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Preventing Bullying

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Preventing Bullying

Let’s Rethink What It Means to Prevent

Dr. Vern Minor
Director of Educational leadership

To cite this article: Minor, V. Preventing Bullying: Let’s Rethink What It Means to Prevent. Kagan Online Magazine, Issue #60. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. www.KaganOnline.com

It was Benjamin Franklin who coined the expression, “An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.” The Free Dictionary describes the meaning of this idiom in this manner: “It is better to stop something bad from happening rather than try to deal with the problem after it has happened.”1 We readily embrace this advice in many areas of our lives. For example, we brush our teeth every day to avoid having to go to the dentist. Many of us get an annual flu shot to ward off illness. However, while it is true that many of us use preventative measures to steer clear of difficulties, it is equally true that we sometimes tout solutions to problems as being preventative when, in fact, they are not. This appears to be the case with many of our solutions for reducing bullying in schools.

Before examining this idea further, let’s establish one fact—bullying exists, and it has for a long time. I know of no one who would contend otherwise. The data is conclusive. StopBullying.gov collects national statistics on the prevalence of bullying in our nation’s schools. Their findings are highlighted below.

  • 28% of students in grades 6-12 say they have experienced bullying.
  • 30% of students admit to bullying others.
  • 71% of students say they have seen bullying in their schools.
  • 9% of students in grades 6-12 have experienced cyberbullying.
  • 15% of students in grades 9-12 were bullied in the past year.2

In a large study of middle school students, the percentage of children who experienced various types of bullying is astounding.

  • 44.2%  Name calling
  • 43.3%  Teasing
  • 36.3%  Spreading rumors or lies
  • 32.4%  Pushing or shoving
  • 29.2%  Hitting, slapping, or kicking
  • 28.5%  Leaving out
  • 27.4%  Threatening
  • 27.3%  Stealing belongings
  • 23.7%  Sexual comments or gestures3

The same study found that bullying appears in various locations at school.

  • 29.3%  Classroom
  • 29.0%  Hallway or lockers
  • 23.4%  Cafeteria
  • 19.5%  Gym or physical education class
  • 12.2%  Bathroom
  • 6.2%    Playground or recess3

Bullying exists, and we have an obligation as a profession to do all we can to prevent it from occurring. A search for solutions will result in a list of programs that publicize their effectiveness in preventing bullying. Let me highlight below, simply for the sake of illustration, three examples of what I found when I conducted a Google search on “preventing bullying.”

  • How to Prevent Bullying4
    1. Help kids understand bullying.
      • Encourage kids to speak to a trusted adult.
      • Talk about how to stand up to kids who bully.
      • Talk about strategies for staying safe.
      • Urge them to help kids who are bullied.
    2. Keep the line of communication open.
    3. Encourage kids to do what they love.
    4. Model how to treat others.
  • Bullying Prevention Strategies5
    1. Engage your child.
    2. Be a role model.
    3. Get educated.
    4. Build a community of support.
    5. Be consistent.
    6. Empower bystanders.
    7. Work with the bully.
  • 7 Ways Schools Can Prevent Bullying6
    1. As part of the curriculum, students should learn to identify bullying…this knowledge will help create a more positive environment where bullying is less likely to occur.
    2. There should be an established system for a child to report being bullied.
    3. There should be classroom discussions about the motivation and effects of bullying to sensitize students and promote self-awareness.
    4. Professionals should teach the children skills for handling bullies.
    5. Counseling should be made available to kids who are bullied and for the bullies.
    6. “There should be schoolwide events that focus the student body on bullying.
    7. Schools should have strong repercussions for bullying.

As I reflect on these lists of strategies, I am not necessarily opposed to any of the suggestions. What concerns me is they are labeled as “prevention strategies.” On two levels I take exception to this designation. First, the term “prevention” implies that action is taken ahead of time to keep something (in this case bullying) from happening. Many of the approaches advocated above are reactive in nature (i.e., they take place after bullying has occurred). Examples include reporting procedures, enforcement of rules, and counseling. Second, many of the approaches noted are rooted in a curricular approach to intervention. Examples include talking with students about bullying, getting educated on bullying, and holding schoolwide events focused on bullying. We can talk with students all day long about bullying, but that will not prevent bullying from occurring. It only ensures students can identify that they have been bullied.

