Strategy to Combat Bullying

White Paper
Prepared by Jennifer Hancock (author of The Bully Vaccine)

Goals and objectives


Currently, the most effective anti-bullying programs (such as Olweus) reduce bullying by 50%. We can and must do better. The goal of this strategy is to implement programs that will not only drastically reduce bullying by 80 to 90% but that will work effectively at the local level and be scalable at the national and international levels.


To do this we need to take a strategic approach that fills in the gaps in current programs by combining a variety of approaches to the problem so that we are not just tackling one aspect of the bullying dynamic, but all of them simultaneously.

In order to reach this objective, we must be strategic and scientific in our approach. Our first task is to properly identify the problems we are trying to solve. To do that we need to first identify what causes bullying and what are the most effective and proven approaches to stop it.

It is my contention that one of the reasons why bullying has proven to be so resistant to intervention is because our diagnoses of what causes it has been flawed. This paper will discuss the dynamic of bullying and identify a variety of causes for bullying. Each of these causes requires a different strategy to be effective.

When it comes to bullying prevention there is no silver bullet or single approach that will work. This is why the best programs are only able to reduce bullying by 50%. It is only by addressing all the various reasons why bullies bully that we will finally be able to create an integrated approach that will effectively eliminate bullying.

Identify the problem

For many years the assumption has been that bullying is a maladaptive behavior, meaning that is it counterproductive and represents a failed or counterproductive behavior for the bully. It has also been assumed that bullies learn how to bully from their parents or that bullying is a result of bad parenting. These assumptions are rarely true, yet the continued popularity of these assumptions has hindered our ability to eliminate bullying behavior because they cause us to focus our energies on solving problems individual bullies don’t actually have.

In order to solve the problem of bullying we have to properly identify the causes of bullying so that we can develop strategies to combat them.

There are 3 main reasons why bullies bully. These reasons are not mutually exclusive or exhaustive. They are given here to provide a general framework for understanding why an integrated approach is required.

The three categories of bullying that will be examined in this paper are:
● Adaptive Bullying
● Maladaptive Bullying
● Mental Illness Related Bullying

Adaptive Bullying

Evolutionary psychologists have shown that for the most part, bullying is actually an adaptive strategy and that bullies who bully adaptively reap significant short term benefits by bullying. Efforts to get them to stop generally fail because they fail to take into account the very real rewards bullies receive. You cannot argue an adaptive bully out of bullying if it works for them. Intervening in their home life will also not work because that isn’t what is causing their behavior. In order to get them to stop, you have to eliminate the rewards they receive and this is incredibly hard to do because it requires their peers to act collectively to get them to stop.

For adaptive bullies, bullying is used to bully other people into giving them access to resources and status that they might not otherwise be able to acquire on their own. Adaptive bullies often start bullying at a very young age, basically as soon as kids start socializing together.

The way to think about the dynamic at play for an adaptive bully is that they have learned that bullying is a way to get what they want. They can act badly and other people will do their bidding. Yes, there is a cost associated with this, but the cost is outweighed by the immediate benefits. It’s heady power for a little kid to discover this. It isn’t unusual for adaptive bullies to think of what they are doing as a strategic game they are trying to win. If no one intervenes and/or if adaptive bullies continue to get their way, they will continue to bully throughout their lives because this is a social strategy that they have learned works.

The good news is that adaptive bullying is essentially a learned behavior and what can be learned, can be unlearned. Ideally, it would be better if kids never learned this adaptive behavior in the first place thus preventing this form of bullying from occurring.

Maladaptive Bullying

Another reason kids might bully is because they are experiencing stress or other uncomfortable emotions and they don’t know how to deal with them. This stress or other emotional turmoil can and often does erupt in the form of aggressive behavior towards others.

Aggressive behavior towards others as a way to dealing with stress or other difficult emotions is considered maladaptive because instead of dealing constructively with the emotions in an adaptive way, the bully is projecting their anger, frustration and fear onto others which does not help them cope with their emotions and causes them a host of additional problems. This is why this form of bullying is considered maladaptive.

