Could ABA Be the Solution to the Epidemic of Bullying in Our Schools?

At a large high school in Southern California, a freshman named Andrea sat alone on the steps near the gym. Far removed from the main campus, the spot was a popular hangout for kids during lunch. As she peeled her banana, a group of five girls, one smoking a cigarette, walked by her. The smoker crushed her lit cigarette into Andrea’s head. The others stood by laughing and threatening her if she told on them. Other kids looked on and did nothing.

This wasn’t the first incident, and it wouldn’t be the last.

For some unknown reason, Andrea became their target. She felt marked. She didn’t know them. She had never provoked them. They just chose her as their victim.

On a cool spring day, after repeatedly being slapped around by the girls, Andrea finally got the courage to go to the principal. The girls were all suspended for three days. When they returned, the bullying escalated, as did the threats.

Fortunately for Andrea, her dad was transferred to another state the next year. The bullying was over, but the emotional scars remained for decades.

School bullying has been going on for a long time. Some of us may even have our own accounts of being bullied (or being a bully). As adults we may swap stories of being pushed around and made to feel powerless, something that’s looked at as some kind of sick rite of passage if the bully happens to be an upper classman.

Kids are just mean to each other right? You gotta just learn to talk your way out of it, or scrap your way through the day if you’re not that clever. What else can you do?

Is the Problem Really All That Bad?

Across the nation, it’s been reported that in 2016 alone approximately 20% of high school students were victims of bullying on school campuses, and now with kids spending what sometimes seems like most of their time interacting with peers through social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, another 15% are experiencing some kind of cyber-bullying off campus too. The highest risk students, according to the report, were white females.

From 2009 to 2015 incidents of bullying remained consistent despite efforts to reduce it (CDC).

Politicians, educators, and community leaders have all taken up the gauntlet to end violence in our schools and, while the National Center for Education shows there has been some success in reducing headline-grabbing violent crimes, day to day incidents of bullying continue to plague our kids.

Today We Use Better Methods, Right?

The current methods of punishment remain very similar to those implemented in the 1970s and they still aren’t working today (Bullying Education). Suspensions, detentions, time outs, Saturday school, scoldings, notes home to parents. . . none of it has had a strong deterrent effect on kids intent on pushing others around. “Research has shown that the implementation of punishment, especially when it is used inconsistently and in the absence of other positive strategies, is ineffective,” (UCLA Mental Health in Schools).

States have begun to implement anti-bullying laws. Sure, it’s good that we recognize it for the serious problem it is, but even these laws haven’t proven to be effective. It’s just another layer of punitive action. When bullies are sent home, sent to jail, or sent to live somewhere else, the problem just travels with them.

Bullying is a learned trait and often starts at home. If it’s something that is learned, behavior modification can help to unlearn it. For that matter, teaching proper social behaviors can help to prevent it from happening in the first place. That’s where ABA comes in.  Implementing strategies for changing problem behavior like this directly into school curriculum may be one approach to curtailing bullying. One program shows promising results: Bully Prevention in Positive Behavior Support (BP-PBS).

It defines and teaches the idea of being respectful to others. Changing how we should view each other lays a foundation for kindness, not bullying. If we are respectful of one another, we can begin to alter negative behaviors that accompany disrespect.

It also employs a three-step reaction to a bully: stop, walk, and talk. The actions are designed to minimize potential social reinforcements, as is the case when kids actually bully for the attention it gets them. If you tell a bully to stop, then walk away from them, they lose the power they had over you. This teaches students how to respond appropriately and teaches a bully that their actions didn’t bring the results they desired, something that effectively modifies the problem behavior.

This is just one example of how we can begin to address the problem of bullying. We’ve been trying to punish and restrict for decades with virtually nothing to show for it. If we incorporate the classic methods of ABA in working with both bullies and victims, and apply the same level of consistent intervention and patience, the tide could very well turn, reversing the current epidemic of bullying.

It won’t happen overnight, but a community where kindness and respect are at the forefront of our behaviors would not just change how kids interact in our schools, it could very well change how we handle workplace disputes, how we interact in traffic, and even how we engage in political discourse. ABA has the potential to change our world for the better.


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