Children who bully at school

CFCA Paper No. 27 – July 2014

What works in bullying interventions

A new body of research points to the potential role of parents in buffering children against the long-term negative effects of school bullying.

Protective factors against bullying and later offending

Several protective factors against children bullying were identified in the first systematic review of prospective longitudinal studies (Ttofi, Bowes, Farrington, & Lösel, 2014). These are summarised in Box 5.

Interestingly, most factors identified with protective effects against criminal offending tended to be related to the family and school/social aspects, while most protective factors against violent offending tended to be individual. This is convincing evidence that can potentially inform future program planning - namely, parent interventions might be efficacious in interrupting the continuity from bullying in school to later criminal offending, but not to violence.

Box 5: Protective effects for children who bully

Individual factors

  • High intelligence
  • Adaptive coping
  • Prosocial behaviour and attitudes

Family factors

  • Stable (undisrupted) family
  • Attached to parents
  • High parental monitoring
  • Consistent discipline
  • High family socio-economic status
  • Involvement in the family

School/social factors

  • Good academic/school performance
  • Prosocial (helpful) peers

Source: Ttofi et al. (2014)


Did you know?

  • Rates of offending tend to peak in adolescence, but for many young people this behaviour is short-lived and the offences are relatively minor (Richards, 2011).
  • A small number of children who come into contact with the justice system continue offending into adulthood (Richards, 2011).

School anti-bullying programs

Children who bully require greater support for behaviour change, using selective and targeted approaches.

Programs that implement a whole-school approach are widely advocated for addressing school bullying (Hanish & Guerra, 2000; Pepler, Craig, Ziegler, & Charach, 1994; Smith et al., 2008). A whole-school approach aims to improve the general school environment by training all teachers, administrators and school counsellors to model and reinforce positive behaviour and anti-bullying messages (Olweus, 1993). Importantly, programs that include social and emotional learning - such as self-awareness, relationship skills, or responsible decision-making - have consistently yielded mixed results (Farrington & Ttofi, 2011; Lawner & Terzain, 2013). That is, the effects of such programs on bullying outcomes has varied at different times, for different subgroups, or in different evaluations.

Parental involvement in anti-bullying programs

Parent training is an important part of discouraging bullying behaviours.

Parental involvement in school anti-bullying programs varies extensively. Many efforts are focused on awareness raising, including inviting parents to a school anti-bullying conference day (Olweus, Limber, & Mihalic, 1999) and using the school newsletter to communicate with parents about bullying, school policies, and other activities and skills taught to students (Cross et al., 2010; Frey et al., 2005; Olweus et al., 1999). Parents may also be consulted and involved when the school bullying policy and programs are being created (Sharp & Thompson, 1994). Other approaches involve meeting with parents of victims and bullies when incidents occur, as a way to increase direct involvement (Bonds & Stoker, 2000; Olweus, 1993).

A meta-analysis of international bullying prevention programs revealed that parent training was a key component of bullying prevention efforts that reduced bullying and victimisation in schools (Farrington & Ttofi, 2011). Nevertheless, a lack of parent involvement (Sherer & Nickerson, 2010; Waasdorp, Pas, O'Brennan, & Bradshaw, 2011) and parent attitudes and beliefs that, for example, bullying behaviour in their child is acceptable (Olweus & Limber, 2010) continue to be major obstacles for many home-school liaison efforts.

Levels of preventive intervention

Different treatments may be required, depending on the severity of bullying and the age, social and psychological characteristics of the child (Rigby & Slee, 2008).

While many anti-bullying programs may have positive effects on how children in general view bullying behaviours (either from being a target or passively witnessing bullying), typical anti-bullying approaches may be of limited benefit for children who bully others (Rahey & Craig, 2002). Rigby and Slee (2008) proposed that differences in the severity of bullying and the age, social and psychological characteristics of the children involved demand different types of treatment. Taking a mental health approach may be more effective than the socialisation orientation used in many schools. It follows that children who bully require greater support for behaviour change through selective and targeted approaches, as some of the risk factors are beyond the scope of school programs (Hilton, Anngela-Cole, & Wakita, 2010).

Within the broader literature, three levels of intervention are described: universal, selective and indicated preventive interventions.