There is, perhaps, no better way to impact bullying than the use of cooperative learning; it is a proactive measure that equips students with important skill sets.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not maintaining that we should abandon activities such as those that are listed in these three illustrations. Do we need to visit with students about the characteristics of bullying? Certainly! Do we need to provide support for students who are bullied after intimidation or harassment has occurred? Without a doubt! My point is this—while these kinds of activities are certainly part of addressing bullying, we are fooling ourselves thinking that these measures alone will prevent bullying from occurring. According to a study conducted by the Indiana University School of Medicine, “...many common methods of dealing with the problem, such as classroom discussions, role playing or detention, are ineffective.”8 Reactive measures and curricular approaches are important, but if that is all a school does to address this problem, bullying will continue.

So then, what is the answer? The key is being proactive! Let’s put our time and energy into true prevention, and incidents of bullying will diminish. This is where cooperative learning comes into play. The benefits of cooperative learning are extensive including, but not limited to, the following: (1) enhanced achievement; (2) narrowing of achievement gaps; (3) improved race relations; (4) increased student motivation; (5) development of language acquisition; and (6) fewer discipline problems.7 Put simply, cooperative learning is a high leverage strategy. With a single initiative, many strategies are being employed simultaneously, and that includes an anti-bullying initiative.

There is, perhaps, no better way to impact bullying than the use of cooperative learning; it is a proactive measure that equips students with important skill sets. Let’s briefly explore two primary ways that cooperative learning proactively minimizes bullying.


Any educator who has worked in schools for any length of time will attest to the importance of students’ peer relationships. Teachers know from personal experiences that if they can strengthen students’ relationships with their peers, the classroom climate will be more conducive to learning. We see this emphasis reflected in numerous tools that have been designed to improve teaching and learning (e.g., walk through instruments, classroom observation forms, teacher appraisal rubrics). Classroom climate is critical for student success.

The primary responsibility of an educator should be to assure that no child ever feels like they are not worthy contributors in their classroom. Each child must feel a sense of belonging within the classroom…A classroom must have a positive climate. The children must feel a sense of security. The atmosphere must be conducive to taking safe challenges without fear of ridicule. A positive environment is the building block in developing a child with the positive self-efficacy to take safe challenges.9

Though we place value on forming positive peer relationships, there are two primary obstacles which prevent this from becoming reality in many classrooms. The first is that teachers simply do not know how to nurture effective peer relationships. Don’t get me wrong. We try, especially at the beginning of the school year when we use icebreakers and games to get the school year off to a good start. While such activities are commendable, they fall well short in helping children develop the type of relationships with their peers that are healthy and longstanding.

The second barrier which inhibits positive peer relationships is the formation of cliques within a school. By definition, there is nothing inherently wrong with cliques; a clique is simply a small group of friends who share common interests. Traditionally, cliques have formed during middle school and beyond; however, “…in recent years, educators and school administrators have reported that many children are forming cliques at younger and younger ages...”10 This can be problematic when it comes to the creation of a positive classroom climate because there can be many negative consequences associated with cliques.

They (cliques) can lead to the encouragement of negative peer pressure, such as teasing, drinking, or drug use. They may encourage the restriction of individual thought and can limit students’ ability to have a broad friendship base. Cliques are frequently arranged in a status hierarchy, with higher-status cliques manifesting tighter control over membership, but conveying more appeal to outsiders. They tend to belittle outsiders and convince group members to follow suit in this activity.11

A key point of emphasis in a cooperative classroom is relationships. Fostering positive relations at both the team and class levels is stressed in cooperative learning. Listed below are just a few examples of how peer relationships are intentionally nurtured through the use of cooperative learning.10