One way to think about the maladaptive bullying dynamic is to think of these bullies as kids in crisis who are in need of help. Consider how preverbal children respond to stress. They have no way to express their emotions except to act out on them. Even though maladaptive bullies should be able to express themselves, there may be reasons why they are unable to verbalize their experiences. Or they may have tried and failed to get the help they were hoping for, so they act out in an attempt to get someone’s attention because they have learned that works.

Maladaptive bullies may also bully to gain control over others. One of the biggest stressors humans have is not having control or autonomy over what happens to us. If a maladaptive bully is experiencing a loss of control in one aspect of their life, they may start bullying as a way to gain control over someone else to alleviate the stress caused by lack of control in another area of their life.

It would be much better for everyone if kids in crisis used their words and asked for help, but that isn’t a realistic expectation. First: no one is at their best when under stress or when experiencing extreme emotions. Second: most of us need to be taught how to deal with our emotions and fears. Third: They may have asked for help already and were rejected or not given the assistance they needed. Fourth, they are kids and do not have the same cognitive abilities as adults do.

We should consider maladaptive bullies as individuals in crisis and in need of assistance. Until their underlying emotional and/or stress related problems are solved, they will continue to act out inappropriately. The good news is that targeted intervention, assistance and training can help maladaptive bullies learn more adaptive coping strategies so that they don’t feel like bullying is their only option.

Mental Illness Related Bullying

For a small portion of bullies, bullying may actually be a manifestation of an underlying or undiagnosed mental illness. They quite literally may not be in control of their behavior or even aware of their behavior in the way that neuro-typical individuals generally are.

Individuals that fall into this category may be suffering from psychopathy or some other personality disorder. Any bully suffering from a diagnosed mental illness will need professional psychiatric or psychological care in order to assist them and to prevent them from further harming others.

Influencers and Inputs

Now that we have some idea of what causes bullying, let’s consider what influencers and inputs affect bullying behavior and how those influencers and inputs might be changed or altered to reduce or eliminate a bully’s behavior. This list of influencers is specific to the problem of school bullying. This is not to diminish the impact of workplace bullying or elder care bullying. It is more a recognition that if we are going to get bullying to stop in one generation, that is only going to happen if we tackle school bullying effectively so that young people don’t become school bullies who grow up to become workplace bullies.

Additionally, because workplace bullying is symptomatically the same as school bullying, many of the inputs and outputs and influencers overlap. For instance, while the teacher or administrator might be a key figure in school bullying, the manager or HR department will play a similar role in workplace bullying. If you are mostly concerned with workplace bullying, please translate the terms used appropriately.


Victims are usually chosen or targeted because they are convenient. They may represent a threat to the bully or they may respond in a way the bully likes. While they probably did not do anything to become a target, their response to what the bully is doing definitely influences a bully’s future behavior.


One of the biggest influencers of the bully dynamic are bystanders and/or witnesses. Part of what an adaptive bully is hoping will happen is that they will gain status in their peer group or instill fear in the bystanders thus allowing them to get their way more often. If bystanders stigmatize bullies or refuse to allow them to bully, adaptive bullies will quickly stop.

Maladaptive bullies who are insecure or stressed out may bully as a way to signal their distress or as a way to express their anger and frustration. Bystanders and witnesses can influence whether or not this type of bullying continues, escalates or is eliminated by reporting the behavior so the bully can be directed to appropriate interventions.

Parents of bullies

Parents of bullies have a limited ability to influence their children’s aggressive behavior towards others, mostly because they are usually not present during the bullying behavior. Assuming they are made aware of their child’s behavior, they can provide intervention to help their child learn to stop bullying. If the child is engaging in adaptive bullying, the parent can create increasing consequences to discourage future incidences of bullying. If the child is engaging in maladaptive or mental illness related bullying, the parent can provide support and seek out professional assistance for their child as appropriate.

Parents of victims

Parents of victims also have a limited ability to influence bullies, again, because they are usually not present during bullying incidents. They can, however, influence how their child responds and reports bullying. They can also act as advocates on behalf of their children, other victims and for the bully. They can assist their child in learning the skills necessary to stop adaptive bullying both as a victim and as a bystander. They can also act as advocates for both their child and the bully to help ensure that if the bully turns out to be maladaptive or suffering from a mental illness, that intervention for the bullying child is secured on their behalf and that the parent of the bully is made aware of the situation.


