Punishment-based strategies, such as suspension and
expulsion, do not give students who bully the tools they need to
make lasting behavior change, says Swearer.
“There’s a connection between bullying in elementary school
and middle school and adult criminal behavior. We need to get
these kids off that trajectory,” Swearer says.
To help bullies change, Swearer has developed a three-hour
program that, according to preliminary results, significantly
reduces bullying behavior and bullying-related suspensions.
During the first part of the session, a school mental health
professional assesses the student’s habits around explaining
the behavior of others, also known as attributional style. Many
bullies often see other people’s perhaps innocuous acts —
such as pushing past them in the hall — as being aggressive.
Then, the therapist works with the student to talk through and
reinterpret events in his or her own life — perhaps that shoving
student was simply running late.
In the final part, the counselor, student and family members
write a plan for reducing the student’s bullying behaviors in the
future. A typical plan sets up regular communication between
the school and the parent about how the student is doing,
arranges follow-up training in emotional regulation skills and
lays out rewards for prosocial behavior, Swearer says.
Another psychologist-developed intervention, called Coping
Power, brings together groups of bullies and children identified
as aggressive by their teachers and classmates. During weekly
sessions, students talk about times when they lashed out in
anger and rehearse alternative, less hostile ways of successfully
handling conflicts with peers.
A modification of the intervention,
designed by John Lochman, PhD, of the
University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, is
being tested in 20 Alabama elementary
schools with 360 fourth- and fifth-graders. The modification adds one-on-one sessions to the typical group therapy
Group therapy for bullies and
aggressive children, however, has a
potential downside. Research by British
criminologist David Farrington, PhD,
and earlier work by Thomas J. Dishion,
PhD, of the University of Oregon has
shown that bringing aggressive children
together can reinforce deviant behavior.
For example, a child talking about a
particularly inventive bullying tactic or
some other destructive activity may get a
laugh or some other encouraging response
from others in the group, says Lochman.
To avoid such potential effects, Lochman
is videotaping group sessions and looking
for signs of such reinforcement and
whether the group leader can quash and
redirect such moments.
The data’s not in yet on how group
therapy leaders can avoid deviant
behavior reinforcement, but the program
seems to work overall: A study published
in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical
Psychology in 2009 found that aggressive
students who completed Coping Power
with school guidance counselors trained
to conduct the intervention got along
better with peers and were less aggressive
than an untreated comparison group.
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