  1. Teams
    The primary room arrangement in cooperative classrooms is to have desks clustered into team arrangements (i.e., four desks together). Sitting in rows and working in solo fashion create a sense of isolation and detachment. Teams promote strong connections among students.
  2. Positive Interdependence
    Positive interdependence is one of the key principles that is embedded in all cooperative activities. When positive interdependence is present, cooperation among students is assured. As students cooperate with each other on a daily basis, relationships are strengthened.
  3. Positive Feedback
    While it is true that feedback is necessary for learning, it is also true that feedback can help build relationships, especially when it is positive in nature. Positive feedback creates a support system in the room, one that is characterized by mutual encouragement and collaboration.
  4. Praising, Cheering, and Celebrating
    Praising, cheering, and celebrating are all methods of eliciting positive emotions in the classroom. These can have a tremendous impact not only on how individual students feel about each other but also on the overall classroom atmosphere.
  5. Classbuilding
    Classbuilding structures enable students to potentially interact with anyone in the classroom. When a teacher is utilizing classbuilding structures, classroom climate is being impacted in a positive manner. Students find out what they have in common with other members of their class.
  6. Teambuilding
    Teambuilding, like classbuilding, is intended to help students find out what they have in common with their peers. However, in teambuilding students only interact with members of their team. Cohesive teams work better together, interact in a more collegial fashion, and strive to support each other’s learning (i.e., positive interdependence).
  7. Cooperative Play
    Cooperative classrooms frequently make use of cooperative play for brain breaks but also to build relationships. “True play creates a same-side orientation…play has the power to transform relations among students…”12

When peer relations are strong, social rejection and the formation of cliques are far less likely to occur. Cooperative classrooms are inclusive classrooms; students learn to discover and value what they have in common with each other rather than focus on how they differ. By making all children feel appreciated, supported, and accepted, we change the nature of how students interact with their peers. Strong relationships diminish the likelihood that bullying will transpire.


Clearly, bullies have difficulty relating to others in socially appropriate ways. They can be irritable, argumentative, domineering, and lacking in empathy toward others. Because they often lack effective social and communication skills, their responses toward others can be impulsive and socially inappropriate. A UCLA study on bullying found that a lack of social skills revealed itself in negative social relations like “…starting fights and pushing other kids around, putting down and making fun of others, and spreading nasty rumors about others.”13

The traditional manner in which we have attempted to address social skill development has been to use a curricular approach. We talk with students about proper behaviors, we define parameters regarding appropriate interactions, and we stress the importance of treating each other with respect. There is nothing wrong with conveying our expectations to students; certainly, we should do so. However, reviewing key issues with students (i.e., covering the content of bullying) does not ensure children fully grasp how they should behave. For example, a teacher can tell her students, “It is important in this classroom that we treat everyone with respect. Does everyone understand?” All students, most likely, will shake their heads in agreement. However, what does that mean—treat with respect? How one student defines respect could vary considerably from another. What does “treat with respect” look like? What does it sound like?

This is a missing piece in many bullying programs. The charge to adults in typical programs is to talk to students about bullying; however, seldom are proper behaviors defined in objective terms. Furthermore, too often children are not provided with ample opportunities to practice the skills they need in order to properly relate to each other. Students cannot simply learn about skills they should possess; they need to practice those skills. Cooperative classrooms provide all students with sufficient repetition to develop social skills sets.

Cooperative learning structures do more than engage all students with the content. Structures also engage all students with each other. As students tackle difficult math problems, they coach one another. As students form hypotheses in science, they praise each other’s thinking. As students investigate issues in social studies, they paraphrase their partner’s response. Social skill practice is an embedded curriculum. Let’s face it—the only way we get good at any skill is to practice. Cooperative classrooms give all students frequent, regular practice in a wide variety of social skills (e.g., active listening, clarifying ideas, disagreeing appropriately, offering help, respecting differences). Frequent practice of these skills leads to mastery, enabling students to more effectively and appropriately socialize with others.

Social skill acquisition leads to improved peer relations which minimizes the likelihood that bullying will transpire.

There is plenty of research to suggest that cooperative classrooms positively impact social relations. In the Kennedy study, a progressive increase in positive social behaviors coincided with a progressive decrease in name calling and arguing.14 The Mills Hill School in the UK found that increases in social skills significantly decreased disruptive behaviors in the classroom.15 The Cheatham study found that the introduction of cooperative structures not only decreased discipline problems but produced an even more dramatic increase in prosocial behavior. Principal Michael Winters noted, “...the focus of our time as teachers and administrators shifted from behavioral to academic. The students just simply got along better with one another.”16 Social skill acquisition leads to improved peer relations which minimizes the likelihood that bullying will transpire.