Teachers have a limited ability to influence bullies; however, they do have a critical role to play in the bullying dynamic. The problem is that teachers are not always aware that bullying is occurring. Little kids in particular may mistakenly believe that their teacher is aware of what is happening to them, and may not understand that the teacher did not see what happened. However, when made aware of aggressive behavior, teacher response can have a major influence on future bullying behavior, especially in the early grades. They can make sure that consequences are provided for bad behavior, they can make sure parents of both the victim and the bully are notified and they can more closely monitor the bully to ensure future infractions are spotted and handled appropriately. Because teachers are working with the children on a day to day basis, they are also in a position to provide valuable information to help administrators determine whether the bullying incidences are likely a result of adaptive, maladaptive or possible mental illness.


Administrators are responsible for making sure children are safe at school. However, they are often so far removed from bullying, that they are limited in what they can do. Like parents, they can only influence bullying after the fact. They can, however, provide consequences, remove the bully from the classroom, give them detention and restrict their ability to bully further. They can also facilitate communication between parents, teachers and other mental health support professionals that may be needed to assist with the problem.

Mental Health Support

Mental health professionals, while they don’t have direct input into a specific bullying situation, can influence it by providing training and support to the victim and bystanders to help them get bullies to stop. They can also provide support to bullies to help them learn more pro-social ways to accomplish their objectives. And in the case of maladaptive or mental illness related bullying, they can provide support and referrals to help resolve the underlying reasons for the bullying behavior.

Stopping Bullies

In order to develop an effective strategy, we must consider what works to get bullying to stop and how various techniques work together to create learning and the extinction of unwanted bullying behavior. These techniques, while essentially reactive to particular bullying incidences, provide the basis for prevention. We can’t prevent children from experimenting with bullying behavior. However, if kids learn that these behaviors don’t work and are counterproductive, it will prevent further escalation and act as a school wide deterrent to further bullying.

We will take each of the different types of bullying separately.

Stopping Adaptive Bullying

The central dynamic is between bully and victim and secondarily between bully and bystander. Adaptive bullies bully because it works. To get an adaptive bully to stop, we have to make bullying as a strategy stop working. To do this, the reward for bullying needs to be eliminated and the cost associated with bullying needs to be increased to the point that the bully gives up the behavior. This can be accomplished by:

1. Teaching the victim how to stop rewarding the bully.
2. Encouraging bystanders to stigmatize bullying behavior as unacceptable
3. Increase the consequences given to bullies whenever it is reported.

Because adaptive bullying is a learned behavior, attempts to extinguish bullying behavior by victims, bystanders and adults will likely result in an extinction burst. An extinction burst is a temporary escalation of behavior in an attempt to regain the reward. All animals engage in this behavior when they lose an expected reward. Because extinction bursts are predicted, responses to bullying behavior must include ongoing monitoring of the bully, victims and bystanders to ensure a) that victims and bystanders continue to provide disincentives to the bully and b) to make sure that each incidence of bullying is responded to promptly and consistently so that the bully will cycle through the extinction burst quickly. Once an extinction burst is triggered, it must be completed otherwise it will result in escalated and more aggressive bullying behavior by the bully.

Stopping Maladaptive Bullying

Maladaptive bullying is stopped in a way that is similar to that of the adaptive bully. In fact, it follows the same process: removal of reward and increased cost. The difference is that in addition to this, an assessment must be made to find out if there is another reason why the child might be bullying. If so, effort is made to provide appropriate interventions to assist the child cope with those stresses and emotions or better yet, to alleviate the situation causing the stress in the first place by teaching adaptive problem solving skills..

Stopping Mental Health Related Bullying

The techniques used to deal with adaptive bullying will have a limited impact on someone suffering from a mental illness. These bullies will need all the same strategies used for the adaptive and maladaptive bullies, but they will further require medical care to help them cope with the effects of their illness. They may also need more structured environments so that they don’t have access or opportunity to bully.

Special Areas of Concern

Early Childhood

Early efforts can take place in preschool, kindergarten and grades one and two. These interventions should be focused on helping children learn how to deal with conflicts and problems effectively.

The Elementary Years

Whole school approaches to support the development of values and positive behaviors in elementary school as well as training on bullying elimination and prevention strategies.

