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What Limits the Effectiveness of Anti-bullying Programs? A Thematic Analysis of the Perspective of Teachers

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Abstract

Prevention programs yield modest reductions in bullying in North American schools. This study explored the perspective of educators regarding factors limiting the impact of these initiatives. Transcripts from nineteen 90-min focus groups with 103 educators were coded thematically. Educators felt that off-site incidents, cyberbullying, and the growing involvement of boys in psychologically aggressive incidents have increased the complexity of bullying. Curriculum demands limit time for training, implementation, and prompt responses to bullying. Principals failing to back teachers up, ambivalent colleagues, uncooperative parents, and a lack of evidence reduce their commitment to implementation. Promising programs are discontinued in favor of new initiatives. Some educators modified programs; others, feeling frustrated and discouraged, struggled to mobilize the enthusiasm needed to ensure successful implementation. Dealing with bullying in the face of limited time, training, and support may increase emotional exhaustion and compromise program effectiveness.
What Limits the Effectiveness of Antibullying
Programs? A Thematic Analysis of the
Perspective of Teachers
CHARLES E. CUNNINGHAM, HEATHER RIMAS, STEPHANIE MIELKO,
and CAILIN MAPP
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario,
Canada
LESLEY CUNNINGHAM and DON BUCHANAN
Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
TRACY VAILLANCOURT
Department of Counseling, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
YVONNE CHEN
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences, McMaster University, Hamilton,
Ontario, Canada
KEN DEAL
Department of International Marketing and Health Services Management, McMaster Univer-
sity, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
MADALYN MARCUS
WaterStone Clinic, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Prevention programs yield modest reductions in bullying in North
American schools. This study explored the perspective of educators
regarding factors limiting the impact of these initiatives. Transcripts
© Charles E. Cunningham, Heather Rimas, Stephanie Mielko, Cailin Mapp, Lesley Cunning-
ham, Don Buchanan, Tracy Vaillancourt, Yvonne Chen, Ken Deal, and Madalyn Marcus
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-
nc-nd/4.0/), which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any
medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built
upon in any way.
Received March 4, 2015; accepted September 14, 2015.
Address correspondence to Charles E. Cunningham, Department of Psychiatry and Beha-
vioural Sciences, McMaster Childrens Hospital, Ron Joyce Childrens Health Centre, 237 Barton
St. East, Hamilton, Ontario L8L 2X2, Canada. Email: cunnic@hhsc.ca
Journal of School Violence, 15:460482, 2016
Published with license by Taylor & Francis
ISSN: 1538-8220 print/1538-8239 online
DOI: 10.1080/15388220.2015.1095100
460
from nineteen 90-min focus groupswith103educatorswerecoded
thematically. Educators felt that off-site incidents, cyberbullying, and
the growing involvement of boys in psychologically aggressive incidents
have increased the complexity of bullying. Curriculum demands limit
time for training, implementation, and prompt responses to bullying.
Principals failing to back teachers up, ambivalent colleagues, unco-
operative parents, and a lack of evidencereducetheircommitmentto
implementation. Promising programs are discontinued in favor of new
initiatives. Some educators modified programs; others, feeling fru-
strated and discouraged, struggled to mobilize the enthusiasm needed
to ensure successful implementation. Dealing with bullying in the face
of limited time, training, and support may increase emotional exhaus-
tion and compromise program effectiveness.
KEYWORDS bullying, prevention, psychological reactance, quali-
tative methods
Bullying has been defined as an intentional, repeated, physical, verbal, social,
or electronically aggressive act by an individual or group directed at a person
without the power to defend themselves (Olweus, 1994; Vaillancourt et al.,
2008). In a meta-analytic review of 80 studies 36% of children ages
1218 years reported victimization by their peers (Modecki, Minchin,
Harbaugh, Guerra, & Runions, 2014). Bullying in North American schools is,
in comparison to the levels reported in Scandinavia, relatively high (Craig
et al., 2009; UNICEF Office of Research, 2013). The impact of this problem is
reflected in longitudinal studies reporting that involvement in bullying as
either a victim or perpetrator is associated with a significant increase in health
and mental health problems (Fekkes, Pijpers, Fredriks, Vogels, & Verloove-
Vanhorick, 2006; Rudolph, Troop-Gordon, Hessel, & Schmidt, 2011).
Despite a growing body of research on the effectiveness of antibullying
programs, bullying and victimization in schools remain significant public health
concerns (Craig et al., 2009; Modecki et al., 2014; Perlus, Brooks-Russell, Wang,
&Iannotti,2014; UNICEF Office of Research, 2013). Systematic reviews and
meta-analyses show that antibullying programs have, on average, contributed to
very modest reductions in bullying and victimization (Ferguson, Miguel,
Kilburn, & Sanchez, 2007; Merrell, Gueldner, Ross, & Isava, 2008; Vreeman &
Carroll, 2007), particularly in North American schools (Ttofi & Farrington, 2011).
Indeed, the effectiveness of these interventions in more rigorous randomized
trials is not statistically significant (Ttofi & Farrington, 2011). A within-study
meta-analysis suggests that, although these programs may yield positive out-
comes with younger students, their effectiveness declines during the middle
school years (Yeager, Fong, Lee, & Espelage, 2015). Meta-analyses suggest that
lack of monitoring, ineffective consequences, and a failure to engage parents
What Limits the Effectiveness of Antibullying Programs 461
are associated with reductions in the impact of these programs (Ttofi & Far-
rington, 2011). Studies examining the implementation of a broader range of
evidence-based socialemotional learning programs suggest that local participa-
tion in program selection, standardization, a focus on skills and supportive
environments, effective training, and administrative support may contribute to
the successful implementation of antibullying programs (Greenberg et al., 2003;
Payne, Gottfredson, & Gottfredson, 2006). Although many socialemotional
learning programs have, individually, proven effective, Greenberg and collea-
gues argued that a lack of coordination among prevention initiatives and
competing curriculum demands may limit their impact (Greenberg et al., 2003).
The Current Study
Although meta-analyses point to design factors that may limit the effectiveness
of antibullying programs, there is a need for further research addressing
this issue (Espelage, 2013; Swearer, Espelage, Vaillancourt, & Hymel, 2010).
