Reduce Peer Mistreatment: Six Principles to Guide Interventions

Reduce Peer Mistreatment: Six Principles to Guide Interventions

A Letter from Bullying Prevention Experts Stan Davis and Charisse L. Nixon

What can we do about bullying?

We have been involved in the modern bullying prevention movement since it began in the 1990s. We have seen some progress in this work, yet for the most part, this effort has not been successful. Too many young people are still being mistreated. We are writing this letter to outline six principles, based on our own as well as others’ research, which can guide our interventions in the future.

  1. Instead of focusing on complex subjective definitions of bullying, we believe that it is more effective to define specific potentially hurtful actions and work to reduce those. For example, we cannot be sure that a particular action is intended to harm, or that an imbalance of power does in fact exist between two students. However, we can be sure that name-calling or other negative actions focused on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, body shape, and other characteristics are likely to do harm. We can be sure that posting negative comments about someone else is likely to do harm. Similarly, we can be sure that spreading rumors about someone is likely to do harm, just like hitting or threatening someone is likely to do harm. When we focus on specific actions, rather than whether a particular action is bullying or not, we are more likely to be effective in reducing the frequency of those actions.
  2. Instead of labeling youth as “bullies” or “victims,” we recommend describing the behaviors in question. In our book Youth Voice Project: Student Insights into Bullying and Peer Mistreatment, we used the terms “youth who mistreat” and “youth who are mistreated” to make clear that there is nothing inherent in a person that makes them “a bully” or “a victim.” Recent research by David Yeager and others shows us that when youth know that people can change, they are less likely to report being hurt by mean behavior, and less likely to seek revenge. Additionally, in terms of attribution, research findings show that it is never in the students’ best interest to believe that someone hurt them on purpose.
  3. Instead of attempting to change the behavior of youth who have been mistreated, we need to focus on supporting and including those youth. In our research we found that mistreated youth reported that adults often told them that if they acted differently, the mistreatment would stop. Mistreated youth reported that this adult action often led to things getting worse for them. It is time that we accept that mistreated youth do not cause what is done to them. On the other hand, youth reported that adult listening, encouragement, and giving hope were the most powerful adult actions in terms of generating positive youth outcomes. Many youth wrote in our survey that it helped them to hear adults say that they did not deserve what was done to them and it was not their fault.
  4. Instead of asking youth who witness bullying to confront those who mistreat others, we recommend asking them to include and support those who are mistreated and excluded. Youth in our study told us that things were most likely to get better for them if their peers included them, encouraged them, and gave them hope. This was true even when the support was given privately and away from school. Importantly, these quiet acts of support are behaviors that do not put students directly in harm’s way.
  5. Instead of targeting only “at-risk” youth, teach and reinforce positive coping strategies for all students. Research suggest that youth struggle to identify and use positive coping strategies when experiencing stressors in their lives. Adolescence is a time period filled with stressors for our young people—peer mistreatment is one of those salient stressors. It is important for educators and caring adults to continue to focus on teaching all youth positive ways to respond to mistreatment.
  6. Use student-centered social norming campaigns to establish and maintain positive, safe, inclusive school cultures where all students are given opportunities to contribute to their community in meaningful ways.

We can be more effective in reducing both the frequency of peer mistreatment as well as reducing the harm that peer mistreatment carries.


For additional information on Research Press author Stan Davis, please visit his author page and for Charisse L. Nixon, her author page.