A Look at Bullying Prevention and Outcomes: The KiVa Program

By Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D.

I went to school with a guy that could be described as one of the most socially awkward human beings I have ever encountered. He had a strange walk and funny hair, talked to himself, pretended to talk in German, and had not a single friend. I don’t think that he went through so much as an hour during school without being relentlessly teased and tormented by students, and I don’t remember a single teacher or peer stepping in to do a thing about it. To this day, I wonder what happened to that guy. And I wonder what a difference it could have made in his life if bullying prevention efforts had been made.

It has not been that long that bullying has been taken seriously even though we have known for a long time that it can be destructive and sometimes very dangerous. There are now solid efforts being made to not only understand it but to change its course and to help victims and perpetrators alike.

The Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology recently published a study that takes a look at the KiVa Anti-Bullying Program, a Finnish program that sets itself apart from other programs because it addresses a critical piece that perpetuates bullying: group involvement. When witnesses either encourage or seem indifferent to the bullying it gives the bully more power and keeps the process going. The KiVa Program aims to teach kids how important their role in bullying is and teaches skills that help students defend victims. Research thus far on the program suggests that it has a positive impact on reducing bullying.

A little more on the KiVa Program: KiVa works on improving anti-bullying attitudes as well as empowering students to defend victims through skill-building and education.  It involves 20 hours of activities such as discussion, group work, films, role-playing, and computer exercises.  It also includes specific interventions for real cases of bullying at the schools where victims and bullies come together for discussions mediated by school staff and teachers.  An interesting component to this process requires victims to identify other students who could be allies and these students are then recruited to assist in stopping the bullying. 

Williford and colleagues looked at a specific set of outcomes from the KiVa Program: depression, anxiety, and peer perceptions. Why are these outcomes important? Being bullied has been linked to internalizing problems so if bullying is reduced students might feel better. Also, empowering students to reduce bullying can potentially improve peer perceptions. And if you feel more positive about your peers, then perhaps you won’t be so willing to stand by or cheer as these same peers are bullied.

The researchers studied data from almost 8,000 students attending 4th-6th grade at 78 schools.  Approximately half of the classrooms at these schools underwent the KiVa program and the other half served as a control group.  They collected data at three points over the course of two academic years (May 07, December 07-January 08, and May 08) to look at changes over time.   

The researchers compared peer-reported victimization, depression, anxiety, and peer perceptions for the KiVa group with the control group.  While reports of victimization were equal at the first data collection, they became statistically different at subsequent data collections with the KiVa group reporting continual decreases in victimization.

There were not significant findings for group differences in depression, which the authors attribute to an inadequate measure of depression as well as participants being younger than the age during which depression usually begins. 

Anxiety decreased in both groups.  While the groups reported similar levels of anxiety at the first data collection, however, the KiVa group decreased more and was statistically different from the comparison group at the third data collection.  The authors state that the intervention may have created a more positive social climate where fear of being bullied went down and anxiety went down along with it.  Also, the program incorporated important social skills and confidence-building components that could have potentially reduced anxiety.

Interestingly, peer perceptions went down overall in both the intervention group and the control group (although the KiVa group went down less and was significantly different from the control group by the end of the study), which the authors argue is likely related to the phase of development of the students.  At this age, peer perceptions are complex at best and shift quickly. 

Finally, the authors looked at reports of victimization over time and found that the greater the drop in perceived victimization, the more that anxiety, depression, and peer perceptions all improved. 

When I think back to the guy at my school, I have regrets for my role (or non-role, if you will) in preventing his victimization.  Had I been given the tools to help create a better outcome, I don’t know that I would have used them, but at least I would have had them and could have made an informed decision.  A big takeaway from KiVa is that as a culture, we must make bullying unacceptable and we must equip ourselves and our children with the skills and confidence necessary to be an active part of the solution.  There is no such thing as not being a part of the problem if we are doing nothing.

If you’d like to read more on bullying, please refer to Nestor’s previous posts on the topic. And if you’d like to learn more about the KiVa program please visit the program website.  Thanks for reading, Anita

Source: Williford A, Boulton A, Noland B, Little TD, Kärnä A, & Salmivalli C (2011). Effects of the KiVa Anti-bullying Program on Adolescents Depression, Anxiety, and Perception of Peers. Journal of abnormal child psychology PMID: 21822630

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