The Middle Years

As membership in particular friendship groups become important in the process of identity formation, conflicts result. The onset of puberty also influences this time as jealousy and competition play a major role in bullying, especially among girls. This is also a time when social stressors and mental health issues start to become more noticeable. Programs at this age should build upon earlier training and include screening for mental health problems.

First Year of High School

The general structure of high school is not as community-minded as elementary or middle school. Individuals encounter a sea of faces and this can be troubling to those who struggle socially. It is important for first year students to have a “home base” in order to create a sense of family which can act as a supportive network. Youth also need the opportunity to create authentic relationships. A number of schools have Freshman Advisory programs. Within these networks, character education programs can be implemented along with the opportunity to bond with a diverse range of individuals while being supervised.

Suicide Prevention

Young people who are distressed will usually only access services if they feel they can trust the adult. Many of them turn to their peers for support, but their peers’ influence does not always aim for the best outcome. Some don’t feel like asking for help is an option, it’s more important to them to appear “just fine”. Others don’t have someone they can turn to. There needs to be a multi-pronged approach to normalize and integrate mental health training and assistance to kids so that it is easier to access and kids in crisis are more easily identified and provided the assistance they need.

Creating a Bullying Strategy

In order to stop bullying in 20 years, we need to create a strategy that will help us impact all the influencers and inputs that are causes of bullying and provide interventions when necessary for maladaptive and mental illness related bullying.

What follows is the outline of the strategic elements and why they are required as part of a holistic integrated strategy.

Broad outline

Empower parents and kids with strategies to deal with and eliminate the main form of bullying, adaptive bullying, so that professional intervention can be brought to help kids engaging in maladaptive and/or mental illness related aggression.

Adaptive bullying is the easiest form of bullying to eliminate and prevent because adaptive bullies are essentially rational actors capable of modifying their behavior when it is to their advantage to do so. Adaptive bullying can be fixed through educational initiatives aimed at bystanders, victims, parents, teachers and administrators to help them understand the bullying dynamic so that everyone can essentially do their part to help adaptive bullies learn more socially acceptable ways to accomplish their objectives. Stopping and preventing adaptive bullying also requires policies and procedures that are optimized to extinguish bullying behavior once it is identified.

Both maladaptive bullies and bullies who are suffering from a mental illness will respond favorably to the strategies and education put in place to eliminate adaptive bullying. However, both of these types of bullies will need additional assistance to help them cope with the underlying problems that are causing their behavior.

Maladaptive bullies should have the support of the community to help them overcome whatever has happened to cause them to act out aggressively. This may include mental health care, anger management training, intervention in the home and other remedies. More resources need to be made available to respond to and help these kids and their families. This includes access to humanistic mental health care, crisis intervention, specialized support networks and more.

In the case of bullies who bully as a result of mental illness, the first step is to not only identify kids suffering from mental illness, but to provide them and their families with the ongoing mental health and medical care they need to better manage their conditions. To make this happen, ongoing humanistic psychiatric care must be considered a public health issue and it should be fully funded by the community

To reduce and eliminate the most pervasive forms of bullying so that the bullying that is resulting from mental health or mental illness related causes can be identified and provided with appropriate professional intervention. All forms of bullying must be addressed concurrently and should not be considered as separate isolated strategies or processes. We are looking to create an integrated strategy/protocol.

The 5 Point Plan

In order to accomplish all of this, we need to achieve the following 5 objectives.

● Immediately help kids who are being bullied right now. Special attention must be paid to kids who are being chronically bullied or who have become victims of physical violence to not only keep them safe and to get the bullying to stop, but to also provide them with the mental health care needed to cope with the trauma caused by their experience.

● Encourage and promote bystander and bullying awareness to discourage bullying behavior at all ages. This can include buddy programs, speak up training and more. Most of what is happening right now is currently targeted to this area of bullying prevention.

● Provide targeted training and intervention at the youngest grades to arm kids and their parents just starting out in school with the tools they need to stop bullying before it becomes established as a behavior pattern. This includes preventative training and bullying elimination training for victims, bystanders, bullies and their parents as well as education programs for teachers and administrators to reinforce what the children are being taught.

● Identify and provide assistance and care to individuals in crisis or who are suffering from mental health problems or mental illness.

