School-Based Bullying Prevention: Addressing Adaptation

To Adapt or Not to Adapt?

  • Overview

    SupportOften, when a program is implemented in a school, certain aspects of the original program design may change. The modified program can look quite different from what the developers originally intended. Changes can occur for many reasons, such as limited funds, time constraints, jurisdictional or cultural concerns, or lack of support from school staff and administrators.

    Researchers debate how much a program can be changed to fit a local situation and still achieve its purpose of reducing bullying. They worry that changing a program too much from the original design may reduce the program’s effectiveness. It is important for schools to keep this in mind and monitor the implementation process to determine if detrimental changes occur.

    Schools can alter programs in many ways. For example, a school might not change the content of a program from the developer’s original vision, but they might only use a piece of it, such as delivering only five of 10 lessons from the program’s curriculum. This is known as partial implementation. A school might also choose to change certain elements of a program, such as the content of the curriculum or the delivery method of the program’s lessons. This is known as divergence.

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  • Steps to Take: Lessons Learned from the Research

    Steps to Take:  Lessons Learned from the Research

    Identify the core elements that are linked to program success.

    • Learn which program elements are most important.
    • Make sure changes do not conflict with core program elements.

    Determine whether the program fits the specific needs and context of a school and consider what elements of the program may need to be modified.

    • Start planning early.
    • Use evaluations to find out how teachers are using the program material.
    • Identifying Key Elements of the Program

      Bullying prevention programs often include several different components, such as classroom curricula, parent meetings, and policy development. To see real change, it is important to understand which of these components are the most critical, especially if this is the first time your school is implementing the program.

      • Learn which program elements are most important. Some program developers explain the logic behind certain program components or identify the most important elements of their program. For example, the Playworks program identifies organized recess activities, the junior coach program, class game time, and after-school activities as central program elements. Other times, it may be more challenging to determine which specific components are most important and which can be changed to fit your school’s needs. One way to do this is to look at specific types of research, such as meta-analyses of several bullying program evaluations. For example, Farrington and Ttofi (2010) found that across several programs, certain components were linked to decreases in bullying and victimization. Some of these components include

        1) Improved playground supervision

        2) Disciplinary methods

        3) Classroom management

        4) Teachers training

        5) Setting classroom rules

        6) Parent-teacher meetings

        7) Schoolwide anti-bullying policies

        8) Educating and training parents

        9) Cooperative group work

      • You can be more confident that bullying will be impacted if you implement the program as designed; however, if this is not possible, it may help to focus implementation efforts on one or more of the components listed above (for more information on these components, consult the School-Based Bullying Prevention Programs practice profile on
      • Make sure changes do not conflict with core program elements. Changes that conflict with core program elements may make the overall program less effective. For example, in a Playworks school, when students acted out, teachers withheld recess. This change directly conflicted with the original program design, which teaches students about bullying prevention through structured recess activities. As a result of the teachers’ disciplinary choices, the program was less successful. On the other hand, in one school implementing the Bully-Proofing Your School program, teachers felt that the material was too simplistic for eighth-grade students. To modify the program, teachers condensed all of the lessons into the first two weeks of school and then allowed the students to present what they had learned to sixth-grade students in the form of group projects. These group projects replaced lessons delivered by sixth-grade teachers. Afterward, evaluations showed that these student-led lessons were taught as the program had intended and ultimately helped reduce bullying at the school.

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    • Planning for Change

      The effectiveness of most evidence-based bullying programs were evaluated in a specific school, with a particular group of students. Because each school community is unique, there is a good chance you will have to change the program to fit your school’s needs. In doing so, it is important to understand the original conditions under which the program was developed and evaluated and determine how that context differs from your school.

      • Start planning early. Discuss potential changes early on when you select the best program for your school. Make sure everyone is on board with the changes to the original program design and try to determine if these differences might affect the program’s success. For example, the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program was designed for Norwegian students in grades 4-7 and includes multiple classroom lessons on bullying. In the United States, middle school students have short class periods and change classrooms regularly, making it difficult to consistently deliver longer program lessons. Understanding this difference, a middle school in the United States might choose to shorten lessons or pick only certain lessons to accommodate shorter class periods (for more information regarding contextual factors that may impact implementation, see Identifying Specific Jurisdictional Issues).

      • Use evaluations to find out how teachers are using the program material. Even if staff members are well trained and the program is well run, it may not always be implemented as intended. Changes, whether intentional or unintentional, can affect the success of a bullying prevention program. It is important to use process evaluations to assess program fidelity. Looking at how the program is being implemented compared to how it was intended to be implemented can help identify where there is room for improvement. For example, in one school implementing the KiVa Antibullying Program, teachers were only implementing some of the lessons (the ones that they deemed important) instead of the whole classroom curriculum. Information learned through evaluations can help you identify potential challenges in your school. In the long term, you can use feedback from teachers to ensure that the changes do not interfere with the program’s effectiveness. It is also a good idea to evaluate adaptations in an outcome evaluation to ensure that the changed program produces desired outcomes (for more information on fidelity, process evaluations, and outcome evaluations, see Ensuring Long-Term Sustainability).

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