Universal preventive interventions

Universal preventive interventions take the broadest approach, targeting a whole population that has not been identified on the basis of individual risk (O'Connell, Boat, & Warner, 2009). Universal prevention interventions might target schools or whole communities.

For example, the Friendly Schools and Families Program (Cross et al., 2003) is an Australian school-based bullying program for primary school students. This universal intervention provides a variety of whole-school strategies based on the Health Promoting Schools model to:

  • increase understanding and awareness of bullying;
  • increase communication about bullying;
  • promote adaptive responses to bullying;
  • promote peer and adult support for students who are bullied; and
  • promote peer as well as adult discouragement of bullying behaviour

The program is designed to help all members of the school community, including teachers, school administrators, students and parents. For further information, see <>.

Selective preventive interventions

Selective preventive interventions target individuals or a population subgroup whose risk of developing bullying behaviours or associated problems is significantly higher than average. Selective interventions target biological, psychological or social risk factors that are more prominent among high-risk groups than among the wider population (O'Connell, Boat, & Warner, 2009). In practice, selective programs in schools target children who have already been identified as a bully and are considered useful methods of intervention in cases of non-severe bullying.

For example, the Method of Shared Concern (Pikas, 1989) requires the practitioner to work on the problem with the "suspected" bullies, first as individuals, and then in a group. While this approach has seldom been evaluated, in Australia it has been reported to have had positive outcomes with 15 cases that were addressed (at 17 schools) (Rigby & Griffiths, 2010). Another program, the Support Group Method (formerly the No Blame Approach; Mains & Robinson, 1998) involves developing a shared responsibility between the bullies and a group of peers who are convened to help resolve the problem. In this, the practitioner plays a facilitative role. An 80% success rate has been claimed with this approach (Young & Holdorf, 2003).

Indicated preventive interventions

Indicated preventive interventions target high-risk individuals who engage in bullying or are identified as experiencing early signs of or symptoms foreshadowing mental, emotional or behavioural disorders. Such interventions focus on the immediate risk and protective factors present in the individual's environment (O'Connell, Boat, & Warner, 2009). Evaluations of indicated preventive interventions aimed at improving the mental health of children and adolescents suggest such secondary prevention programs significantly reduce problems and significantly increase competencies (Durlak & Wells, 1998). In relation to bullying, indicated intervention is a new but promising area.

An example of such a program is the Brief Strategic Family Therapy (BSFT), a family therapy program for children at risk for developing behavioural problems. The primary emphasis is on identifying and modifying maladaptive patterns of family interaction that are linked to the child's symptoms. Evaluations suggest it is an effective method for reducing short-term anger and bullying behaviour (see the related publication: Working With Families Whose Child is Bullying: An Evidence-Based Guide for Practitioners).

Promising approaches for working with children who bully

It is important to note that only a limited number of evidence-based anti-bullying programs exist. Evidence-based prevention refers to a set of prevention activities that evaluation research has shown to be effective. Some of these prevention activities help individuals develop the intentions and skills to act in a healthy manner. Others focus on creating an environment that supports healthy behaviour.

In a review of intervention approaches that have been rigorously evaluated (see Lawner & Terzian, 2013), certain approaches may be more effective for working with children who bully.1 Those identified as being more successful include:

  • Positive Action - a school-based program designed to reduce behaviour problems;
  • Resolve It, Solve It - a school- and community-based media campaign to reduce violence and aggression;
  • Success in Stages: Build Respect, Stop Bullying - an interactive computer program to decrease and prevent bullying; and
  • Brief Strategic Family Therapy - a family therapy program for children at risk for developing behavioural problems (see the related publication: Working With Families Whose Child is Bullying: An Evidence-Based Guide for Practitioners).


This paper highlights the strong association of school bullying with criminal and poor health outcomes in adult life. Furthermore, it features a new body of research that points to the potential role of parents in buffering children who bully against offending behaviour in later life. This is convincing evidence for the use of indicated preventive interventions that involve working with families, and offers a new and promising early intervention approach for preventing crime, promoting health and addressing school bullying. This is the focus of a related practitioner guide, Working With Families Whose Child is Bullying, which has suggestions for practitioners and other professionals on ways to work with and support families with a child who is bullying.


1 The effectiveness of the programs was assessed on physical and verbal behaviours and did not include social or relational bullying.