Apparent age-related declines in the effectiveness of antibullying programs are
of particular concern (Yeager et al., 2015). Although investigators have specu-
lated regarding this finding, it is not well understood (Yeager et al., 2015).
This study was conducted as one component of a mixed-method project
(Hong & Espelage, 2012) employing qualitative (focus groups) and quantitative
methods (discrete choice conjoint experiments) to understand the views of
educators regarding factors limiting the effectiveness of antibullying programs.
The perspective of students, who may view antibullying programs less favorably
than teachers (Crothers & Kolbert, 2004), is the focus of a previous study (Cun-
ningham, Cunningham, Ratcliffe, & Vaillancourt, 2010) and a separate article
(Cunningham et al., 2015). Qualitative methods represent a valuable component
of a more comprehensive approach to the analysis of educational interventions
(Hong & Espelage, 2012). Focus groups, for example, provide the flexibility to
conduct an in-depth exploration of moderating or mediating processes that may
influence the implementation and effectiveness of antibullying programs. In con-
trast to quantitative studies, which are typically designed to address hypotheses of
a priori interest to investigators, the inductive methods adopted in qualitative
studies are more likely to identify issues of relevance to participants and to detect
processes that may not be captured in quantitative measures. Qualitative
approaches are a method of choice for identifying measures that should be
included in the quantitative stage of mixed-method projects (Bridges et al., 2011).
Educators who are responsible for the implementation of school-based anti-
bullying initiatives (Strohmeier & Noam, 2012) bring an important perspective to
the program development and improvement process. Educators are in a position to
determine the acceptability of the different components of antibullying initiatives,
anticipate barriers to the introduction of new programs, discuss the extent to which
the components of antibullying programs were actually implemented, identify
antibullying activities that may be ineffective, or provide insight into the ways in
462 C. E. Cunningham et al.
which the response of educators and students may support or undermine these
initiatives. Educators can provide input on organizational processes that may not be
apparent to investigators and comment on the mechanisms via which psychologi-
cal constructs such as self-efficacy and emotional exhaustion may influence their
response to the antibullying programs in their schools (Feuerhahn, Bellingrath, &
Kudielka, 2013;Schwarzer&Hallum,2008).
We conducted a thematic analysis of focus group discussions exploring
three general questions. First, what factors do teachers feel are limiting the
effectiveness of their efforts to reduce bullying in their schools? Second, how
do teachers respond to these limiting factors? Third, how does their response
influence the effectiveness of antibullying initiatives.
METHODS
Participants
This project was approved by the Faculty of Health Sciences Research Ethics Board
and the review panels of the participating boards of education. To ensure our
sample captured the social and economic diversity of the region, we grouped the
public and Catholic schools in a moderate-sized central Canadian community into
quadrants based on the social demography of the immediate neighborhood in
which schools were located. We selected a stratified random sample of 21 JK
Grade8orGrade68 schools (JK = Junior Kindergarten ages 3 to 5). Table 1 shows
considerable variation in the social and economic characteristics of the neighbor-
hood of participating schools. A member of the team contacted the principals to
determine their willingness for their school to participate. Of 21 schools selected, 18
principals (15 JKGrade 8, 3 Grade 68) agreed to participate and forwarded a
recruitment letter to teachers and educational assistants. Our focus on these grades
reflected the broader context of a research program that included a study of the
perceptions of students in Grades 58 regarding factors limiting the effectiveness of
anti-bullying programs. Of 118 teachers who volunteered to participate, 103 (17
men and 86 women) signed an informed consent and participated in a group.
Focus Group Procedures
Focus groups were scheduled from 4:005:30 pm and 7:008:30 pm at a
university hospital location. Experienced facilitators conducted nineteen
90-min groups according to a structured interview guide. A second member
of the research team assisted with the conduct of groups and recorded
observations. Participants completed written informed consents assuring con-
fidentiality and the right to withdraw at any time. Discussions were recorded
with Sony (ICD-DX 312) or Olympus (VN-3100PC) digital audio recorders
equipped with external microphones. Groups began with a review of the
What Limits the Effectiveness of Antibullying Programs 463
TABLE 1 Neighborhood Demographics of Participating Schools
Variables
School/
grade
level Median income
Percentage of
immigrants
High school
dropouts
Single-mother
families
Children below
poverty line
Psychiatric-related
ER visits
R N R % R N* R % R % R N* Overall rank
2
1 (JK8) 5 45,724 4 17.5 1 155.0 2 18.6 2 31.6 2 22.2 5
2(68) 4 49,980 1 37.4 3 61.5 4 12.5 3 19.1 2 19.3 5
3(68) 4 50,904 1 34.5 2 76.0 1 22.1 1 35.3 4 13.2 4
4(68) 4 54,494 2 27.6 3 62.9 1 24.2 1 33.8 4 12.9 3
5 (JK8) 4 54,627 2 28.4 2 67.9 2 20.8 2 23.0 2 17.2 4
6 (JK8) 4 55,276 4 16.7 3 62.3 2 17.8 3 13.0 2 17.6 3
7 (JK8) 3 59,669 3 24.5 5 22.9 3 14.5 2 20.3 3 13.7 4
8 (JK8) 3 65,233 1 43.4 4 48.9 4 12.6 4 9.0 3 13.7 2
9 (JK8) 3 68,756 2 27.7 2 76.2 5 7.2 4 8.3 3 17.1 4
10 (JK8) 2 73,276 3 26.8 4 46.7 4 10.8 5 0.0 4 9.6 2
11 (JK8) 1 82,045 4 18.4 5 19.8 3 14.8 4 10.1 4 12.4 2
12 (JK8) 1 84,575 1 38.7 3 60.9 5 6.7 5 0.0 4 9.7 2
13 (JK8) 1 88,843 5 11.4 4 50.0 5 6.8 5 5.6 4 9.7 1
14 (JK8) 1 89,874 3 21.8 5 25.0 5 7.1 5 5.9 5 5.4 1
15 (JK8) 1 100,692 5 14.1 3 53.2 5 9.1 5 6.0 5 6.7 1
16 (JK8) 1 104,950 2 29.0 4 38.1 5 6.7 4 7.1 5 6.0 1
17 (JK8) 1 109,626 5 11.4 4 34.2 5 4.7 5 1.3 5 8.9 1
18 (JK8) 1 112,506 4 18.4 5 28.6 5 8.1 5 3.3 5 6.6 1
Note. Adapted from DeLuca, Johnston, and Buist (2012). R = Quintile ranking of each school (1 = highest, 2 = high, 3 = middle, 4 = low, 5 = lowest); N* = rate per 1,000;
overall rank = quintile ranking on a composite variable based on 24 health, education, and demographic measures. JK = Junior Kindergarten (ages 3 to 5).
