problem — we know from the research that it's not."

Instead, she says, school administrators must collect data about the nature and extent of bullying in the school and then develop and implement a whole-school anti-bullying policy that emphasizes personal, social and conflict resolution skill development. Effective bullying prevention efforts also integrate bullying awareness into the class curriculum and increase supervision or restructure "hot spots" such as the school cafeteria, where bullying is most likely to occur, and reach beyond the school to include parents.

However, she says, "There are some programs that certainly have more evidence than others, and we want people to know about them."

Research guiding practice

The center is also conducting an array of research on bullying. Nickerson, for example, is studying the role of empathy in a witness's choice as to whether or not to intervene in a bullying situation and the process involved in helping others in this way.

Another faculty affiliate — Jamie Ostrov, PhD — is examining what aggression looks like in early childhood and was featured on Sesame Street, in a segment that showed him providing Big Bird with some skills that he could use if he was being bullied by someone.

Other research by faculty affiliate Jennifer Livingston, PhD, examines how teenage girls define — and often downplay — sexual harassment. Livingston and Nickerson are also engaged in a five-year study, funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, to examine the immediate and long-term consequences of bullying. And Darren Treadway, PhD, a faculty affiliate from the University at Buffalo's School of Management, has investigated how bullies in the workplace are evaluated by their supervisors.

This ongoing research is an important aspect in better understanding the lifelong effects of bullying, says Alberti, and one of the main reasons she helped establish the center.

"As a clinical practitioner, I have had clients who have been victims of bullying when they were younger, and it's had incredibly negative repercussions, including depression and an inability to form and maintain relationships later in life," Alberti says. "It's just heartbreaking for me to see and hear about."

Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.

Further reading, resources

  • Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention: http://gse.buffalo.edu/alberticenter.
  • Hazler R. J., Carney J. V. Critical characteristics of effective bullying prevention programs. In: Jimerson S. R., Nickerson A. B., Mayer M. J., Furlong M., eds. Handbook of school violence and school safety: International research and practice. 2nd ed. New York, NY:Routledge; 2012:357–368.
  • Swearer S. M., Espelage D. L., Napolitano S.A. Bullying prevention & intervention: Realistic strategies for schools. New York, NY: Guilford Press; 2009.
  • Ttofi M. M., Farrington D. P., Effectiveness of school-based programs to reduce bullying: A systematic and meta-analytic review. Journal of Experimental Criminology. 7(1):27–56.