Taking a Bite out of Bullying with Behavior Analysis

All 50 states have passed anti-bullying laws in the past 15 years; yet the results of a 2011 survey suggested that nearly 30% of US students in grades 6 through 12 have been bullied. Some observers have even suggested that bullying may be the most common form of school violence.

A number of programs have been designed to prevent and reduce bullying; however, these programs have generally yielded mixed results (see Evans, Fraser, & Cotter, 2014; Merrell, Gueldner, Ross, & Isava, 2008).

One program that has decreased the frequency of verbal and physical aggression on the playgrounds of three elementary schools is the bully prevention in positive behavior support (BP-PBS) program (Ross & Horner, 2009).

BP-PBS gives us an excellent example of a growing number of bullying prevention programs with increasing empirical support regarding their effectiveness (Sugai, Horner, & Algozzine, 2011). What these programs have in common is that they are “designed to fit within a system of schoolwide PBS” (Ross & Horner, 2009, p. 749) or they adhere to the core features of School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS; Sugai et al.).

PBIS “is a framework for delivering both the whole-school social culture and additional tiers of behavior support intensity needed to improve educational and social outcomes for all students” (Horner & Sugai, 2015, p. 80). A technology grounded in the principles of behavior analysis (cf., Anderson & Kincaid, 2005), PBIS is organized around a multi-tiered prevention model first used in community health (Walker et al., 1996).

Ross and Horner (2009) suggest that, “one critical reason [other] bully-prevention efforts struggle to achieve their objective lies in the difficulty of conceptualizing and measuring bullying” (p. 748).

Bullying occurs in a number of different forms (e.g., verbal, physical, social); food-allergy bullying is a topography of bullying that has recently been highlighted in the media. Many definitions of bullying emphasize three common features: intent to harm, power imbalance, and repeated confrontations (Ross & Horner, 2009).

Being conceptually systematic (Baer, Wolf, & Risley, 1968) as a behaviorist, the term bullying does not itself refer to a class of operant behavior; rather, it seems to be mostly a judgment about behavior (Ross & Horner, 2009), though a socially significant syndrome of problem behaviors to be sure. BP-PBS and other bullying prevention programs grounded in the core features of PBIS likely achieve better results than other bullying prevention programs because they operationally define bullying and design interventions based on the function of behaviors defined as bullying. PB-BPS, for example, addresses one of the most commonly reported functions of bullying – peer attention (Ross & Horner; see also Peace, 2016).

We are far from solving the problem of bullying among students in schools. In fact, it is likely that some of our societal systems support behaviors outside of school settings that might be considered bullying. PBIS, however, is one example of how “develop[ing] a technology of adoption,” (Heward, 2005, p. 337) brings behavior analysis to schools – over 21,000 US schools have employed PBIS (Sugai et al., 2011) and are taking a bite out of bullying.

I would like to thank Dr. John Eshleman for his comments and suggestions that helped to guide the final draft of this post.