Every child going through our school system deserves a supportive environment in which to learn, but, for many, school doesn’t feel like a safe place.

Bullying is a threat to the positive development of children and youth around the world, and can cause anxiety, depression and social exclusion. For some, these feelings remain throughout adulthood. Bullying also has negative effects on academic motivation and achievement, and the link to youth suicide cannot be ignored.

While internationally around one in 10 children are bullied, in New Zealand this is closer to one in five (see TIMSS report, 2011).

These statistics have not improved over the last decade despite different approaches, programmes, policies and guidelines. We have a serious problem and it needs to be addressed with urgency.

From Finland with kindness

KiVa (meaning ‘kind’ or ‘nice’ in Finnish) is a bullying prevention programme developed at the University of Turku in Finland, and now established in many schools around the world.

Created after decades of research into bullying, bullying mechanisms and the role of the bystander, KiVa was rigorously trialled and evaluated before implementation, and since 2009 the proportion of students bullying others has been halved in KiVa schools.

Research continues in a growing number of countries reporting a steady decline in bullying incidents over time. In New Zealand, where one fifth of students self-report they are regularly bullied (reflecting international statistics), KiVa is bringing about improvement for hundreds of our own students.

Essentially KiVa is a whole-school approach with three main components:

  • Prevention – classroom lessons.
  • Intervention – a process for dealing with bullying incidents.
  • Monitoring – including annual student surveys.

These elements, together with teacher training and school commitment, form a successful framework.

New Zealand evidence

Three different electronic surveys were sent to
New Zealand KiVa schools: for the principal, KiVa team and teachers. KiVa schools represent a range of communities with implementation between six to 22 months.

Principals are responsible for health and safety of their students and monitoring their situation. KiVa supports this through annual student survey reports.

When questioned, principals expressed their hopes of KiVa:

  • Clear consistent definition/process.
  • Positive attitude/relationship changes.
  • Children speaking out.
  • Reducing/preventing incidents.
  • Student/bystander strategies.
  • Demonstrating issues are taken seriously.

Responses from principals were positive, with most saying they were ‘on the way’ to realising their hopes. One principal reported a recent parent evening had the biggest ever turnout of parents.

Significantly, all but one principal reported they were spending less time dealing with bullying incidents than before KiVa.

This account addresses a number of desired outcomes:

Last year at [our] school the staff struggled with many of our students and parents frequently misusing the terms ‘bully’ and ‘victim of bullying’. Trying to sort out these incidents was frustrating, time-consuming and often difficult to ‘get to the bottom of’. When we implemented the KiVa method of dealing with alleged bullying, life at school got so much easier. KiVa has been a wonderful way in which to educate parents about what is and what isn’t bullying too.

Progress was also confirmed by responses from KiVa team members and individual teachers.

The KiVa team

The KiVa team in each school is responsible for dealing with bullying incidents. They are trained and provided with concrete, comprehensive, research-based tools to tackle referred cases.

The impact of classroom lessons is evident. As a baseline the team reported receiving between zero and 20 referrals in a term (mostly between seven and 20). By September 2016 it had dropped to between zero and nine, with most receiving zero.

There were several positive references to the process used by the team:

I really like the way there is a set process to follow so all cases are treated in the same way.

I love having the KiVa framework/process to use as a consistent, research-backed and effective method to deal with referrals.

One team member described an incident successfully resolved, she thinks, because the bullies got an opportunity to “make things right”:

Two very confident, usually ‘nice’ girls were picking on another normally confident strong girl by writing nasty comments in a book every time she said something they disagreed with. She was getting very upset because she could see what they were doing, then she read the book and wrote something nasty back. The teacher decided it was bullying – although all girls were strong it was two against one. The victim requested to be present in the meeting, which was the first time this had happened… The bullies were very embarrassed and decided the best thing would be to publicly destroy the book. The resolution was very satisfactory.

Another member commented:

The child in question was mortified that she had been recognised as a bully. She had not seen this in herself and from discussions about the behaviour quickly understood how her behaviour could be considered bullying. This open and honest discussion was enough to modify the behaviour.

An email from a year 4 girl to the KiVa team demonstrates a positive shift in thinking. She shared that she and her friends had been bullying, that KiVa helped her realise this and she wants to change her behaviour.

The role of classroom teachers

Typically, teachers deliver KiVa lessons about once per month. A video game has also been developed where students move through a virtual school encountering challenging situations.

Having a clear definition was mentioned positively by several teachers:

Children know what bullying is, that it is never okay, that it can include passive roles. [KiVa] has promoted action, like knowing there is a dedicated KiVa teacher team.

Students can say what bullying is and is not. Students have stood up for others and reported bullying.

Kids are much more aware of what bullying is, how they can ‘read’ others’ emotions and how to respond.

A positive change in attitude and how students relate was described by teachers:

[Class discussion] brought out underlying issues and made them explicit. It improved our classroom culture as people are now more aware of the impact they have on others and how groups work.

The children have more empathy for each other. They are nice children anyway, but they seem more caring and inclusive, especially with classmates who are a little ‘different’.

It has made children more aware of what bullying is and how we can prevent it. They have also gained a better understanding of their roles in difficult situations and how to help.

The courage to speak out

New Zealand student survey data reveals about a quarter of those bullied do not tell anyone.

A key role of KiVa is to give students the strategies and confidence to speak out.

A teacher was encouraged by one child staying behind after a KiVa lesson to talk about their experience of being bullied. The teacher had not been aware of it and was relieved the child already felt confident and safe enough to discuss something previously avoided.

Another teacher commented:

Students are more open to reporting bullying. Repeat bullying has stopped. Students accept each other’s views without discrimination.

Addressing the role of the bystander is fundamental to KiVa’s solution. To the victim it seems that all bystanders support the bully. An important outcome would be a shift from bystander to defender and this is already occurring in some schools.

Everybody, I believe, has a clear understanding of the importance of standing up to the bully and how to defend the victim in a variety of situations. There is a common understanding that being a bystander is unhelpful.

Quite a few are now getting the fact that being a bystander is in many ways taking part in the bullying.

This shows that registered KiVa schools are playing their part in addressing New Zealand’s negative statistics, working on bullying prevention first and following a consistent process for intervention as necessary.

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