What does empowering students to cope with bullying look like?
Is there best practice research evidence that shows it can be done?
I worked in schools as a psychologist for many years, where teachers referred students to me who were struggling in different areas, such as schoolwork and relationships. I worked extensively with students who were being bullied and, as a result, were experiencing anxiety, depression and, in extreme cases, school refusal.
I tried many things to help these students not be wounded by bullying. I alerted staff to the perpetrators, asking them to intervene at times and places where bullying occurred. On some occasions, I brought together the victim with the perpetrator(s) for frank discussion, specifically alerting the perpetrators to what the victim was experiencing. This experience led to some perpetrators immediately changing their behaviour as they were unaware of the impact their words and actions were having on their victims.
With all victims, I assumed the role of what we can call a “psycho-educator.” Based on the best practice of cognitive-behaviour rational-emotive therapy, students I worked with were given an awareness of the strong influence their thinking about being bullied had on their feelings and behaviour. These students learnt that by changing their thinking, bullying and other anti-social behaviour would not hurt them as much.
My experience showed that the following important ideas empower students against bullying:
- Emotions vary in intensity from strong to weak.
- You have a choice in how upset you get and how you behave when bullied.
- The intensity of your emotions is determined by the way you think.
- Just because you think something is true (assumption) doesn’t make it true.
- You have control over how you think, not your parents or friends.
- When you allow yourself to get very down or anxious about being bullied, your thinking tends to be extremely rigid, not sensible and untrue. For example, you think things like “I’m such a loser”, “No one likes me”, “I can’t stand being called names”, or “This is the worst thing ever!”
- To feel less upset and in control, you can choose to use moderate, flexible, sensible and true thinking. For example, you can choose to tell yourself, “Being called names doesn’t make me a loser“, “I accept who I am”, “I have great friends, and I can make new ones,” “Even though it isn’t fun to be bullied, I can cope” and “This is not the worst thing in the world”.
The impact I witnessed of this form of psycho-education was very powerful. I was initially surprised by how immediate the benefits were and how they have stood the test of time. I decided to bring this form of psycho-education to all students as a form of prevention and intervention to empower students.
I developed an essential innovation for the You Can Do It! Education program:
Bullying: The Power to Cope Program
We worked with an animator to develop a four-part video that follows the experience of three students subjected to different forms of bullying. At the end of the Part 1 video, all three students meet up with a Superhero. In the three following parts, the Superhero provides invaluable support and advice for how the three students can think about and cope with being bullied. By the end of the Part 4 video, each student has learned enough to handle being bullied emotionally and behaviourally.
The four parts cover the following topics:
Part 1. Bullying and Its Impact
Part 2. Thinking Makes It So
Part 3. Things to Say and Do
Part 4. Coping in Action
Each of the four parts contains several discussion topics and activities, which generally take longer than one standard 50-minute class period to deliver. It is left to you to decide how many sessions/class periods will be devoted to the program presentation and which activities you will utilise.
This is a description of each of the students in the video.
Alan (physical and verbal victimisation)
Alan is shorter than average and is repeatedly being verbally teased, pushed and shoved by three students. Alan feels a mixture of fury, despair and hopelessness, believing he can do little to make the bullying disappear.
Dan (social isolation)
Dan desperately wants to join a social group at school. However, he feels isolated and rejected by other students, who laugh at him and call him a “freak.” Dan is getting quite depressed and is thinking of staying away from school, having given up on any hope of having friends.
Sarah is sitting in her bedroom at home studying when she receives an SMS circulated to all her friends that she was caught “messing around” with someone else’s boyfriend at a party. The message contains a threat that she would be harmed at school. Sarah is mortified and anxious. Not only did she not “mess around” at the party, but her reputation was being unfairly dragged through the mud.
Since this program was first published, it has been used in hundreds of schools to empower students against bullying. I am still passionate about the importance of psycho-education as a prevention program that provides students with ways of thinking and coping skills to be resilient and to be able to cope if they experience any form of bullying behaviour. Below, I have listed my three key takeaways.
Research shows the positive benefits of psycho-education as a form of prevention.
Research I have conducted with several of my graduate students at the University of Melbourne reveals how this program helps students of all ages – with or without- issues associated with bullying.
Stewart, J., & Bernard, M.E. (2023). Empowering the victims of bullying: The ‘Bullying: The Power to Cope Program. Journal of Evidence-Based Psychotherapies, 23, 147-172.
Abstract. While many anti-bullying schoolwide prevention programs focus on changing the attitudes, emotions and behaviours of potential bullies, this study replicates an earlier study (Markopolous & Bernard, 2015) that evaluated the impact of the program, Bullying: The Power to Cope, a program aimed at teaching students’ rational beliefs and coping skills they can employ to cope with various types of bullying. The present study randomly allocated participating classes to either an experimental or control condition. The sample consisted of 115 participants (n = 55, experimental group; n = 60 in the control group), 57 males and 58 females, aged 10 to 14 years of age. Self-report data was collected pre-and post-test, measuring children’s cognitive, behavioural and emotional coping responses to four written bullying vignettes. Results revealed that students in the experimental group significantly improved in cognitive and emotional coping responses compared to the control group. Nonsignificant differences were found between males and females and between primary and secondary school students in their response to the program. State anxiety did not influence responsiveness to the program. Still, students with lower levels of trait anxiety (pre-test) made significantly more significant improvements in emotional coping responses than students with higher levels of trait anxiety.
Markopolous, Z., & Bernard, M.E. (2015). Effect of the Bullying: The Power to Cope program on children’s response to bullying. Journal of Relationships Research, 6, 1-11.
Abstract: This study evaluated the Bullying: The Power to Cope program, designed to teach children the ideas espoused in the practice of rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT) to employ in response to bullying. Self-report data were collected at pre-and post-tests of children’s cognitive, behavioural, and emotional coping responses to four written bullying vignettes. At the pre-test, children’s personal qualities of intrinsic resiliency were also measured. The sample consisted of 139 participants in Melbourne, Australia (n =80 in the experimental group and n = 59 in the control group) aged 10 to 14 years. Results indicated that children in the experimental group improved in cognitive and emotional coping responses compared to the control group. Females showed more significant improvement than males in coping responses to bullying due to the intervention. The cognitive and emotional coping responses of females to bullying vignettes (pre-test) were significantly more negative and emotionally intense than males.
Read the full article.