Bullying at school: tackling the problem

For two years, Johnny, a quiet 13-year-old, was a human plaything for some of his classmates. The teenagers badgered Johnny for money, forced him to swallow weeds and drink milk mixed with detergent, beat him up in the restroom and tied a string around his neck, leading him around as a 'pet'. When Johnny's torturers were interrogated about the bullying, they said they pursued their victim because it was fun."– Excerpt from a Norwegian newspaper article cited in Olweus, 1993

Bullying among schoolchildren is certainly a very old phenomenon, though it was not until the early 1970s that it was made the object of systematic research. Though this research originally focused on Scandinavia, by the 1980s bullying among schoolchildren had attracted wider attention in countries such as Australia, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States.

A broad definition of bullying is when a student is repeatedly exposed to negative actions on the part of one or more other students. These negative actions can take the form of physical contact, verbal abuse, or making faces and rude gestures. Spreading rumours and excluding the victim from a group are also common forms. Bullying also entails an imbalance in strength between the bullies and the victim, what experts call an asymmetric power relationship.

Our surveys of more than 150,000 students show that some 15% of pupils in elementary and lower secondary/junior high schools (roughly corresponding to ages 7 to 16) in Scandinavia are involved in bully/victim problems with some regularity – either as bullies, victims or both. Approximately 9% are victims, and 7% bully other students with some regularity. A relatively small proportion (15-20%) of the victims are themselves bullies of other pupils. These figures probably underestimate the problem, and there are indications that the level of bullying has risen over the last 10-15 years. More worrying, it is the more frequent and severe forms of bullying that have increased most.

Scandinavia is clearly not the stable rock of peace and calm it is often portrayed to be. Still, bullying may be more prevalent in other countries. For example, one British study of over 6,700 students shows that more than a quarter (27%) of primary school students reported being bullied with some regularity; this figure was 10% for secondary school students. With regard to bullying other students, corresponding figures were 12% for primary and 6% for secondary school students (Smith & Sharp, 1994).

These are the raw data, but what about the background? There is considerable research literature on the characteristics, family backgrounds, long-term outcomes for victims and bullies, mechanisms and group processes involved, and some of the key titles are included in the reference section of this article. Fundamentally, bullying has to be seen as a component of more generally antisocial and rule-breaking behaviour. In my follow-up studies, some 35% to 40% of boys who were characterised as bullies in Grades 6 to 9 (ages 13 to 16) had been convicted of at least three officially registered crimes by the age of 24. In contrast, this was true of only 10% of boys who were not classified as bullies. In other words, former school bullies were four times more likely than other pupils to engage in relatively serious crime.

Some myths

There are several common assumptions about the causes of bullying for which there is no supporting evidence. They include claims that bullying is a consequence of large class or school sizes, or of the competition for grades and other pressures that school generates. Another common assumption is that under a tough surface bullies, in fact, suffer from poor self-esteem and insecurity. These views are no more accurate than the stereotype that students who are fat, red-haired and wear glasses are particularly likely to become victims of bullying.

In reality, other factors are more important. Certain personality characteristics and typical reaction patterns, combined with the level of physical strength or weakness in the case of boys, can help to explain the development of bullying problems in individual students. At the same time, environmental influences, such as teachers' attitudes, behaviour and supervisory routines play a crucial role in determining the extent to which these problems will manifest themselves in a classroom or a school.

Fundamental human rights 

Victims of bullying form a large group of students who tend to be neglected by their schools. Yet it is a fundamental human or democratic right for a child to feel safe in school and to be spared the oppression and repeated, intentional humiliation of bullying. Governments and school authorities have therefore an important role to play in assuring that these rights are honoured.

A Swedish law passed in 1994 and amended in 1997 goes some way to upholding these children's rights at school. The associated regulations also make school principals responsible for realising these goals, including the development of an explicit intervention plan against bullying. Similar legal moves, although with somewhat weaker formulations, have been made in a few other countries, notably Norway and the United Kingdom.

As bully/victim problems have gradually been placed on formal school agendas in many countries, a number of suggestions about their handling and prevention have been proposed; see Peter K. Smith et al (1999) for an overview of a number of such measures. Some of these suggestions and approaches seem ill-conceived or even counterproductive, such as excessive focus on changing the victims' behaviour to make them less vulnerable to bullying. Others appear meaningful and potentially useful. A key problem, however, is that most of them have either not had positive results or have not been subjected to proper evaluation. Therefore it is difficult to know which measures actually work and which do not. Yet it is the results that count, not how adults might feel about using a programme.

Can bullying be stopped?

The situation is well illustrated by the following. Recently, a US expert committee under the leadership of a respected criminologist, Professor Delbert Elliott, systematically evaluated more than 400 violence (or problem-behaviour) prevention programmes. Only 10 of the programmes (four of which were school-based) satisfied the specified minimum criteria of the evaluation. These criteria were that they could show documented successful results, that the positive effects had lasted at least a year and that the programme had produced positive results in at least one site beyond the original one. These "Blueprint" or model programmes are now being implemented in a number of sites with financial support from the US Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. A similar evaluation of 25 programmes designed to counteract or prevent "problem behaviour" was recently carried out by an officially appointed committee in Norway. Only one programme was recommended for further use without reservations.

My own Bullying Prevention Programme is one of the 10 US Blueprint programmes and was the programme selected by the Norwegian committee. In this programme, the tools themselves are quite straightforward, ranging from adult awareness and parent meetings to classroom rules against bullying, followed up by regular classroom meetings with the students; these elements are summarised in the box.