464
Ontario Ministry of Educations definition of bullying (http://www.edu.gov.on.
ca/extra/eng/ppm/144.pdf). Next, educators were encouraged to discuss the
antibullying programs conducted in their schools (Can anyone give us an
example of something that schools are doing to stop bullying?). The interview
guide suggested prompts to encourage participation (What do others think
about this?) and in-depth exploration (Could you tell us a little more about
this example?). Next, participants explored factors that enhanced or limited
the effectiveness of antibullying programs (Can anyone think of an example
of something that educators do that helps antibullying programs work
better?). Participants received a $50.00 gift certificate and a parking pass.
Data Analysis
We adopted an approach based on thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006). A
team composed of researchers with content expertise, qualitative analysts, repre-
sentatives of the educational system with responsibility for program implementa-
tion and dissemination, and several members who were parents of school-age
children ensured data analysis and interpretation was informed by a diverse range
of views (Braun & Clarke, 2006). We began by identifying biases that might
influence our analysis and interpretation of the data (Braun & Clarke, 2006). Several
membersoftheteam,forexample,hadbeeninvolvedinschoolwideapproaches
to the promotion of social competence. During the development of the coding
system and the analysis of transcripts, we made an effort to suspend or limit the
influence of these views (Braun & Clarke, 2006;Gearing,2004). Recordings were
transcribed verbatim without identifying information. Three members of the
research team read all transcripts and identified preliminary themes. Rather than
imposing an a priori model, codes were generated inductively (Braun & Clarke,
2006). The analytic team met to discuss emerging themes, define codes, and draft a
coding manual. Code definitions were incorporated as properties in NVivo 10.
Digital copies of transcripts were entered into NVivo-10 with groups represented as
individual sources. Overarching themes were entered as parent nodes; individual
codes as child nodes. Before coding commenced, each coder reached a minimum
criterion of 85% agreement with a series of standard training transcripts. During the
coding stage of the study, twice-monthly reliability checks against standardized
transcripts averaged 94.5%. Each theme included in the manuscript was linked to
supporting quotes; the three members of the data analytic team reached a con-
sensus that each was consistent with the text (Braun & Clarke, 2006). As an
operational measure of recurrent themes (Patton, 2002), the number of focus
groups in which each theme was coded was obtained from NVivo-10.
RESULTS
Although educators discussed components of antibullying programs that they
believed to be promising, our focus in this article is on their perspective
What Limits the Effectiveness of Antibullying Programs 465
regarding factors reducing the effectiveness of antibullying programs, their
response to these limitations, and the potential impact of their responses on
these initiatives.
Bullying is Becoming More Complex and Difficult to Detect
The observation that bullying is becoming more difficult to detect, complex,
and challenging for educators to deal with emerged in 16 of the studys19
focus groups. Bullying occurring off school property, for example, posed
considerable difficulty:
Because theyre not doing it out on the playground anymore, theyre
doing it on the way to school or on the way home after school, when
were not around, they just work harder at being better at it and not getting
caught.
Social media platforms have added an additional layer of complexity to
the detection and solution of bullying problems: It used to happen in the
playground in the schoolyard, but now it gets dragged home. It gets thrown
up on Facebook. It gets all around the neighborhood quite quickly so its not
just something that stays at school.
In addition to the challenge of responding to bullying occurring in
different locations or electronic environments, several groups noted that
boys involved as perpetrators are employing an increasingly versatile range
of aggressive tactics. In contrast to physical bullying, these incidents are
more difficult to detect and respond to: As a system, we are not allowing
boys to be boys. So, now they are becoming more calculating, more
vicious, and they are doing things to each other, and to the girls, under
the surface.Similarly:
And one of the male teachers he noticed boys are more physical
when theyre dealing with an issue, girls are more psychological when
theyre dealing with an issue. Hes noticing now that were really putting
the lid on the physical, aggressive side to the boys, that theyre starting to
figure out other ways of dealing with their bullying issue. And theyre
starting to learn the psychological part. And all of a sudden its like, jeez,
we have opened another can of worms.
This comment reflected a recurring concern that efforts to reduce bullying
may inadvertently compound the problem:
They get sneakier too, when you try to watch and supervise and handle it
then they just go deeper down. So that is another way where maybe some
of the things that we try to do can actually make it worse.
466 C. E. Cunningham et al.
Similarly, I dont know, sometimes the efforts that we make to stop
something can make it worse, maybe just for a short time, but, it can some-
times kind of put wood on the fire.
Design Factors Limiting the Impact of Antibullying Programs
Educators in 15 groups critiqued the design and delivery of antibullying
materials:
I think sometimes when these presentations come in, it is above the kids,
it is dry, and they are talking at them instead of to them. You can already
see the disengage thats happening so its frustrating to you as an educator
because you know the message that theyre trying to purvey is one that
these children need to be exposed to, but theyre just going about it in the
wrong way.
In 16 of 19 groups, educators argued more specifically that the failure to
adapt the developmental level of antibullying activities limited their applica-
tion across grades: But, in our case, it might work for our group, because its
younger, but I think when they get into the older groups, it may not work that
way.A number of educators described an age-linked reduction in the effec-
tiveness of antibullying programs: The little ones will carry it, but the bigger
ones will just be like, nah, yah, whatever.They kind of brush it off unless its
like a constant every day.Another noted: I really feel Grade 5 is sort of the
pivoting point. And then by the time they get to Grade 8, I dont know what
happens.Similarly:
My experience around that has been with the younger kids, it seems to
work better. With the older kids, theres sort of that still, I dont know how
to describe it. Theyre level of understanding is higher but the empathy,
the sympathy, is still not always there.
Others felt that programs for older students should shift to a more active
problem-based process:
Yeah and I think with the Grade 8 and Grade 7 boys, its more not sitting
them down in a circle and saying how do you feel about that because that
definitely wouldnt work. Its like, okay guys. Lets come up with a
solution, giving them that ownership. Like whats going on here?Com-
ing down to their level, talking their language.
