HomeHealth & BehaviorBullying

Kansas to try Finland's anti-bullying program

Parents and educators have only to scan the headlines to realize the urgent need to stop bullying. In Kansas, they're trying the miraculous program that's transforming Finnish schools.

By Hank Pellissier

Bullies in Lawrence, KS are about to get Finn-ished.

That’s right, bullies lurking in school hallways and playgrounds in this prairie state town will soon have to face a fearsome opponent. The state is instituting a winning anti-bullying policy from Europe's #1 nation in public education, Finland.

KiVa — a "holistic" anti-bullying program that enlists support from the entire school community — is flurrying in the Nordic nation of Finland like a benevolent blizzard, freezing harassment in its tracks. An analysis in the January/February 2011 issue of the journal Child Development reports that KiVa instigated a 46 percent reduction in "victimization" and 61 percent reduction in "bullying others" in only nine months — results that many bully-infested American schools should envy.

Researchers at the University of Kansas will attempt to duplicate Finland's success. Todd Little, a quantitative psychologist, Anne Williford, a professor of social welfare, and Patricia Hawley, a developmental psychologist, are seeking funding for an initial pilot study of KiVa, to be implemented in local schools.

According to Williford, the number of schools and classrooms involved will depend on the size of the grant they receive. If all goes according to plan, the researchers hope to launch the KiVa pilot at the beginning of the 2012 school year.

Officials at the Lawrence school district are excited about the project. "We do have a bullying-prevention framework in all our schools already," Chief Academic Officer Kim Bodensteiner says. "But I understand KiVa is very successful in Finland and we're very happy to partner on it."

Why does KiVa work so spectacularly? The answer is strikingly biological. KiVa seeks to create an environment that's excruciatingly inhospitable to the parasitical behavior of bullies. Working together, students, teachers, administrators, and parents transform the school's "peer ecology" into a culture where bullies are awarded no friendship or status for their abusive actions. Instead, their behavior is allocated only the condemnation it deserves. In essence, KiVa — an acronym of "KiVasaamist Vastaan," the Finnish words for "against bullying" — is an activist campaign of compassion that helps bystanders and victims put bullying into deep-freeze.

When it comes to bullying, the Nordic countries seem to be ahead of the rest of us. The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, which, like KiVa, takes a "whole school" approach, was developed 40 years ago in Norway by Dan Olweus and was exported to the U.S. in the 1990s in cooperation with Clemson University. The Olweus program was originally (and successfully) piloted in 18 middle schools in South Carolina and 12 elementary schools in Philadelphia. Since then, it's been implemented in almost every state in the country.

Olweus shares some KiVa methods, but according to the University of Kansas researchers, the Finnish program is more comprehensive. They say KiVa's multi-layered approach makes it so effective. KiVa includes activities, learning media, and targeted strategies to enhance empathy and empower students to help bullying victims. "Although other programs share some of these features, none have assembled them into a coordinated whole-school, multi-layered intervention central to KiVa," Williford says.

KiVa provides anti-bullying instructions via computer games — how better to reach today's youth? — as well as group work and theater exercises. Once students have developed a basic foundation of knowledge and skills, they're encouraged to intervene in real-life situations.

Teachers receive anti-bullying instruction, and in turn educate parents. The bullies themselves are required to critique their behavior in a group that includes the victim, bystanders who witnessed the abuse, the classroom teacher, and designated teachers and staff.

Lawrence, KS, and the entire U.S. will be blessed if KiVa is sown here and reaps Finnish results. First piloted in 2007, 80 percent of Finnish schools now use the program. It won first prize in the 2009 European Crime Prevention contest. The Netherlands has also imported KiVa's program.

Parents and educators have only to scan the headlines to realize the urgent need for an effective approach to bullying. A Tonganoxie, KS teenager was awarded $440,000 in a 2005 settlement after suffering homophobic slurs for years. Across the state line in Kansas City, MO, a 12-year-old boy killed himself in 2007 after enduring incessant taunting at his elementary school. A recent poll taken by the Kansas Bullying Prevention Program indicates that 35.1 percent of Kansan students in grades 3 to 12 are "regularly victimized by students who bully." In reply to the survey question, "How often do other students try to put a stop to it when a student is being bullied?" the answer from middle schoolers is a discouraging 12.7 percent of the time.

Finland itself hasn't been immune. In 2007, a Jokela High School student killed eight people before ending his own life, and the following year a Seinajoki University student killed ten people, and then killed himself. Both were victims of bullying.

Kids who are bullied are at high risk for depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, difficulty in trusting other people, self-destructive behavior, other psychosocial and psychiatric disorders, and, most tragically, suicide. Bullies are also at-risk: Their behavior correlates with future delinquency, alcohol abuse, and antisocial personality disorders. Bullying has also been directly linked to catastrophic school massacres around the country.

