In a bid to tackle the role of bystanders in bullying, including the teacher, scientists have successfully conducted trials of a new psychodynamic approach to bullying in schools, which is called CAPSLE Creating a Peaceful School Learning Environment.
The researchers at University College London (UCL) have shown that an easily implemented school-wide intervention focussing on empathy and power dynamics can reduce children's experiences of aggression in school and improve classroom behaviour.
"Bullying has an extensive impact on children's mental health including disruptive and aggressive behaviour, school dropout, substance abuse, depressed mood, anxiety, and social withdrawal. It also undermines educational achievement and disrupts children's abilities to develop social relationships," said Professor Peter Fonagy, UCL Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology, and lead author of the paper
"While school anti-bullying programmes are widely used, there have been few controlled trials of their effectiveness. CAPSLE is a psychodynamic approach that addresses the co-created relationship between bully, victim, and bystanders, assuming that all members of the school community, including teachers, play a role in bullying
"It aims to improve the capacity of all community members to mentalize, that is, to interpret one's own and others' behaviour in terms of mental states (beliefs, wishes, feelings), assuming that greater awareness of other people's feelings will counteract the temptation to bully others. It also teaches people to manage power struggles and issues, both of which are known to damage mentalizing," he added.
The study was conducted on 1,345 third to fifth graders (8-11 year olds) in nine US elementary schools, where the researchers assessed the efficacy of a three-year programme.
CAPSLE schools were compared with schools receiving no intervention and those using only School Psychiatric Consultation (SPC) where children with the most significant behavioural problems were assessed and referred for counselling.
Instead of targeting aggressive children, the CAPSLE programme worked to develop mentalizing skills in students and staff across the wider school community.
They began with bystanders perceiving and accepting their own (unthinking) role in maintaining the bully-victim relationship through abdicating responsibility and making an implicit decision not to think about what the bully/victim is experiencing.
The study emphasised on the need to understand, instead of reacting to others and thus avoid the problems created by a regression into the victim, victimizer and bully.
Poster campaigns, stickers and badges were used to create a climate where feelings were labelled and distress was acknowledged as legitimate, with the ultimate aim of changing the way the entire school social system viewed bullying.
In the first year of the study, teachers received a day of group training and students received nine sessions of self-defence.
The study found that children were much tougher on themselves than teachers would have been under similar circumstances
During the study, reports of aggression, victimization, bystanding behaviour and mentalizing were gathered twice yearly from classroom questionnaires completed by the children.
The programme was found to generate more positive bystanding behaviours, greater empathy for victims, and less favourable attitudes towards aggression in CAPSLE schools.
The study has been published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.