Dream with me if you would. Imagine five-year-old students entering kindergarten who, from day one in the classroom, are put into situations to frequently interact with their peers. On average, every ten minutes or so, Student A turns to Student B and shares what he has learned. Student B praises her partner by responding, “I love your thinking!” The students then switch roles with Student B sharing and Student A praising. This continues all day long, every day of kindergarten…and first grade, second grade, third, fourth, fifth, in every middle school classroom, and in every high school classroom. Frequent, positive interactions among peers—verbal and nonverbal—for thirteen years. Would that enhance social skill development? Absolutely! Would this be a deterrent to bullying? How could it not be? Cooperative learning activities “…increase students’ cooperativeness and thereby reduce the frequency of harm-intended aggression (and) increase the frequency of prosocial behaviors.”17


Make no mistake about what I am advocating. I am not saying that all anti-bullying programs are ineffective. Furthermore, I am not saying that cooperative learning by itself is the panacea. What I am contending is that when these two are married together—bullying programs and cooperative learning—the likelihood of bullying is greatly diminished.

The vast majority of anti-bullying programs claim to be preventative in nature. That is, at best, only partly true. A true prevention program stops something bad from happening. Cooperative learning is a proactive intervention. When peer relationships are strong and students’ social skills are well developed, the school climate is dramatically changed. By proactively dealing with student interactions, it is possible to prevent bullying from becoming pervasive in our schools. It’s time for educators to rethink what it means to prevent.


1. The Free Dictionary (March 14, 2019). Retrieved from https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/prevention+is+better+than+cure.

2. StopBullying.gov (March 14, 2019). Retrieved from https://www.stopbullying.gov/media/facts/index.html#stats.

3. Bradshaw, C.P., Sawyer, A.L., & O’Brennan, L.M. (2007). “Bullying and Peer Victimization at School: Perceptual Differences Between Students and School Staff.” School Psychology Review, 36(3), 361-382.

4. StopBullying.gov (March 14, 2019). Retrieved from https://www.stopbullying.gov/prevention/index.html.

5. Healthline (March 14, 2019). Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-stop-bullying#why-its-a-problem.

6. Wallace, M. (December 4, 2012). “7 Ways Schools Can Prevent Bullying.”  Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/how-raise-happy-cooperative-child/201212/7-ways-schools-can-prevent-bullying.

7. Kagan, S. and Kagan, M. (2015). Kagan Cooperative Learning. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing, pages 3.3-3.7).

8. Indiana University (January 12, 2007). "Bullying Can Be Reduced but Many Common Approaches Ineffective." Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/01/070111121858.htm.

9. “The Importance of a Positive Classroom Environment” (December 27, 2012). Retrieved from https://mnosal49.wordpress.com/2012/12/27/importance-of-a-positive-classroom-climate/

10. Generation Pulse (March 14, 2019). “Stereotyping: Cliques.” Retrieved from http://genpulse.bc.edu/en/content/explore/pages/peer-relationships/stereotyping-cliques

11. Kagan, S. and Kagan, M. (2015). Kagan Cooperative Learning. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing.

12. Kagan, S. (2014). Brain-Friendly Teaching. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing.

13. Wolpert, S. (2003). “Bullying in Schools Pervasive, Disruptive and Serious, UCLA Study Finds.” Retrieved from http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/Bullying-in-Schools-Pervasive-4787.

14. Magnesio, S. & B. Davis. (Fall/Winter 2010). “A Teacher Fosters Social Competence With Cooperative Learning.” San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine.
Social Competence

15. Lee, D. (Fall 2009). “Mills Hill School: A Journey Towards Success.” San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine.

16. Winters, M. (Winter 2012-Fall 2013). “Becoming Exemplary with Kagan: Test Scores Up and Discipline Problems Down.” San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine.

17. Choi, J., Johnson, D., and Johnson, R. (April 2011). “Relationships Among Cooperative Learning Experiences, Social Interdependence, Children's Aggression, Victimization, and Prosocial Behaviors [Abstract].” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 41(4). Abstract retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1559-1816.2011.00744.x