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 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.
An important study conducted at the University of Nevada, Reno tested the effects of cooperative play through a program of four cooperative board games and seven active cooperative games. See “Cooperative Games: A Way to Modify Aggressive and Cooperative Behaviors in Young Children” by April Bay, Robert F. Peterson, and H. Robert Quilitch in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1994. The Reno researchers found that playing these particular cooperative games reduced incidence of a range of aggressive behaviors from hitting and kicking to name calling and excluding others. Aggression was reduced both during game play and afterwards. At the same time, the researchers counted cooperative behaviors including sharing, assisting, working together, exhibiting affection such as linking arms and hugging, and verbally agreeing to requests made by another child. An increase in pro-social behaviors was observed both during and after gameplay.7 The study took place over a period of months. The children in the study were ages 4 to 5. They attended four socio-economically diverse preschools in the Reno area.
The actual program that was tested and shown to work in the Reno study is described in a teaching manual called The Cooperative games Bullying Prevention Program. The book contains a discussion of research, classroom tips and directions to the seven active games used in the study plus 50 additional active cooperative games suitable for children Pre-K to Grade 2. Free sample chapters of the book are available at Also, teachers can implement the identical program that was tested in the Reno study by purchasing The Cooperative Games Bullying Prevention Program teaching manual along with the four board games used in the study. To purchase the entire program or just the teaching manual visit at . Additional resources for teachers that support cooperative play in education can also be found there. ( is owned and operated by Suzanne Lyons MA, MA, educator, author, and writer of this article.)
The Reno study and other studies have shown that cooperative games reduce aggression and foster pro-social behavior. But why do they work? That’s a question yet to be answered. Competition is deeply ingrained in our society and is conspicuously present in the schooling system. There are many psychological and social risks associated with competition, including that it is related to anxiety, lowered self-esteem, stress, and even aggression.8 An unexamined cultural allegiance to competition surely underlies the lack of critical research that is warranted given what we do know about the significant risks of excessive competition. Insofar as cooperative games allow children to experience one another inclusively as friends rather than competitively as rivals, and to enjoy it, these games teach children through their own discovery that it is nice to be nice. Being kind simply feels good. Further, when a teacher introduces cooperative games into the curriculum, she is interjecting an important social norm—an expectation of cooperation and caring rather than competition. Children get the message that their teacher and the school respect and expect cooperation and peace. Finally, because cooperative games combine discovery learning with norms of cooperation plus the powerful medium of play, cooperative play activities are potent teaching tools indeed!
Using cooperative games to prevent bullying by establishing a warm classroom climate is a novel proposition for teachers. It is hoped that more and more teachers will hear about this approach and give it a try. Cooperative games have several pedagogical advantages besides preventing bullying, they are inexpensive or free, and they are fun and easy to implement. Directions for a game that was tested in the Reno study are given below. Give it a try if you work with children ages 4-7. You and your students can actually have fun replacing the meanness, dominance, and aggression which can lead to bullying through caring, cooperative play.

Half a Heart
Materials: Red construction paper or cardboard hearts which have been cut in half
Time Estimate: 10 minutes
Number of Players: Any
Object of the Game: To find the friend with the missing half of one’s heart
Skills: Cooperation; Large motor skills; Communication; Math; Critical thinking

To Play: In advance, prepare the hearts. You will need half as many hearts as you have children playing the game. On one half of each heart, write a number and on the other half, draw that number of circles (or use a different shape or picture besides circles if you like, for example, smiley faces.) Cut the hearts in half so one side has the number and the other half has the picture of the circles. Give each child half a heart. Ask the children to skip around the room while you play music. Now, stop the music. Ask each child to match his heart-half with its counterpart. After everyone has found their partner by matching numbers and shapes, have the children trade their halves for a different number. Start the music again, ask the kids to skip around, and find a new partner by making their half hearts whole.

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, “What Is Bullying?” (February 16, 2015).
James Alan Fox, Delbert S. Elliot, R. Gil Kirlikowske, Sanford A. Newman, and William Christeson, “Bullying Prevention Is Crime Prevention,” Executive Summary, 2003, (February 16, 2015).
National Center for Education Statistics, “Student Reports of Bullying and Cyber-Bullying: Results From the 2011 School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey,” Table 1.1, 2013, (March 19, 2015)
Fox et al., “Bullying Prevention Is Crime Prevention,” Executive Summary, 2003, (February 16, 2015).
Fox et al.
Arnold P Goldstein, The Psychology of Group Aggression (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2002), 146-148
April K. Bay-Hinitz, Robert F. Peterson, H. Robert Quiltich, et. al., “Cooperative Games: A Way to Modify Aggressive and Cooperative Behaviors in Young Children,” Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (1994), 435−436.
Alfie Kohn, No Contest: The Case Against Competition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992), 148, 420, 123.