Some attributed the reluctance of older students to participate in anti-
bullying activities to the influence of peers: A Grade 7 boy may not want to
show the empathy that he really truly has because of peer pressure.Another
What Limits the Effectiveness of Antibullying Programs 467
attributed age-linked reductions in the effectiveness of anti-bullying programs
to shifts in the motivational influence of teachers and peers:
But I think it has to do with peers. Peers are their number one influence
at that age its not cool to try and impress your teacher all the time.
Whereas the younger kids, if they think theyre making you proud by
following these rules.
Others suspected older students reacted to the repetitiveness of programs
that failed to adjust their content or learning process over the course of the
elementary and junior years:
I guess it can be just as simple as they disengage, and they shut down from
what youre saying. Year after year theyre told the same thing, and by the time
theygetuptoGrades7and8theyre like Oh, this again, this bullying
presentation or this conversation were having. Can we just do something else?
Implementation Factors Limiting the Impact of Antibullying Programs
Top-down selection and imposition of antibullying programs, lack of support-
ing evidence, insufficient training, inadequate time to implement antibullying
initiatives, and lack of longer-term maintenance limited the impact of poten-
tially effective initiatives.
TOP-DOWN DEVELOPMENT AND IMPLEMENTATION
Participants in 10 groups thought administrative imposition of antibullying
programs reduced the support needed to implement initiatives successfully:
Sometimes from higher up will implement something and you wont agree
with it. Just like that, and then you have a divide in your school. People
agree. People dont agree. You lose the community, the school commu-
nity feeling, but then the kids get it. If youre not into it, if youre pretend-
ing, they know. They will pick that up.
Similarly:
I think it works better bottom up than top down. If you involve people in
the program, the development of the program, the delivery of the pro-
gram, and assessing how its going, its much more successful than if your
boss just comes in and says [].
Others were angered by top-down implementation processes: All tea-
chers who are told to do anything are angry, nobody wants to be told, dont
468 C. E. Cunningham et al.
tell me to do anything.Although some sought active involvement in the
program decision making and implementation process, others preferred
clear directives regarding program design and implementation:
Yeah, I can be on a team that helps the antibullying program but I cant
develop it. I cannot develop it, I can implement it, I cannot develop it, it
has to be, you know what. Tell me what to do, we can talk about it, but
you get it out there, you talk about it, you enforce it, you make the
announcements, you put it in the bulletin.
LACK OF SUPPORTING EVIDENCE
In 16 of 19 groups, educators felt that they were not provided with convincing
evidence regarding the effectiveness of antibullying programs or that their
experience provided little indication that bullying was actually declining:
I think maybe some of us would be more prone to use it if there were
research and statistics behind it, and perhaps there are that I havent been
made aware of. But, if there was a group that was followed from the time
they were in Kindergarten or Grade 1, and now theyre in Grade 10 and
incidences of bullying have decreased by a certain percentage I think,
without knowing its efficacy and seeing the same people over and over
again, for us, its just a burden, and with little benefit.
As another participant noted:
It gets kind of put on our plate and were going okay, you know, how do
you know what works over there is gonna work over here, but they dont
have the stats for it. They just say do it.
Educators were also reluctant to implement programs having little appar-
ent impact:
Idont have any tracking record of its effectiveness, but just through obser-
vation, it was difficult for me to confidently tell somebody, yes, I feel this
program works. When, time and time again, the same students were the
ones that I had to take curriculum time away from, or my class was left to
independently read or to do a couple of extra practice questions, when I
really wanted to be doing the lesson I was supposed to be doing.
IMPLEMENTATION TRAINING
In 10 groups educators expressed concern that the staff who implemented
antibullying programs were not adequately trained:
It was simple, basic, quick, fast and like we said, originally it was a four-
day pull-out all day training to a half day, your class is still there and you
What Limits the Effectiveness of Antibullying Programs 469
know your mind is really not here. And in a half day you have no books,
there are no books, no resources were ever bought for anybody new. Its
up to you to go borrow from the staff who were originally trained.
Educators were concerned that, although training was available when a
program was first introduced, the School Boards commitment to implementa-
tion support declined over time: We were lucky that there was more funding
then, and we had days, weeks really. Now theres a kit for each school, but
theres not a lot of time to do it.Although staff present at the introduction of
the program often benefited from more extensive training, the availability of
training for new staff was limited: So the staff were trained the way we were,
the original staff, I should say that properly but since then, weve grown
exponentially and three quarters of the staff is not trained.
TIME ALLOCATED TO IMPLEMENTATION
In 18 of 19 focus groups, participants concluded that competing time demands
imposed by the provincial curriculum limited the extent to which educators
were able implement potentially successful antibullying initiatives:
I know some teachers feel like there is so much on their plate already,
that is one extra thing that you have to teach but I think that it is so
important to teach that because it is all part of the good atmosphere in a
school.
Similarly:
I think we are pressed for time. Its not that you dont want to address it
I really need to teach another strand of that so I dont have time for this. I
dont think its ill intended. I think its honestly that theres a lot of pressure.
Weve got curriculum to cover.
Another participant noted:
The programs can be made a little less effective, not so much by students
but by the time factor. There are times when something happens in the
yard, and I would really love to delve into it, but there are two classes
waiting for me.
POTENTIALLY SUCCESSFUL PROGRAMS ARE NOT SUSTAINED
In 14 of 19 groups, educators noted that schools failed to extend promising
initiatives across grades, apply programs consistently across schools, or sus-
tain potentially successful antibullying programs:
470 C. E. Cunningham et al.
Another issue from a teaching perspective, is that our board jumps on
band wagon, after band wagon, after band wagon. So, its the same
stuff that we grew up with, but they call it something different. And, that
didnt work last year, so lets try this this year were just not giving any
one thing enough time to work.
This participant reached a similar conclusion:
I know Ive been at several schools I find sometime we dont stick with
something long enough and a new thing or a new term or a new flavor of
the week comes along. You know what I mean? See something through.
Things dont happen overnight.
Limitations in Monitoring and Disciplinary Infrastructure
In addition to limitations in the program design and implementation process,
educators questioned the supervisory and disciplinary infrastructure in which
antibullying programs were embedded.
