Common school program reduces signs of bullying

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A widely implemented school program aimed at improving kids’ behavior helps to slow the increase in bullying during the elementary grades, according to a new study.

Researchers found that teachers at schools with the behavior program reported fewer displays of aggression, teasing and rejection among their students.

Catherine Bradshaw, who worked on the study, said the decreases in undesirable behaviors were “modest,” but that they come at an important time in kids’ development.

“If we wait until the rates of bullying are their highest, say, in middle school, we might have missed a developmentally sensitive time for intervention during the elementary school years,” Bradshaw, of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, told Reuters Health.

“We expect the benefits will continue to increase as children move on to junior high school,” she added.

About 16,000 schools have been trained to implement School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a program supported by the U.S. Department of Education that provides a framework for discipline and for encouraging good behavior.

The program involves a few days of training for those who will educate teachers and staff, and Bradshaw estimated that it costs a school about an extra $1,000 to buy posters and other supplies.

Bradshaw and her colleagues asked 37 schools in Maryland to participate in their study; they randomly assigned 21 of the schools to implement the behavior program and 16 schools not to.

Over four years they collected teachers’ ratings of their students’ behaviors -- whether kids harmed each other or fought and whether or not they were liked or rejected by their classmates.

By the end of the study, both the signs of bullying and rejection increased at both groups of schools.

Bradshaw said she wasn’t surprised.

“This is consistent with the trend that bullying picks up toward the middle school years,” she said.

But the schools that adopted the behavior program had a smaller uptick in bullying and rejection than the schools that didn’t use the program.

“What we’re seeing here is with relatively modest changes in how the school is managing discipline, it really makes a significant difference in bullying behaviors,” Bradshaw said.

David Smith, a professor at the University of Ottawa, said the findings are positive, but he cautioned against interpreting them as reducing bullying outright.

He said that the questions focused more on aggressive behavior among the kids, and didn’t include the more subtle, verbal and social types of bullying.

“The other thing is because it’s only teachers who respond, they only see the half of what’s going on with regard to bullying,” said Smith, who was not involved in the study.

Still, “it’s better than (these behaviors) going in the other direction,” he told Reuters Health.

Bullying has become an increasingly salient problem for school-age children, and in rare cases has ended tragically with victims committing suicide.

One study found that bullying via text messages affected eight percent of kids in 2008, up from six percent the year before (see Reuters Health report of November 21, 2011).

Bradshaw and her colleagues write in their report in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine that they were not able to pick out which elements of the program were responsible for dampening the bullying behaviors.

But they say “positive reinforcement of desired behaviors coupled with consistent discipline, and consequences for inappropriate behaviors” likely made a difference.

SOURCE: Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, February, 2012.