More and more anti-bullying programmes are being used at Dutch schools but it is unclear whether they actually have any effect, asserts sociologist René Veenstra of the University of Groningen. Aside from the potential waste of money, what’s even worse is that the programmes may actually be counterproductive. ‘First find out which programmes actually work,’ says Veenstra.
‘The methods used by schools to prevent bullying are diverse and sometimes bizarre,’ explains Veenstra. ‘Examples include bullying protocols, whereby a set of rules is hung up in the school corridor, self-defence training, or classes that practice being kind to one pot plant and mean to another! However, it is very questionable whether any or all these programmes actually work.’
The sociologist believes that the effectiveness of anti-bullying programmes needs to be thoroughly researched. A programme that fails to reduce bullying is simply a waste of money. ‘Moreover, some methods can also actually prove counterproductive,’ warns Veenstra. ‘For example, self-defence training also teaches the bully how to hand out effective blows. And in some cases the bullying only gets worse if the victim puts up a fight.’
It is of vital importance that something be done about bullying, says Veenstra, and not only for the victims, who may still experience the negative effects of bullying many years after leaving school. Veenstra explains: ‘The bullies, too, turn out to have poorer social skills later in their lives. And bullying even has a detrimental effect on children who witness others being bullied. They too are less happy at school.’
It’s time for a tried and tested method, declares Veenstra. He recommends the Finnish KiVa method. ‘This method scored highest in research carried out in Cambridge on the effectiveness of anti-bullying programmes around the world. The KiVa method has now been implemented at 75% of the schools in Finland. Bullying has decreased by 30 to 40% at these schools.’
During the KiVa programme the teachers are trained to recognize bullying behaviour. ‘Physical bullying is easy enough to recognize, but more subtle forms of bullying, such as spreading lies about a classmate or excluding them from a group, can be difficult to pick out.’ The programme also prescribes regular meetings between the teachers so that they can learn from each other. But the pupils are actively included in the programme too: during special classes in which they play role-playing games and a computer game, they gain insight into the bullying process and what they can do about it.
Veenstra has been working with the Finnish researchers for years. ‘What makes the method so successful is that the whole class is included; not just the bullies and their victims. Bullying is a group process, after all,’ explains Veenstra. This is why Veenstra’s research group is studying the mechanism of bullying by reconstructing the social networks in classrooms. ‘If you understand the workings of the group – who is the bully, who are the helpers and who are the popular pupils – then you are better equipped to act against bullying.’
Veenstra received EUR 1 million from the Ministry of Education last year to test the Finnish method. The study is due to start in 2012. For a period of two years he will compare different methods: 35 schools will stick to their existing methods, 35 schools will follow the Finnish programme and 35 schools will combine the KiVa programme with Veenstra’s social network analyses. ‘If our method works, we will have a programme that is proven effective and that hopefully will become the standard in the Netherlands’, says Veenstra. ‘Thankfully, money will not be an issue because it only costs a few euros per child.’
Dr René Veenstra is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Groningen. He is also a guest lecturer at the University of Turku in Finland. He is researching social behaviour, friendships and bullying within the TRAILS research programme, whereby a group of young people is observed for an extended period. Veenstra studied Pedagogy and Educational Sciences in Groningen and was awarded a PhD in 1999 for research on differences in the performance and achievements of secondary school pupils.
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