Will KiVa work in the U.S., given the differences between Finnish culture and our own? Finland is a homogeneous society, for one thing; Finnish classrooms lack the ethnic, religious, and economic diversity of their American counterparts. The Lawrence pilot project is an "audition" — but if it's as successful here as it's been in its homeland, KiVa will likely ripple across the U.S. in the biggest Finnish invasion since Nokia cell phones.



Hank Pellissier is a freelance writer whose fiction and essays have been been widely published and anthologized. A former columnist for Salon and SF Gate, he is a regular contributor to h+ Magazine.

Comments from readers

"I think any parent or teacher who thinks bullying is okay should look for another job or home school their kids.find other ways to socialize the kids. BULLYING IS NEVER OK!!!!! "
"What kind of teacher would make a comment like that about the importance of anti-bullying campaigns in school over SAT score? Oh, the kind of teacher who would ignore a child being bullied, who would turn a blind eye. Listen, Sir/Madam, even one child who ends up killing himself because he did not have advocates in teachers and parents, is one child too many. That is your answer, the life of a child is too high a price for any test score. Lord help our students. "
"My much loved old daughter tried to commit suicide at 13 because of bullying. I was bullied so much in school that it took 15 years of therapy to regain my self-esteem. Next to that my (or her) SAT scores and experimentation with "weed" are pretty small potatoes and have not negatively affected my life in the long run. Besides, alcohol and drug abuse are coping mechanisms - stop the bullying, and you address the underlying cause. "
"To the teacher who thinks bullying isn't an important issue, I am a 40 y/o woman who was bullied by other girls and boys at three different schools from age 8 to 14. I got a first-rate education, graduated from grad school, and have a full and blessed life with my own kids and husband. I had excellent teachers and I learned, but what I remember from my childhood is the bullying. I can't tell you how I learned, or what methods my teachers used to raise my test scores, and since I'm not a professional educator, I shouldn't have to. What I can tell you is that I never felt safe in the school environment and I did not trust the adults to help me. I don't want that kind of experience for my own children. I believe their teachers will do all they can to make sure my kids are well educated. But school is where our children learn social survival skills as well. Bullying is a very important issue that needs to be taken seriously. "
"Your a teacher and your making a comment Like that your statement is what parents and bullied Kids are fighting so hard to get assistance. Teachers like the way You sound don't take bullying seriously until something terrible happens Then and only then will you possibly show some concern. It should take front seat position. Schools should have assemblies and have students speak out against bullies and the parents should be involved as well so they can see what their child is doing to others! What the schools do now having peer students take control in a mediation is a waste of time! I think you being a teacher and thinking the way you do is a shame. Maybe you should go back to school and take a class or attend a support group and get involved. "
"Well, I can see the ignorant teachers have chimed in. Teachers don't want to be bothered with bullying issues, especially "Miss SAT Scores" who had to put in her two cents. But bullying AFFECTS SAT scores and school performance! It affects your precious "No Child" bonuses and it affects the student's ability to reach their full potential. And yet lazy teachers would simply not like to be bothered. If you just went into the profession to get checks and bonuses then you're in the wrong profession. Stop worrying about SAT scores and start worrying about one of the major catalysts that causes the low SAT scores in the first place! Common Sense 101! "
"No wonder bullies are flourishing - there are teachers and school official who think bullying is less of an issue than drugs or alcohol addiction in school. The BIG DIFFERENCE is that kids do not choose to be bullied. NOBODY SHOULD EVER BE SUBJECTED TO HARASSMENT. It should be treated as a personal violation, much the same way you do a criminal offense like rape/molestation, something to be dealt with immediately. Drugs and alcohol are self-inflicted and shall be treated differently through education & school programs. I know of a boy who was conscientious, diligent, polite, respectful, strictly followed rules, graduated valedictorian in high school, now suffer from fear, low self-esteem and emotional trauma many years after being bullied in middle school. Wait till you have somebody close to you die emotionally or even physically because of some kids' teasing/'s tragic "
"Everything I read about bullying relates to children being bullied by other children. What can we do about adults in the school system who bully children? School administrators are slow to respond if they respond at all. It is the adult teacher our coach against the child. The retaliation by adults is keeping this issue in the closet for many families. "
"I don't understand why bullying is becoming the most important hot button issue in education. I am a teacher, and there are so many more pressing issues among students that need funding. How about literacy (SAT reading scores for 2011 are the lowest in history) or anti-drug programs? Far more children are affected by drugs and alcohol than bullies. Look at the data before going crazy over an issue. Bullying is bad, but it should take a back seat to more pressing issues that affect much larger numbers of students. "
"Maybe this program should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize next year... "