MONITORING
In 13 of 19 groups, educators expressed concern that schools were not
providing the level of monitoring needed to detect bullying in the settings
where it was most likely to occur. For example:
We have [two socio-emotional learning programs] but its a matter of
keeping an eye of the students outside, in the classroom, in the hallways,
and trying to prevent these things. Unfortunately though its there, it still
happens, and we dont see it.
Some questioned the number of educators monitoring playgrounds: And
we have two staff members on duty for a large playground and there are lots
of spots that if two people on our big field, what is happening in those
opposite two corners right?Another noted:
I think the hardest part with all these programs and with bullying is that a
lot of times it doesnt happen in front of us, the teachers. It happens out
there in playground, in the class when were not looking.
MEANINGFUL CONSEQUENCES
In 15 of 19 groups, educators expressed concern that when bullying was
actually detected or brought to the attention of educators, the consequences
for students involved as perpetrators were sometimes inadequate: For
What Limits the Effectiveness of Antibullying Programs 471
example: I think sometimes certain incidents arent necessarily taken as
seriously as I think they should be, and I know other staff members feel the
same and that there are not always consequences for actions of some stu-
dents.Another participant noted:
Like I personally have never sent a student to the office in 13 years of
teaching, but I just dont find it effective, cause I saw when I was in the
inner city what happened. Kids went to the office and they just hung about
there all day and had fun in the office. So, okay, thats not gonna work.
This educator argued, Theres a lot of discussion and theres a lot of
sharing of feelings and thoughts, and a lot of children are smart enough to
realize, well, okay, thats it.Educators were particularly critical of conse-
quences involving suspensions. Nowadays, you give a child a suspension,
hey, thats a holiday, I dont have to go to school.
Limitations in Social and Administrative Support
ADMINISTRATIVE BACK-UP
In 16 of the studys 19 focus groups, educators argued that a lack of admin-
istrative support compromised the implementation of antibullying programs:
If the principal doesnt buy into it youre not going to get everybody on
board, because youre always going to have a reluctant people to start it.
Principals also provide important back-up to educators responding to bullying
episodes and working with the parents of students involved in serious inci-
dents: The problem at our school, and this is where all of us are starting to
really feel like we just our principal just doesnt have our back.In addition
to being a source of frustration, participants suggested that a failure of admin-
istrative back-up could affect programs by reducing student participation:
Well, the other students see that as well, if the principals [sic] not doing
anything about it how can I do something about it?
COLLEAGUE SUPPORT
Educators said the extent to which their colleagues supported the schools
antibullying program influenced their commitment to these initiatives and the
ultimate success of the program: There will be recidivism no matter what if
you do not have the entire staff on board, right, along with students.As
another educator noted, If youve got a dynamic, a positive dynamic in a
staff, then people will buy into the program; and if youve got a negative
influence, then those kind of programs will never work.This theme emerged
in 12 groups.
472 C. E. Cunningham et al.
PARENTAL SUPPORT
Educators felt that a lack of support from the parents of some students involved
as perpetrators compromised the implementation of antibullying programs and
reduced their commitment to these initiatives. This theme emerged in 17 of 19
focus groups. As one educator noted, Where Ive found it hardest is when
someone who frequently bullies other kids its a real challenge if their parents
arent onboard to try to help the situation, and the majority of the time theyre
not.This educator, for example, described the following situation:
And he looked both the principal and the VP in the face, and he goes, my
mom says I dont have to apologize, theyre just empty words, anyway.
And theyre like, okay, what do you think you could do to make this
person feel better if you dont feel like apologizing for it? And it was kind
of like, blank stare, I dont have to do anything, and you cantmakemedo
anything, because my mom says you cant. And Im underage, so you cant
even call the police. So, all this came out, and its like you know there is
absolutely zero support at home for their own child, and for the children
he works with, and the staff that he deals with at school, because then
where do you go? Where do you go from there?
STUDENT SUPPORT
In 10 of 19 groups, participants noted that students sometimes refused to
cooperate with or threatened teachers attempting to deal with bullying epi-
sodes: Or adults in the building are pretty powerless because I mean, I
had somebody in gradekindergarten say to me dont touch me, ImIm
going to get my parents to sue you.Another participant noted: And if you
even try to curb that, my mother will be in, or my mother, the police officer,
will be in, and you will be sued.Teachers felt that intimidation by students
and parents exerted a chilling effect on their efforts to intervene:
So, I have to admit that there have been times when I would have maybe
intervened a little more with a particular person whos bullying, but I
know full well its going to end up with me being bullied, or the child is
going to be laughing at me.
How Do Teachers Respond?
In all 19 focus groups, participants reported that, despite limitations in the time
available to master and introduce antibullying initiatives, difficulty detecting
improvement, and a lack of support from administrators, colleagues, and
parents, educators did their best to implement antibullying initiatives.
What Limits the Effectiveness of Antibullying Programs 473
MODIFYING ANTIBULLYING PROGRAMS
In 11 of 19 groups educators acknowledged that, given the complexity of
some programs, and the limited time available, they introduced modifications
and short cuts: But anything like you said that comes with a manual and a CD
and I have to forget it, I wont do it. You know Ill do my own version of it
which is more practical.Others dealt with time conflicts by discontinuing key
components of these programs:
So we dont have the chance toto get thethe parties that are involved
in ain a situation, we wont get the chance to get them to sit down and
show them the effects of what bullying is and all the different people, the
chain reaction from bullying. So, that part, thats what we miss, thats what
were not getting, thats what were not doing.
SELECTIVE INTERVENTION
In 11 of 19 groups, educators felt that competing curriculum demands some-
times prevented them from responding to students requesting help:
Sometimes the kids will come in and say can we have a circle because we
have really problems outside. And sometimes you actually say, no,
because IveIve got three strands of math to do before the June report
cards and I dont have time to sit and chat about this.
Some justified their inability to respond by down-playing the severity of
bullying episodes: I think sometimes we just put off the situation or say come
on guys, get along.Similarly:
I think sometimes bullying can get brushed aside because of that, oh, they
arejustteasing.Justdont listen. They will just walk away,Exactly. Because
I just feel like some of the things seem very menial to teachers maybe.
