Written by Korilyn Baudoin
The Old Method: Zero Tolerance
The best way to combat bullying is to stop it before it starts. Most school systems take a zero tolerance approach to bullying; such policies suspend or expel the children who bully others. That approach has failed to stop the prevalence of bullying for a number of reasons. According to the CDC (2018), teachers and students are less likely to report incidences of bullying when the punishment is suspension, and physical bullying makes up of the majority of the reports (negating instances of cyber bullying, social bullying, or sexual harassment). Sometimes, bullying can be an early sign of other behavioral problems that a child faces. Children who frequently target their peers are at an increased risk for delinquent behaviors like unexcused absences, fighting, theft, and vandalism (CDC, 2018). These children need positive role models, including the adults and students in their school, but suspension can take away from positive growth. Schools play an important role in the cognitive development, as well as the social-emotional development, of children. Schools should be able to recognize risk factors associated with problematic behaviors, and work with those children at risk to model appropriate behaviors that will help them build successful futures.
The New Method: Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)
One imposed solution to subside incidences of bullying is to integrate social-emotional learning (SEL) programs into the school’s curriculum (Espelage, Low, Van Ryzin, & Polanin, 2015). SEL programs fosters the development of positive qualities, such as good behavior, discipline, safety, and academics (Joseph, Allison, Rebecca & Rodger, 2011). These programs help youth become self-aware, manage their emotions, build social skills, develop friendship skills, and learn positive coping and problem-solving skills (Joseph et. al., 2011). One program using SEL, called the Second Step Middle School Program, used social skill instruction intertwined into the curriculum over a three-year period (Espelage et. al., 2015). The program results showed significant reductions in delinquency of students, which indirectly led to decreases in incidences of bullying and homophobic name-calling.
How SEL Programs Works
The program included fifteen lessons at 6th grade and thirteen lessons at both 7th and 8th grade; it aimed to inhibit risk factors and encourage protective factors, which regulated problematic behaviors (Espelage et. al., 2015). Second Step targeted the following risk factors: inappropriate classroom behavior (such as aggression and impulsivity), favorable attitudes toward problem behavior, friends who engage in the problem behavior, early initiation of problem behavior, peer rewards for antisocial behavior, peer rejection and impulsiveness (Espelage et. al., 2015). The program also targeted the following protective factors: social skills, empathy, school connectedness, and adoption of conventional norms about drug use (Espelage et. al., 2015). Students learned about protective factors and became aware of risk factors through classroom methods, such as direct instruction, group activities, hands-on activities, reflection and role-playing exercises (Espelage et. al., 2015). The process included involvement from both teachers and peers, reflecting aspects of the social learning theory.
A Friendlier Future
The SEL method and, specifically, the Second Step Program are relatively new approaches and, with more research, will be able to adapt to fit every school’s needs. The use of these types of programs proved to be more effective than a zero-tolerance policy and offer more resources to kids who are at risk of delinquent behavior, including bullying. Schools have a major role to play in raising well-adapted children by promoting their cognitive development, as well as their social and emotional development. This is a challenge because many schools have limited resources, yet they need to address all of these areas, on top of the already immense pressure to promote high academic performances. Educators must implement programs such as Second Step, which is multi-faceted and addresses many issues at once. Schools must be proactive in promoting pro-social behaviors to end the cycle of bullying.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 10 Jan, 2018. “Bullying Research.”. Retrieved from
Espelage, D. L., Low, S., Van Ryzin, M. J., & Polanin, J. R. (2015). Clinical Trial of Second Step Middle School Program: Impact on Bullying, Cyberbullying, Homophobic Teasing, and Sexual Harassment Perpetration. School Psychology Review, 44(4), 464-479.
Joseph A., D., Allison B., D., Rebecca D., T., Roger P., W., & Kriston B., S. (2011). The Impact of Enhancing Students' Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions. Child Development, (1), 405-432.
Dr. H. Colleen Sinclair
Social Psychologist, Relationships Researcher,
Ms. Jessica Utley
Lab Manager of the Social Relations Collaborative and Blog Editor