KiVa: Teaching Bystanders to Care

One of the most hurtful things about workplace bullying is the isolation felt by the target when co-workers run for cover or, worse, support the bully.

A new school anti-bullying program developed in Finland in 2007 is proving to be surprisingly successful in eliminating bullying by focusing upon the bystanders who witness the bullying but do nothing.

The program  KiVa,  is based upon the premise that bullies are rewarded by earning higher social status because of their bullying.  The program encourages bystanders to show that they are against bullying and to support the target.  KiVA empowers students to defend targets through skill-building and education, including 20 hours of activities such as discussion, group work, films, role-playing, and computer exercises.

Many school anti-bully programs show marginal results but a large scale 2011 study showed that KiVa halved the risk of bullying others and of being victimized in just one school year.  Substantial decreases also emerged for other antisocial behaviors, such as vandalism, theft, and truancy, in addition to an increase in general satisfaction with school life.

Science Daily reports that an interdisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Kansas (KU) plan to bring the KiVa program to American schools. Starting as early as the 2012-13 school year, a pilot program could kick off in selected classrooms in Lawrence, Kan. If shown to be successful there, the model could expand nationally.

KiVa was developed at the University of Turku, Finland, with funding from Finlands’ Ministry of Education and Culture. In Finland, 90 % of all comprehensive schools are implementing the KiVa program.  The KiVa program won the European Crime Prevention Award in 2009.

KiVa  takes a holistic approach to the bullying problem, including a rigorous classroom curriculum, videos, posters, a computer game and role-play exercises that are designed to make schools inhospitable to bullying.

When bullying episodes occur, a small team of trained employees addresses the incident with the victim and bully or bullies to ensure bullying stops.  Peers of the victim are challenged to provide support for the victimized classmate.

“It changes the rewards structure,” said Patricia Hawley, KU associate professor of developmental psychology.. “At the end of the day, the goals of the bully are like yours and mine — they want friendship and status. They have human goals, not pathological ones. With KiVa, bystanders are set up to win by intervening, and their status can go up. As a bystander, I can achieve goals of friendship and status by standing up to a bully.”

The implications of the KiVa model for the workforce are obvious. What if employers approached the problem of bullying holistically, with the goal of insuring that bullying behavior is not rewarded?  Teams of employees could be trained to address individual complaints, and co-workers could be  encouraged to show empathy and support to targets.  Who knows? Maybe employers, like schools, would find their efforts rewarded by improved morale and substantial decreases in other antisocial behaviors, such as vandalism, theft, and truancy. Wouldn’t that alone be worth the effort?

KiVa is a Finnish acronym for Kiusaamista Vastaan, “against bullying”)