COGNITIVE AND EMOTIONAL COMMITMENT
In 16 of 19 groups, faced with limitations in training, time, and administrative
support, educators found it difficult to mobilize the energy and commitment
required to implement antibullying programs successfully:
So any like things that require additional time out of an already stacked
curriculum make it very difficult for teachers to implement and implement
properly and implement with passion and implement like they care about
it, because its just like I got to get this done. Its hard to embrace.
Another participant noted, As a teacher or as a facilitator, you have to be
a believer if you cant project it, if you dont believe it, then it doesnt work,
474 C. E. Cunningham et al.
or it might not work if youre not a believer.Other educators found them-
selves frustrated and discouraged:
It affects all of us in a negative way. Were starting to feel like, why bother
doing the paperwork? Why bother, because nothing is going to get done,
and were only three months in, and were starting to roll our eyes.
Similarly: But, I think you can become jaded after a while. If your
experience, like you said, has not been positive and you go from school to
school and you dont see it working but you just see different names.And
finally, It makes you cynical. It gets to the point where youre just, whats the
point?
DISCUSSION
It doesnt matter how effective or ineffective you find certain features, say a
current bullying prevention program, but if youre not given the time and the
administrative support to back it up, nothings going to work. (Educator)
The effectiveness of antibullying programs in North American schools has
been limited (Ttofi & Farrington, 2011). Programs that reduce bullying and
victimization in the early grades, moreover, may not be effective for older
students (Yeager et al., 2015). This study used qualitative methods to explore
the perspective of educators regarding factors contributing to the poor per-
formance of these programs. Educators felt that off-site incidents, 24/7 access
to Internet-based social media platforms where cyberbullying often occurs,
and the tendency of boys to adopt more psychologically and relationally
aggressive tactics have increased the complexity of bullying. Although some
programs were promising, weaknesses in program design, limitations in the
time and training needed to implement new initiatives, ineffective monitoring
and disciplinary responses, lack of colleague support and administrative back-
up, and uncooperative parents limit their ability to address this very troubling
problem. We consider these issues next.
Design Factors Limiting the Impact of Antibullying Programs
Many educators felt that the effectiveness of antibullying programs declined
during the junior to middle school years, an observation consistent with the
results of meta-analyses (Yeager et al., 2015). From a design perspective,
educators attributed this to repetitive materials and presentations, antibullying
activities inconsistent with student preferences (e.g., a reluctance to share
feelings or display empathy), the failure to engage students in problem-
solving processes that contributed to a sense of ownership, programs relying
What Limits the Effectiveness of Antibullying Programs 475
on the declining motivational influence of teachers, and failure to capitalize on
the growing importance of peer group norms.
Implementation Factors Limiting the Impact of Antibullying Programs
Although some participants preferred antibullying programs mandated by
their school board, others responded negatively to implementation processes
that failed to engage educators in program selection and development. This
finding is consistent with latent class analyses suggesting that, although some
educators prefer antibullying programs selected centrally by their school
boards, a segment of decision-sensitiveeducators (31% of those participat-
ing) preferred school-based decisions (Cunningham et al., 2009). These
findings should be seen in the context of a broader set studies finding local
participation in program selection and development linked to improvements
in the implementation of prevention programs (Payne et al., 2006). The
negative response of some educators is consistent with psychological reac-
tance theorys prediction that prevention programs restricting choice may elicit
emotional responses, negative cognitions, and efforts to reassert decision
control (Quick, 2013).
Participants questioned the effectiveness of the antibullying training avail-
able to teachers. They wondered, for example, whether the duration of the
training they received was adequate. This concern is supported by studies
linking extended training to improved program implementation (Boulton,
2014). Teachers in the current study also felt that inadequate longer-term
training and support compromised the sustained implementation of antibully-
ing programs. Potentially effective programs were not extended to all classes
and schools, were allowed to fade, or discontinued in the hope that new
initiatives would improve outcomes. In reviewing the result of meta-analyses,
Ttofi and Farrington (2011) concluded that, Our findings show that programs
need to be intensive and long-lasting to have an impact on this troubling
problem(p. 45).
Limitations in Monitoring and Disciplinary Infrastructure
The teachers participating in this study felt that the disciplinary consequences
for perpetrators were inconsistent and inadequate. Inconsistency in the
administration of consequences was attributed to factors ranging from an
effort to accommodate exceptional pupils to intimidation by students and
their parents. Teachers believed that inconsistent or ineffective administrative
consequences encouraged perpetrators, discouraged students from reporting
bullying or seeking help, and reduced the likelihood that educators would
attempt to deal with similar incidents in the future. This observation is
consistent with the views of students who contend that ineffective
476 C. E. Cunningham et al.
consequences embolden perpetrators and discourage victims from seeking
help (Cunningham et al., 2015). This view is supported by systematic reviews
concluding that firm and consistent consequencesfor perpetrators contri-
bute to the effectiveness of anti-bullying programs (Ttofi & Farrington, 2011).
Although choice studies show that students prefer antibullying programs that
combine preventive activities with moderate consequences for bullying, the
introduction of more punitive options reduces the support of students
involved as either victims or perpetrators (Cunningham, Vaillancourt,
Cunningham, Chen, & Ratcliffe, 2011).
Limitations in Social and Administrative Support
Educators felt that the implementation of antibullying initiatives, and their
ability to deal with complex bullying episodes, was influenced by the commit-
ment and support of colleagues and principals. This observation is consistent
with modeling studies suggesting that educators prefer antibullying programs
supported by at least 75% of their colleagues (Cunningham et al., 2009). These
findings suggest that a relatively small group of educators could undermine
the broader commitment needed to implement these initiatives. The partici-
pants in this study, moreover, suggest that because students are sensitive to
the attitudes of their teachers, the potentially counterproductive effects of
limited collegial support will be compounded.
Attempts to engage the parents of students alleged to be involved in
bullying episodes were a source of considerable stress. This finding is con-
sistent with studies linking difficult relationships with parents to depersonali-
zation and burnout among teachers (Skaalvik & Skaalvik, 2009). Teachers
feeling threatened by students or parents were particularly troubled when
principals failed to provide adequate back-up, an observation consistent with
studies linking limited principal support to burnout and emotional exhaustion
(Skaalvik & Skaalvik, 2011). Social support and self-efficacy represent impor-
tant buffers between interpersonal conflicts with students and parents, and
the emotional exhaustion which is common among teaching professionals
(Feuerhahn et al., 2013).
