By Suzanne Lyons MA, MA
Background on Bullying
The basic fact of bullying is that it is a cruel torment, so disturbing that most educators would prefer to look away. But of course we know we cannot. The Department of Health and Human Services defines bullying this way:
Bullying is unwanted aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated or has the potential to be repeated over time…Bullying includes such actions as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physical or verbally, and excluding someone from a group.1
Bullying typically begins in elementary school, peaks in middle school, and declines in the final years of high school. Its effects can be severe and long-lasting. Kids who are bullied are five times more likely to be depressed compared to their peers. Bullied boys are four times more likely to be suicidal. Girls who are bullied are eight times more likely to be suicidal.2 Nevertheless, bullying is shockingly common. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, over 27 percent of students aged 12 to 18 reported being bullied at school during the school year in 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available.3
Moreover, the link between bullying and later delinquent and criminal behavior is clear. Nearly 60 percent of boys classified by researchers as bullies in grades six through nine were convicted of at least one crime by the age of 24.4 It’s not just the bullies who are at risk for later criminal behavior. Victims of bullying sometimes explode in ways that threaten the school community, including school shootings. A Secret Service study of school shootings found that “almost three-quarters of the attackers felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others prior to the incident.” 5
Besides all of the suffering, bullying is also tragic for the loss of opportunity it represents. Both bullying and being bullied destroy the basic peace and sense of security students need for happiness, learning, and growth—all the normal positive experiences that should be available to every child in school.
Preventing Bullying with Cooperative Games
Teachers and administrators are responding to the bullying crisis in two main ways, 1) through anti-bullying measures and 2) through bullying prevention. Though both approaches have their place, just as in medicine, prevention is generally easier and more effective than reacting to damage that has already occurred. As the experts at the Department of Health and Human Services website StopBullying.gov say, “The easiest way to address bullying is to stop it before it starts.”
Prevention is where cooperative games come in.
Cooperative games are games based on playing together toward a common goal rather than competing against one another to win. Cooperative games can be board games, active physical games, circle games, online games, etc. The point is that players are always on the same team and working together toward one goal. There is no competition, exclusion, or being left behind in a cooperative game. Goals, resources, and winning or losing are all shared.
Research on cooperative games shows that when people work, or more accurately play, toward a common goal, divisions are healed. Friendships are forged and aggression is replaced with camaraderie. The pro-social effects of uniting people through cooperative games has been observed at all age levels and among at-risk groups such as juvenile offenders. Research going back decades substantiates this.6 What is new however is applying the peace-making power of cooperative games in the effort to prevent bullying.