Interventions to combat persistent victimisation through bullying

Case

Interventions to combat persistent victimisation through bullying

There is evidence that anti-bullying programmes at primary schools are effective for many children, but not for all. Some children continue to be the victims of bullying and are worse off than they would have been without an anti-bullying programme. The sociologist, Tessa Kaufman, conducted research into the risk factors for such persistent victimisation and has made recommendations for improving anti-bullying programmes. ‘We mustn’t be satisfied with an average decline in bullying.’

Tessa KaufmanTessa Kaufman. Photo: Tessa Posthuma de Boer for Faces of Science

Who belongs and who does not? Tessa Kaufman is interested in group norms and their effects on exclusion and discrimination. During her Research Master’s programme in Development and Socialization in Childhood and Adolescence, she conducted research into experiences of subtle discrimination by young people from sexual minorities. She has now been awarded a PhD for NWO-funded research into bullying at primary schools. Her research specifically looked at why some children remain victims of bullying, despite this being a focus of attention. Drawing on her conclusions, she has made a number of recommendations for improving anti-bullying programmes. ‘The focus on persistent victimisation is urgent in my view,’ she says. ‘When assessing the effectiveness of anti-bullying programmes, the focus is often on averages. If more children enjoy going to school after an intervention, this is quickly seen as a success. But there is evidence that children who remain victims of bullying despite the programme are often worse off than before the intervention. Bullying has stopped for other children, but not for them.’

Outsiders

According to its scientific definition, bullying meets four conditions, Kaufman explains. ‘It is persistently negative behaviour that is damaging for the victim and takes place in the context of an imbalance of power. That behaviour is strategic, because its aim is to achieve social dominance.’ On the basis of that definition, she is critical of the questionnaire used in anti-bullying programmes worldwide to identify victims of bullying, the “Bully/Victim Questionnaire”. ‘Children are given it to fill in before and after an anti-bullying programme. But the BVQ only asks how often the bullying occurs, and not about the other characteristics of bullying. A child who regularly gets into fights, because of problems with aggression, for example, also emerges as a victim of bullying.’ That is why Kaufman also explicitly asked about the other three aspects of the definition of bullying when identifying victims of bullying. ‘You can pick out the real victims of bullying better that way and provide the right interventions.’

Did you know? Approximately one in ten primary school children in the Netherlands is bullied. The number of victims of bullying fell from 14 to 11 percent between 2014 and 2016. This decline stabilised in 2018.

But what are the right interventions? Anti-bullying programmes which are effective for many victims of bullying, are not so for other children. Kaufman investigated what makes children vulnerable to persistent victimisation. ‘They are usually outsiders, children who are anxious and low-spirited and who have a lot of experience with rejection: at school but also at home. Being part of a minority group is another risk factor. LHB young people, for example, are at a relatively high risk of persistent victimisation.’

Vicious circle

Anti-bullying programmes would become more effective, asserts Kaufman, if they paid specific attention to children who are vulnerable to chronic victimisation. If it were up to her, parents would routinely be involved. ‘These programmes are generally restricted to the school context,’ she says. ‘My research indicates that a troubled relationship between parent and child is a risk factor for persistent victimisation. If you are rejected at home and bullied at school, it can become a vicious circle. Parents don’t always know that the reason their child is being insolent is because it is being bullied. And the same goes for school: they don’t know that children are having a tough time at home.’ Even children who do have a harmonious relationship with their parents don’t always tell their parents they are being bullied, Kaufman knows. ‘There are therefore several good reasons for involving parents in anti-bullying programmes.’

Specific attention urgently needs to be paid to victims of bullying at secondary school, who belong to a sexual or ethnic minority group, in Kaufman’s opinion. ‘These might include strategies for intervening when these children are being intimidated and teaching programmes that help diversity to become accepted.’ She also recommends research into the effectiveness of cognitive training. ‘Children who think that the bullying will eventually stop suffer less from the bullying. They feel and behave less dispiritedly and run less risk of being a target again. Cognitive training may help victims of bullying with inhibiting convictions – “this is never going to end” – to interpret their situation differently.’

We shouldn’t be satisfied with an average decline in bullying, but rather we should continue focusing on those few children for whom help is now urgently needed
- Tessa Kaufman

Online tool

It is essential, Kaufman maintains, that victims of bullying are recognised earlier at school. Since 2015, it has been mandatory for schools to monitor students’ social safety by means of a questionnaire. Kaufman approves of that. ‘But it is a huge problem that schools still don’t have tools available to interpret the information produced by such monitors and turn it into action plans.’ She felt that something ought to be done about that and developed a model for an online tool to help teachers do just that. ‘This tool will help them to think about tailored solutions for children who continue to be excluded, for instance. Such tailored interventions are often lacking in conventional anti-bullying programmes.’

Tessa Kaufman at Synergy 2020Tessa Kaufman at Synergy 2020. Photo: Eelkje Colmjon

Since publishing the tool in the International Journal of Bullying Prevention, Kaufman would like to conduct subsequent research in conjunction with teachers to develop the tool further for the teaching profession. ‘I expect the tool to eventually contribute to safer classrooms. We shouldn’t be satisfied with an average decline in bullying, but rather we should continue focusing on those few children for whom help is now urgently needed.’

Meer information

Tessa Kaufman (1990) is one of the KNAW’s Faces of Science. She was one of the four finalists in NWO’s Synergy Award 2020, a prize for researchers who have succeeded in bridging the gap between science and society. Kaufman will be awarded her PhD in the Auditorium of the Academy Building of the University of Groningen at 16.15 on 27 February 2020.

View her PhD thesis, entitled Toward Tailored Interventions - Explaining, assessing and preventing persistent victimization of bullying (open access version). The full thesis may be obtained from the author.

Text: Else de Jonge
Photo in banner: Pixabay