Frequently bullied students: outcomes of a universal school-based bullying preventive intervention on peer victimisation and psychological health
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Bullying occurs to some extent in all schools. Study 1 investigated and screened for frequently bullied students in a randomly selected and stratified sample of Year 4 students in 29 primary schools using multiple informants and a comprehensive measure of bullying. Using self- and/or parent-report, 16.3% of students were identified as frequently bullied, defined as 'about once a week' or more. There were no sex differences in the proportion of students identified as frequently bullied, however, frequently bullied boys were more likely to experience physical bullying and having money or other things taken away or broken. Self- and parent-report revealed significantly more depressive and anxiety symptoms, somatic complaints, and lower peer self-concept and general self-worth in frequently bullied students. Furthermore, a greater proportion of frequently bullied students experienced clinical levels of depressive, anxiety and/or somatic symptoms. The results clearly highlight the need for interventions that reduce and prevent the distress of frequently bullied students. In taking a universal approach to bullying intervention, it is important that the needs of targeted groups are not overlooked. In Study 2, a group randomised controlled trial with follow-up investigated the impact of the first year of a universal whole-school bullying preventive intervention, Friendly Schools, on the psychological health of frequently bullied students aged 8-9 years. The program utilised the Health Promoting Schools (HPS) approach to facilitate implementation of classroom curriculum, whole-school policy and practice, and partnerships with parents.At post-intervention and 4-month follow-up the proportion of students who remained frequently bullied did not differ across the groups. Furthermore, there were no significant group differences on self-report victimisation frequency or self and parent-report health outcomes. A preventive effect was revealed however, when students were categorised to clinical and healthy subgroups on the basis of student report pre-intervention scores on the Children's Depression Inventory and the Revised Children's Manifest Anxiety Scale. A greater proportion of intervention students with low levels of depression and/or anxiety remained healthy at post-intervention, compared to control group children. However, this effect was not maintained at follow-up and the intervention did not reduce symptoms into a healthy range for frequently bullied children reporting high levels of symptomology at pre-intervention. Process evaluation revealed moderate to high levels of use and satisfaction with Friendly Schools by school staff, students and parents. These results suggest that the universal intervention protected students who were frequently bullied from developing clinical levels of depressive and/or anxiety symptoms in the short term. This is a positive finding given that a universal approach acknowledges the social context of bullying and is highly suitable to the school environment, offering economy, practicality and reduced stigmatisation of bullied students.However, the lack of maintenance of the result emphasises the need for an on-going, multi-year approach. Furthermore, to effectively meet the mental health needs of frequently bullied students already experiencing high levels of symptoms, levels of intervention beyond universal are required. Schools and related health services should address this finding in their planning and implementation of intervention aimed at addressing bullying and helping students victimised by their peers. To help achieve this, further research is required to determine effective targeted strategies that complement universal, whole-school action.
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