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Dismantling Systems of Bullying

International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution

Bullying is a public health problem that affects 20% to 30% of students on a daily basis and is associated with depression, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse and a decreased sense of empathy for others. It is also a common problem in other adult workplaces. For decades, administrators approached the problem head-on; by identifying and punishing bullies and attempting to fortify victims. This seemed to have little effect on the problem.

In recent years, a new view of bullying has been developed which approaches the problem in a radically different way. Developed in Norway by Dan Olweus over the past 25 years, the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (OBPP) sees bullying as a systemic problem, involving many people in different roles including henchmen, supporters, passive supporters, disengaged onlookers, possible defenders and defenders in addition to bullies and victims. OBPP’s community-based approach to intervention focuses less on the bully-victim dyad, and more on restructuring school environments to reduce the probabilities of bullying by working across several levels; individual, classroom, school, parent and community-levels.

The results have been striking. Several large-scale studies consistently show significant decreases in self-reports of being bullied and bullying others, report significant and positive effects for self-reported vandalism, fighting, theft, alcohol abuse, and truancy, and report increases in students’ satisfaction with school life, improved order and discipline, more positive social relationships, and more positive attitudes toward school work and school in general. In some settings, bullying decreased by 45% over 4 years.

Psychology has long documented our human tendency to see problems as located in people and not in the environments in which we live and work. Olweus reminds us of the power of situations, and of the importance of creating constructive, non-violent climates and cultures at home, at school, at work, and beyond.


Peter T. Coleman

Peter T. Coleman is the Director of ICCCR and Professor of Psychology and Education. He holds a Ph.D. and M.Phil. in Social / Organizational Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University and a B.A. in Communications from the University of Iowa. He has conducted research on social entitivity processes (ingroup/outgroup formation),… MORE >

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