Honorary Professor Michael Bernard, from the University of Melbourne, recently delivered his program ‘Bullying: the power to cope’ to 100 Melbourne school students to strengthen positive attitudes and coping skills.

The program, he says, is aimed at students between 10 and 14 years of age, and is designed for teachers to deliver over four class periods.

“The class program is basically an empowerment program that teaches students when they’re faced with various forms of bullying - whether it’s cyberbullying, physical bullying or social isolation - that they have choices in the way that they think and interpret the bullying and the choices they make in their thinking has a big impact on their feelings,” Bernard says.

The academic calls this 'cognitive behaviour learning'.

Unfortunately as adults, he says, sometimes we have the tendency to over-emphasise the impact of bullying, which results in students being less resilient towards it.

“I think parents get a bit horrified about things that happened years ago, which didn’t horrify parents in bygone years,” Bernard says.

“So, we’ve made any form of interpersonal difficulty, whether it’s getting pushed over on the footy field, or whether someone’s pointing a finger at you, and we’ve horriblised it and catastrophised it to the point where students treat all forms of anti-social behaviour, no matter how bad they are, as an earth-shattering, intolerable event.”

The program teaches three essential messages, the first, being not to take bullying personally.

Secondly, students are taught not to blow things out of proportion, and the third is to think to themselves, ‘I can cope with this and I can stand it, even though I don’t like it’.

Bernard says feedback from this, the second evaluation of the program, has been very positive.

“The essential feedback we’ve received is students feel a lot stronger and more confident in knowing what to think and knowing what to do when faced with bullying, so that it doesn’t have the kind of impact that it might have had otherwise.

“… it’s not that they make the bullying go away, it’s just that they interpret it differently.”

While a lot of bullying research focuses on how to prevent the act of bullying, Bernard says his program, which looks at helping students to cope with bullying, is “the missing piece”.  

“In fact, if we don’t do it we’re being derelict,” he says.

“Because the research clearly shows from cognitive behaviour therapy and in studies like the ones that we’ve conducted, that young people can change their mindset towards bullying, and by not taking it personally, they don’t get depressed, they don’t get suicidal.

“I think schools need to take this on board and teach all young people about the power of their mindset in dealing with all sorts of adversity, not only acts of bullying but also just difficulties in schoolwork.

“When we do that we strengthen their capacity for resilience and right now I think we’re trying to overprotect them a little bit.

“All forms of protection are fine, don’t get me wrong, but I think we need to strengthen them a lot more than we’re doing.”