Flinders University’s Professor Phillip Slee is joining forces with academics from across the globe in a bid to stop schoolyard bullying.
The Professor in Human Development is one of six researchers involved in a major Australian randomised control study which aims to reduce bullying by working with the perpetrators to address their problem behaviours, including schoolyard violence and cyber bullying.
Funded through a $620,000 National Health and Medical Research Council grant, the four-year project will survey 5,700 secondary school students across South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland to identify students who have high, medium and low bullying profiles.
The researchers will then train school staff, including teachers and counsellors, in “motivational interviewing” – a counselling approach which is based around building a relationship with the bully, supporting and motivating them to change their ways.
Professor Slee said the technique would be evaluated pre and post intervention to determine its effectiveness in reducing school bullying and improving the mental health of children who bully others, considering “bullying is strongly associated with poor mental health outcomes”.
“Motivational interviewing is all about increasing a person’s motivation to change,” Professor Slee, based in the School of Education, said.
“The first stage focuses on building a rapport with the bully which can be extremely difficult – for example, bullies often lack empathy because they think the victim deserves it so getting them to open up to a teacher or counsellor isn’t always easy,” he said.
“The second stage of motivational interviewing involves talking to the bully about their behaviour, if they’re aware of it and why they’re doing it, and the final stage introduces the notion of change.
“This can also pose a huge challenge because if the student isn’t motivated to change, particularly if they think their behaviour is normal or useful, they’ll be less likely to modify their actions.
“They might think that if they stop the behaviour they’ll lose power or the acclaim of their peer group –and bullying is about power and control – so it’s a reasonably complex situation.”
Unlike the majority of studies which focus on supporting the victims of bullying, Professor Slee said the project was one of the first in Australia to support and intervene with students who frequently bully others.
“Traditionally, most research has focused on supporting the victim or helping the victim to address the problem but it’s much harder to work with the kids who actually do the bullying.
“Bullies by nature are often very angry and hostile, they are the kids who are the most difficult to deal with, so researchers have tended to focus on the victims rather than the perpetrators but this is one of the few major studies in Australia to deal with the bullies themselves.
“The overall aim is to provide policymakers and practitioners with a framework for developing evidence-based bullying prevention policies and practice in schools.”
The project is being led by Professor Donna Cross from Edith Cowan University, in collaboration with researchers from South Australia, Queensland, Finland and the US.