How Do Educators Respond?
The conflict between an increasingly complex problem, and the limitations in
time, training, and support that were available had a significant impact on the
educators participating in this study. Some responded by modifying antibully-
ing programs or implementing components of the program as time and
curriculum demands allowed. Although these educators were, despite
resource limitations, attempting to respond to a complex problem, systematic
reviews suggest that selective implementation would reduce the effectiveness
What Limits the Effectiveness of Antibullying Programs 477
of anti-bullying initiatives (Durlak & DuPre, 2008). In a study of the outcome
of a Finnish antibullying program intervention effects were largely restricted
to schools evidencing a high degree of implementation of the program
(Salmivalli, Kaukiainen, & Voeten, 2005).
Finally, in the absence of adequate training and support, educators became
frustrated and discouraged. They found it difficult to devote the energy and
enthusiasm needed to ensure the success of these programs. These findings are
consistent with studies linking student behavior problems to emotional exhaus-
tion among teachers (Skaalvik & Skaalvik, 2011; Tsouloupas, Carson, Matthews,
Grawitch, & Barber, 2010). The effect of student behavior on emotional exhaus-
tion among teachers appears to be mediated by self-efficacy, the perception of
teachers as to their ability to deal with these problems (Tsouloupas et al., 2010).
Teacher self-efficacy has also been linked to burnout (Schwarzer & Hallum,
2008; Skaalvik & Skaalvik, 2007) which appears to be a mechanism via which
high demands (e.g., student behavior problems, workloads, and the quality of
the physical work setting) translate into health problems among teachers
(Hakanen, Bakker, & Schaufeli, 2006). A closely related component of burnout,
emotional exhaustion, has been linked to lower job satisfaction and an increase
in the desire to leave the field (Skaalvik & Skaalvik, 2011).
Strengths and Limitations
We studied the perspective of relatively large group of elementary and middle
school educators in a moderate-sized central Canadian region. It could be
argued that the conclusions of qualitative studies are specific to the context in
which they were conducted (Patton, 2002). International differences in both
the prevalence of bullying (Craig et al., 2009; UNICEF Office of Research,
2013) and the apparent effectiveness of anti-bullying programs (Ttofi &
Farrington, 2011) suggest the need for replication.
This study represents one component of a project that includes both
qualitative and quantitative studies of the views of students and educators
regarding the design of antibullying programs. Using discrete choice conjoint
experiments (Cunningham et al., 2009,2011), future studies will quantify the
relative importance of key themes, understand heterogeneity in the views of
different segments of educators, and simulate an approach to program
improvement which considers evidence regarding key components of anti-
bullying programs (Ttofi & Farrington, 2011) and the views of the educators
who implement these initiatives.
Summary and Conclusion
From the perspective of educators, bullying has become more complex,
difficult to detect, and challenging to respond to. In addition to effective
478 C. E. Cunningham et al.
programs, educators believe that dealing with bullying requires more time,
extended training, enhanced monitoring, more effective strategies for
responding to bullying incidents, and more successful ways of engaging and
securing the cooperation of parents. They value administrative back-up and a
commitment to sustaining and extending the implementation of potentially
successful approaches. The stress of dealing with an increasingly complex
problem in the face of limited time, training, and support may be contributing
to a more general increase in emotional exhaustion.
COMPETING INTERESTS
None.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
The authors would like to express their appreciation to the dedicated educa-
tors who so generously shared their time, experience, and commitment to
solving this problem. Yvonne Chen is now at the School of Business, Uni-
versity of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Lesley Cunningham is now at
the Ontario Ministry of Education. Madalyn Marcus is now at Child and
Adolescent Mental Health Department, Southlake Regional Health Centre,
Newmarket Ontario, Canada.
FUNDING
This study was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Grant
MOP 123437, the Jack Laidlaw Chair in Patient-Centred Health Care held by
Dr. Cunningham, and a Canada Research Chair from the Canadian Institutes of
Health Research held by Dr. Vaillancourt.
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Bullying is a topic of international interest that attracts researchers from various disciplinary areas, including education. This bibliometric study aims to map out the landscape of educational research on bullying and cyberbullying, by performing analyses on a set of Web of Science Core Collection-indexed documents published between 1991-2020. The main findings of the study provide data regarding (1) the evolution of publication trends over the past 30 years and the characteristics of the documents; (2) the most productive countries and institutions; (3) influential journals, authors, and articles in the area; (4) the collaboration patterns and the conceptual structure of educational research on bullying and cyberbullying. Based on the comprehensive overview of the educational research on the topic, suggestions for future work are provided.
... Schools should encourage young people to have open discussions with teachers and parents about cyberbullying, to facilitate an environment where young people disclose not only their victimisation, but also seek adult help for the victimisation of others. However, students are often not receptive to anti-bullying policies or curricula because they do not engage them (Cunningham et al., 2016), so schools should provide more opportunities for students to participate in anti-bullying content and give students the voice to feed into the anti-bullying policy, so students feel part of something they themselves have created. ...
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Cyberbullying often occurs in group-based situations; therefore, how young people respond when they witness cyberbullying is important in the process of combating the issue. This study examined how young people perceive the severity of cyberbullying incidents and how they respond as a bystander according to different factors associated with cyberbullying (i.e., publicity, anonymity, type, and victim response). The final sample was 990 (545 female, 403 male, 42 non-disclosed) students aged between 11 and 20 years (Mage = 13.16, SDage = 2.14) from two schools and one college in England. Participants responded to 24 hypothetical vignettes which were manipulated to measure publicity, anonymity, type of cyberbullying, and victim response. Participants responded to items assessing a. perceived severity, and b. bystander responses. The bystander responses examined were: ignore the incident, encourage the bully, seek adult help, seek friend help, provide emotional support to the victim, and challenge the bully. Perceived severity was higher in public scenarios, when the bully was anonymous, and when the victim was upset. Victim response was the most influential factor across all response strategies on how young people react to cyberbullying, followed by the publicity of the incident, the anonymity of the bully, and to a limited extent, the type of cyberbullying. The results suggest that bystanders do respond differently to cyberbullying according to the publicity, anonymity, type of cyberbullying, and victim response.
