Strategies for Preventing Peer Aggression, Bullying, and Victimization
*Note: The National Mentoring Resource Center makes these “Insights for Mentoring Practitioners” available for each program or practice reviewed by the National Mentoring Resource Center Research Board. Their purpose is to give mentoring professionals additional information and understanding that can help them apply reviews to their own programs. You can read the full review on the National Mentoring Resource Center website.
One of the more deflating experiences a young person can have in school or their community is to experience bullying at the hands of their peers. These experiences can erode feelings of self-worth and confidence, lead to issues with attendance and academic performance, and trigger both emotional problems such as depression and actual physical injury from violence. On the other side of that circumstance, those that bully other youth are often struggling with myriad problems and negative experiences themselves.
As noted in this practice review, there is some emerging evidence that mentoring can be an asset to both victims and perpetrators of bullying. We know from previous studies of mentoring programs that mentoring can reduce violent and aggressive behavior⎯for example, the 1995 Big Brothers Big Sisters Impact Study found that mentored youth were one-third less likely to have hit someone during the study timeframe and reported more positive interpersonal relationships with their peers. Perhaps the most comprehensive effort to link mentoring and aggressive behaviors is the meta-analysis of 39 programs conducted by Tolan, which found that some of the largest effects across programs were for reducing aggression towards others.
But Tolan also noted, as does the review here, that the mechanisms by which mentors help youth reduce their aggressive behavior towards others, including bullying their peers, are not very well understood and are under-researched. Thus, there is reason to think that mentors can be used in a targeted way to either prevent bullying by their mentees, reduce the likelihood of their mentees being bullied, or reduce the harm caused by bullies if their mentee is a victim. Up to now, we are lacking in clear insight and direction for practitioners on how to do that. Nevertheless, there are some hints in this review and other resources that might help practitioners and mentors address bullying in more direct and effective ways.
1. Start by learning more about the nature of bullying and the types of interventions and strategies that address it.
Bullying is a complex and multi-faceted issue that defies easy and simple solutions. It certainly is influenced by the characteristics and personalities of the youth involved but also many aspects of the physical environment, the culture and context of the school or space in which it is occurring, and the role and availability of adults in relation to the bullying behavior. As a mentoring program, finding ways to address the bullying behavior or victimization of the youth you serve may involve many strategies and even necessitate working with schools, parents, or other players in what can be thought of as the “ecology” of the bullying you seek to address.
The good news is that there is a fairly strong body of research on bullying prevention and there are many evidence-based practices and curricula available to schools and youth-serving organizations. As a mentoring program, you may find that a good first step in thinking about bullying prevention is to simply learn more about the effective practices for doing this work. A good starting point is this article from a leading scholar in the field: Translating Research to Practice in Bullying Prevention. It does a nice job of summarizing what is known about successful bullying prevention efforts and might give you some ideas about the role that your program and your mentors can play. The StopBullying.gov website also offers a wealth of information and tips for youth-serving professionals that want to learn more about bullying prevention strategies. In fact, they even offer a User Guide called Understanding the Roles of Youth Professionals and Youth Mentors in Community-Wide Bullying Prevention Efforts that offers practical tips for practitioners and mentors themselves on how they can prevent and address bullying.
2. Learn more about the bullying behaviors and experiences of your mentees.
One of the primary tips in that aforementioned user guide is to “assess bullying behaviors and attitudes” using a survey, focus groups, or one-on-one conversations. Finding the right solution and role for your mentors to play will be easier when you understand exactly who is experiencing bullying (or engaging in bullying), the impact that is having on them, and the severity of the situation. In fact, one of the programs in this review, Lunch Buddies, specifically targeted students who identified as being in the top 20% on a rating of peer victimization. Programs may find that only some of their mentees are experiencing bullying or that the bullying is centered on one school or part of the community, or that it consists of a particular behavior or focus.
Once programs have this information in hand, it can be much easier to figure out exactly how your mentors can help. In many cases, program leadership may need to work directly with the leadership of a school to address particular aspects of the situation. In others, you may find that a small handful of your mentees need referral to other services outside of your program to help address the trauma and negative feelings triggered by their bullying experiences. The point is, you can’t respond effectively if you are lacking in information about what exactly your mentees are dealing with.
3. Train your mentors to address bullying.
Even if you don’t find that bullying experiences are pervasive among your mentees, this is a common enough circumstance that you can assume that at least some of the youth you serve are struggling with this issue and that some of your mentors will find themselves in situations where they can address both the perpetration of bullying and the negative impact in its wake. The previously mentioned User Guide notes that mentors and program staff are well-positioned to do several things to prevent bullying:
- Establishing rules around bullying behaviors and reinforce that these behaviors are unacceptable.
- Supervise areas where youth congregate and look for bullying behaviors.
- Stepping in and stopping bullying behavior when it is recognized.
- Following up with those involved
Beyond these simple tips, we know that mentors can deliver emotional support to victims, discuss strategies for avoiding or reducing bullying in the future, and teach aggressive youth emotional regulation, relational, and problem-solving skills that can reduce negative behaviors toward their peers. Because bullying prevention has a fair amount of research behind it, there are many available curricula and established anti-bullying programs that mentoring practitioners can consult or refer to in order to find high-quality, evidence-based training content that they can weave into their regular pre- or post-match mentor trainings. StopBullying.gov has lists of tips and strategies that can be incorporated into training.
And don’t forget about the subtopic of cyberbullying, in which bullying behavior is conducted online and is often focused on the humiliation and shaming of victims. This form of bullying is obviously increasing as social media and other technology becomes more integrated into the day-to-day life of young people. The StopBullying.gov site has a fairly extensive section devoted to cyberbullying and how it differs from in-person forms of peer aggression.
4. Don’t forget about the power of peers to address bullying.
One of the other tips in that User Guide, and one that was the basis of one of the programs in this review, is the use of older peers and groups of peers in addressing bullying situations. The Cabrini Green Youth Program used older peers to lead groups of youth in talking about and preventing bullying and aggression. This approach is echoed in the User Guide for mentors, which notes: “When children of different ages attend out-of-school programs, there is an opportunity for teenagers and more mature youth to mentor or befriend those who may be particularly vulnerable to bullying... Doing so can increase their self-assurance and self-esteem. They may also benefit from having a chance to make friends with peers other than their classmates, and it can sometimes be a relief for them to interact with peers who don’t go to their school and who don’t view them as a victim of bullying.”
If your program serves a wider age range of youth, think about how those older mentees can play a role in making bullied youth feel safe and understood and how you might be able to task them with setting expectations around behavioral norms or change the climate of a school or community setting to be less tolerant of bullying behavior overall.
For more information on research-informed program practices and tools for implementation, be sure to consult the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring™ and the "Resources for Mentoring Programs" section of the National Mentoring Resource Center site.