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How to deal with groups using bullying behaviour

It is not uncommon for groups to use bullying behaviour against someone. While there may be an key instigator, the rest of the group or bystanders can support the behaviour. They might join in, laugh or just say nothing. All of these signal that it is okay to use that sort of behaviour. The Group Support Method (GSM)...
… helps to build empathy and use peer influence so the group takes shared responsibility for changing the bullying behaviour. This is how it works - once the issue is reported and target interviewed, a group of peers are identified which contains the suspected bullying behaviour user(s) and others likely to support the target. They are all called into a group meeting. After reassuring that no one in the group is to be disciplined, the meeting focuses on how the target is feeling to build empathy.

The meeting is not use to shame, seek to find out who is to blame or get an apology. Once the targets feelings and situation is explained, the facilitator then asks for suggestions on what group members can do personally to help the target and improve the situation. Good idea's are encouraged but no specific expectations are placed on individuals to carry out their idea's. The focus is that it is great individuals in the group are going to do something to help.

It is left to the group to carry out the suggested idea's. Followup is carried out some days later with the target to see if things have improved. If so a final meeting of the group is arranged to thank them for supporting the target.


  • Useful for less severe behaviours
  • Can be used for groups using bullying behaviour
  • Uses group influence to take positive action
  • Emphasis placed on evidence of the targets distress
  • Group can also contain peers with strong pro-social behaviours
  • The group structure can be managed by who is selected
  • You do not need to be able to identify the ringleader
  • Does not require involvement of others in community
  • Number of studies suggest it is an effective intervention (Rigby, 2010)
  • Studies in schools show useful for upper primary and lower to middle secondary (Sullivan, 2011)


  • Attacked by political figures & key practitioners because of the "no blame" being attributed and it does not issue punishment
  • Stakeholders wanting more punitive action to be taken
  • Key motivation to change is provided by empathy which may not work in some cases
  • No exploration of the justification of behaviour so may not address any provocative behaviour by target
  • Group dynamics can at times be difficult to understand and control
  • Requires targets to be interviewed first which can expose them to retaliation & victimisation
  • Assumes the target cannot be strengthened
  • Requires facilitator training and sound group management skills

When groups of people are involved it is difficult to punish them all and be sure you get the real ringleader. It can just make matters worse for the target. Focusing just on one goal of punishment because otherwise they 'get away with it' might not lead to stopping a groups behaviour. They learn to be more sneaky and targets might not report ongoing issues for fear of more retribution.

So we need to be careful about what we aim to do. What really matters is the bullying behaviour stops. For me if that means some bullying behaviour users learn a lesson without being 'punished' then the result justifies using the group support method. Of course common sense still needs to be applied. You would not use this approach if it is really serious or criminal bullying behaviour.

Key reference:

Maines, Barbara & Robinson, George (2010) The Support Group Method Training Pack

Rigby, Ken (2010) Bullying Interventions in Schools: Six Basic Approaches

Sullivan, Keith (2011) The Anti-Bullying Handbook (2nd ed.)
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