... Despite the abundance of research, some reviews posit that antibullying interventions show limited [26,33,59] or unclear [69] effects on reducing bullying in schools, or are of little practical significance [35]. Traditional approaches typically use methods such as increasing peers' knowledge through curriculum, teacher interventions, peer education, setting school policies and intervening the perpetrators, or encouraging peer interventions. ...
... Likewise, a lack of time and administrator support were identified by teachers as two of the key barriers to implementing a behavioral program (Cunningham et al., 2016). Time for planning and collaboration has been viewed by teachers as a form of administrative support for the demands of inclusive teaching (Dev & Haynes, 2015). ...
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The long-term sustainment of bullying prevention programs has rarely been investigated. This study addresses this gap by identifying facilitators and barriers to the systematic implementation of KiVa antibullying program in real-life conditions, after an evaluation trial. The study is based on focus group interviews with teachers from 15 Finnish primary schools implementing the KiVa program. The schools were selected based on the annual KiVa survey data, with the criteria of long-term involvement in delivering the program and reaching successful outcomes in terms of decreasing trends in bullying and victimization. By utilizing thematic analysis, we identified program-related, organizational, and contextual facilitators and barriers to sustainability. The results stress the importance of organizational factors in promoting program sustainability.
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Bullying is recognized as a significant problem that negatively impacts school-aged children worldwide. Although much has been learned about bullying and related physical and mental health problems, a limited number of studies have examined the relations between bullying victimization, academic achievement, and school attendance, and fewer studies have been published on the temporal priority of these variables. Our aim was to review literature on this topic with a specific focus on longitudinal studies. Our review suggests that being the target of bullying can function as both antecedent and consequence of poor academic achievement and engagement. It is clear from our review that far more research needs to be conducted on the longitudinal relations between bullying victimization, academic achievement, and school attendance in order to better understand the true direction of effects.
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Bullying involvement in any form can have lasting physical and emotional consequences for adolescents. For programs and policies to best safeguard youth, it is important to understand prevalence of bullying across cyber and traditional contexts. We conducted a thorough review of the literature and identified 80 studies that reported corresponding prevalence rates for cyber and traditional bullying and/or aggression in adolescents. Weighted mean effect sizes were calculated, and measurement features were entered as moderators to explain variation in prevalence rates and in traditional–cyber correlations within the sample of studies. Prevalence rates for cyber bullying were lower than for traditional bullying, and cyber and traditional bullying were highly correlated. A number of measurement features moderated variability in bullying prevalence; whereas a focus on traditional relational aggression increased correlations between cyber and traditional aggressions. In our meta-analytic review, traditional bullying was twice as common as cyber bullying. Cyber and traditional bullying were also highly correlated, suggesting that polyaggression involvement should be a primary target for interventions and policy. Results of moderation analyses highlight the need for greater consensus in measurement approaches for both cyber and traditional bullying.
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Objective: We used qualitative methods to explore the views of students regarding design and implementation factors limiting the effectiveness of the antibullying programs. Method: Using a purposeful strategy, we recruited 97 Grades 5 to 8 students from 12 demographically stratified schools. Interviewers conducted thirteen 45-min focus groups. Audio recordings were transcribed and coded thematically. Results: Three higher order themes emerged. First, students felt that antibullying presentations, posters, and activities sometimes failed to engage students. Antibullying communications that were boring, repetitive, negatively worded, or delivered by presenters lacking credibility were of limited value. Second, students felt that ineffective monitoring and consequences undermined antibullying programs. Students thought teachers failed to detect many bullying episodes, did not respond quickly enough when bullying was reported, adopted ineffective consequences, and failed to sustain helpful programs. Teachers who responded unfairly, were influenced by reputational biases, or dealt with students disrespectfully compromised antibullying interventions. Third, some students disengaged and pushed back by failing to attend to presentations, denying their involvement in bullying, discrediting programs and speakers, disrupting antibullying activities, and defiantly victimizing peers. Conclusions: Poor design and implementation may limit the outcome of antibullying programs. Pushback from a small group of students may have a negative influence on the responses of a wider group of peers. A negative response from students may reduce the commitment of the educators who implement antibullying initiatives. From the perspective of students, schools need to develop more engaging presentations, improve monitoring and supervision, develop more effective responses to bullying, and deal with students in an unbiased and respectful way.
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Despite the promise of being effective in tacking bullying and conduct disorder, cognitive-behavioral (C-B) interventions are underused by teachers. Little detailed information exists as to why this is the case. The current study with junior school teachers in the U.K. (N=249) confirmed this low reported usage and showed that while teachers tended to believe that C-B approaches would be effective, most held rather low self-efficacy beliefs. Attending a workshop on a specific C-B approach, the I DECIDE program had positive effects on perceived effectiveness and self-efficacy beliefs, and longer durations of training (3days) were more beneficial than shorter durations (half/1day). In line with outcome-expectancy theory and the theory of planned behavior, self-efficacy and duration of training predicted an increase in reported usage of I DECIDE across an 8-month period, and self-efficacy fully mediated the association between duration of training and increase in reported usage. The implications of these findings for overcoming impediments to the more widespread use of C-B approaches by teachers to tackling bullying were discussed, particularly the notion that attending training of sufficient duration coupled with a more explicit attention on fostering self-efficacy will pay dividends.
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The communication of determinants of health and health outcomes normally executed through academic channels often fail to reach lay audiences. In April of 2010, the results of collaboration between academe and mass media were published in the Hamilton Spectator, one of Canada’s 10 largest English-language daily newspapers as a 7-day series. The aim of the collaboration was to describe the disparities in the determinants of health and health status that exists in the City of Hamilton’s neighbourhoods in a way that could be easily comprehended by a lay audience. Simple statistics, maps of the City’s neighbourhoods, interviews and stories were woven together to communicate these disparities. The reaction to the series was overwhelming. It spawned a new position in the municipal government, was discussed at the Provincial and Federal levels of governments, prompted the local university to alter plans, relocating a new health care centre to the greatest area of need as highlighted by the series, and won several local and national awards. The objective of this manuscript is to describe all aspects of the series, including the specific decisions made, the methods employed and the aftermath of its publication.