● Create protocols and best practices that will help administrators and teachers intervene in a timely and effective way when incidences of bullying and other forms of violence occur on campus. These protocols should take into account the science of behavioral management to optimize the effectiveness of the training and to account for the expected extinction bursts that follow.

How I envision this strategy will play out

The two biggest priorities of this strategy have to be helping kids who are currently in crisis as a result of bullying and to stop the flow of kids being bullied in the first place. These two tasks must be done simultaneously.

If we can stop adaptive bullies from learning how to bully in the first place when they are in k-3, then they won’t be caught in the cycle of escalation that results from failed attempts to get them to stop. When left untreated, adaptive bullies cycle through failed extinction bursts which cause them to escalate their bullying behavior which peaks in middle school and lessens as victims finally figure out on their own how to get bullies to leave them alone.

Our hope is that we can interrupt that cycle of escalation by teaching kids how to get bullies to stop and leave them alone when they are younger so that kids who might have learned how to bully, learn very early on that it doesn’t work. This approach should effectively prevent bullying from establishing itself as a pattern of behavior that has to be dealt with at all.

The good news is that it doesn’t take every child to change the culture of a school. A few kids in each class is enough to ensure that bullies don’t flourish. Getting bullies to stop is a social skill that can be taught to even the youngest kids and when kids are empowered, they flourish. The teaching of these skills also prevents bullying from occurring or becoming established when it does.

We should no longer accept the idea that bullying is a rite of passage and that kids need to learn these skills on their own. The cost to society is too high. We need to start actively and explicitly teaching these social skills to our children. As these kids grow and mature, these lessons will need to be relearned and reinforced as kids enter the next phases of bullying prevention in middle school and again in high school.

At the same time, we have older kids who are killing themselves and their classmates as a way to get the stalking and ongoing harassment to stop. We must find ways to intervene and help them not only survive bullying, but to get their tormentors to stop. Unfortunately, the longer a kid is allowed to bully, the harder it is to get them to stop and the more entrenched their behavior is. Stopping older bullies takes more money, time and effort, but it is doable and we must take it on now as a stopgap measure until the kids who are being taught from early ages how to stop and prevent bullying eliminate the problem of adaptive bullying through attrition.

Once the number of adaptive bullies is reduced in 5 to 10 years, we should be able to see just how much of a role mental health and mental illness plays in aggressive behavior. This is not to imply that we should ignore maladaptive bullies and mentally ill bullies until adaptive bullying is eliminated. All anti-bullying strategies should be designed to identify and assist kids who are struggling and who are in crisis right now in addition to helping adaptive bullies learn more pro-social ways of interacting. We just need to be aware that the scope of mental health problem our youth are struggling with will likely shock many people who will want to put their heads in the sand and ignore it and we should plan our strategy to accommodate the push back we will likely receive on this issue when it can no longer be ignored.

It is clear that at the current moment the mental health support systems needed to help these kids is not yet in place and our ability to serve kids suffering from mental health or mental illness will, unfortunately, lag behind the need. It won’t be until we have eliminated most of the adaptive bullying and are successfully identifying kids suffering from mental health and mental illness problems that we will truly understand how large the problem is so that we can properly allocate resources to it as a society.

To truly get a handle on this, we need to normalize mental health care and remove the stigma associated with mental illness. We need to consider this a public health issue and that we all will benefit when people are given the help they need thus reducing the number of maladaptive and mentally ill kids who are acting out because of lack of treatment and intervention.
Creating a Coalition

There is no one approach to bullying elimination that will work. Multiple areas need to be worked on simultaneously. To be successful, we need to bring together the various resources needed to create a truly holistic approach to bullying prevention. An approach that isn’t limited to fixing only one aspect of the problem, but to actually integrate solutions that cover the entire range of activities that must be done to truly eliminate bullying from our schools.

Next Steps:

The creation of best practice protocols that are tested and proven to work that incorporate all the elements of the 5 point plan. Pilot schools should be recruited to test programs, materials and systems to see if we can create an integrated approach that is both economical and effective.

The creation of a clearinghouse for resources available to support the objectives of the 5 point plan.

Providing continuing education resources for professionals who work with populations affected by bullying (including youth, education, eldercare and HR professionals) to ensure dissemination of best practices.