The first evaluation of the use of the intervention programme was based on data from approximately 2,500 students (aged 11-14) in 42 primary and lower secondary/junior high schools in Bergen, Norway. The subjects of the study were followed over a period of two and a half years, from 1983 to 1985 (Olweus 1993; and Olweus & Limber, 1999).

The main findings were threefold. First, there were marked reductions – by 50% or more – in bully/victim problems for the periods studied, which included 8 and 20 months of intervention. Second, clear reductions were recorded in general antisocial behaviour, such as vandalism, fighting, pilfering, drunkenness and truancy. And third, the social climate of the classroom greatly improved, while student satisfaction with school life rose too.

Similar results have been documented in a recent large-scale intervention project (1997-1999) in Bergen and in a new project (results not yet published) in 10 Oslo schools. Positive, although somewhat lesser, effects have also been reported in Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The Norwegian government has now decided to offer the Bullying Prevention Programme to all comprehensive schools in Norway. A key element of the new initiative is the establishment of educational teacher discussion groups at each school. These groups will receive training and supervision from special trainer candidates, who in turn are trained and supervised by my Group for the Prevention of Bullying and Antisocial Behaviour at the University of Bergen. In this way, it will be possible to reach out to a large number of schools in a relatively short time.

Key components of Olweus bullying prevention programme:

(++ core component; + highly desirable component)

General prerequisites 

• awareness and involvement on the part of adults ++ 

Measures at school level

• questionnaire survey ++ 

• school conference day + 

• effective supervision during break times ++

• educational teacher discussion groups ++

• formation of coordinating group ++

Measures at class level 

• class rules against bullying ++

• class meetings with students ++

• meetings with parents of the class +

Measures at the individual level 

• serious talks with bullies and victims ++

• serious talks with parents of involved students ++

• development of individual intervention plans 

The basic message is clear: bullying is a large problem in schools, but with a suitable intervention programme, it is possible to considerably reduce it. An effective anti-bullying programme can be implemented relatively easily and without major cost; it is primarily a question of changing attitudes, knowledge, behaviour and routines in school life.

For more detail, please contact Research Professor Dan Olweus at Olweus@psych.uib.no.

More information can also be obtained at the same email address on the intervention "package" for the Olweus Bullying Prevention Programme. This package consists of a book by Dan Olweus called Bullying at School – What we know and what we can do (1993), a teacher manual, Olweus’ Core Program Against Bullying and Antisocial Behavior: A Teacher Handbook (1999), and the Revised Olweus Bully/Victim Questionnaire, with its accompanying PC software programme and a 20-minute video cassette. 


Elliott, D. (1999). "Editor’s introduction", in D. Olweus & S. Limber (1999) Blueprints for violence prevention: Bullying Prevention Program. Institute of Behavioral Science, University of Colorado, Boulder, USA.

Farrington, D. (1993). "Understanding and preventing bullying", in M. Tonry (Ed.), Crime and justice: A review of research. Vol. 17 (pp.348-458). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hawker, D.S.J., Boulton, M.J. (2000). "Twenty years of research on peer victimization and psychological maladjustment: a meta-analytic review of cross-sectional studies", Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 41, 441-455.

Olweus, D. (1973). Hackkycklingar och översittare: Forskning om skolmobbning. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell.

Olweus, D. (1978). Aggression in the schools: Bullies and whipping boys. Washington, D.C.: Hemisphere (Wiley).

Olweus, D. (1981b). "Vad skapar aggressiva barn?", in A.O. Telhaug & S.E. Vestre (Eds.), Normkrise og oppdragelse (pp.67-82). Oslo: Didakta.

Olweus, D. (1986, 1991). Mobbning i skolan- vad vi vet och vad vi kan göra. Stockholm: Liber.

Olweus, D. (1991). "Bully/victim problems among schoolchildren: Basic facts and effects of a school based intervention program", in D. Pepler and K. Rubin (Eds.), The development and treatment of childhood aggression (pp. 411-448). Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum. 

Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Olweus, D. (1996). The Revised Olweus Bully/Victim Questionnaire. Research Center for Health promotion (Hemil Center). Bergen, Norway.

Olweus, D. (1999a). "Sweden". In P.K. Smith, Y. Morita, J. Junger-Tas, D. Olweus, R. Catalano, & P. Slee (Eds), The nature of school bullying: A cross-national perspective (pp.7-27). London, UK: Routledge.

Olweus, D. (1999b) Olweus' core programme against bullying and antisocial behavior: A teacher handbook. Research Center for Health promotion (Hemil Center). Bergen, Norway.

Olweus, D., & Alsaker, F.D. (1991). "Assessing change in a cohort longitudinal study with hierarchical data", in D. Magnusson, L.R. Bergman, G. Rudinger, and B. Törestad (Eds.), Problems and methods in longitudinal research (pp.107-132) New. York: Cambridge University Press.

Olweus, D., & Limber, S. (1999). Blueprints for violence prevention: Bullying Prevention Program. Institute of Behavioral Science, University of Colorado, Boulder, USA.

Smith, P.K. (1999). "England and Wales", in P.K. Smith, Y. Morita, J. Junger-Tas, D. Olweus, R. Catalano, & P. Slee (Eds), The nature of school bullying: A cross-national perspective (pp.68-90). London, UK: Routledge.

Smith, P. K., Morita, Y., Junger-Tas, J., Olweus, D., Catalano, R., & Slee, P. (1999). (Eds.) The nature of school bullying: A cross-national perspective. London: Routledge.

Smith, P.K., & Sharp, S. (1994). School bullying: Insights and perspectives. Routledge.

©OECD Observer No 225  March 2001

Link update: August 2016

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