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New study: Anti-bullying programme strengthens children’s empathetic behaviour

Preschool children who engage in the anti-bullying programme Free of Bullying demonstrate empathetic behaviour more overtly than children who are not exposed to the programme.

Children attending institutions that have worked with Free of Bullying are more inclined to express their feelings, actively contribute to developing positive relationships, and show empathy, compared with children in institutions that do not work with the programme. These results are revealed in a new study conducted by Rambøll on behalf on The Mary Foundation and Save the Children Denmark. The effect is statistically significant.

With Free of Bullying, we work systematically to create a tolerant, respectful and compassionate culture among children, and the new study confirms that incorporating Free of Bullying into the preschool’s daily routine makes a significant difference. It simply rubs off on the children’s behaviour in a positive way,” says Director of The Mary Foundation Helle Østergaard.

The study measured the impact among children from 16 preschools. The preschools were divided into a treatment group and a control group. Preschools in the treatment group were given materials and tuition in Free of Bullying and worked with the programme for five months. Teachers in the control group worked with the children as they normally would. A total of 649 children participated in the study.

In both groups, a detailed questionnaire was used to assess the children both prior to and after the study. These questionnaires were completed by the children’s teachers, who responded to a series of questions about the children’s wellbeing and behaviour. The questionnaire covers a range of social characteristics which combine to provide insight into how the child demonstrates empathy and self-regulating behaviour and his or her ability to work with others.

One of the things we looked at as part of the study was the level of empathy demonstrated among the children, because we know from research that children subconsciously disregard their empathy in order to survive socially in groups impacted by extensive bullying. Conversely, children who feel secure in their social environment show more care and respect for other children. That’s why it makes sense specifically to measure empathy in children’s groups,” says Secretary General at Save the Children Denmark, Jonas Keiding Lindholm.

Questions such as “How does it feel not to be allowed to participate in a game?” and “Where can you feel it when you feel sad?” are an integral part of everyday life in preschools that work with the Free of Bullying anti-bullying programme. Taking their daily experiences as their reference point, children and teachers talk about feelings, friendship and the challenges the children face in their social lives. The goal is to help the children feel safe in their school community, so that they can develop an understanding of their own and others’ feelings and needs, and of what it means to be a good friend. And this kind of focused effort works.

The study also indicates that there is a correlation between the extent to which parents are included in the work with Free of Bullying and the benefits gained by the children. Similarly, the extent of the impact resulting from the programme correlates with how intensely the institutions work with Free of Bullying.

Free of Bullying has been evaluated on a regular basis since it was launched in 2007. But this is the first time The Mary Foundation and Save the Children Denmark have studied the quantitative effects of their joint anti-bullying programme in a study using a control group.

Download a summary of the study.

Facts about the study

• The study was conducted between October 2016 and March 2017, in three Danish municipalities: Viborg, Thisted and Odense. Six hundred and forty-nine children distributed among 16 preschools participated in the study.

• Each municipality selected a number of institutions, which were then categorised based on background factors, such as size of institution, official rating and proportion of bilingual children. The institutions were subsequently randomly divided into two groups: a treatment group or a control group.

• The teachers in the treatment group were taught how to work with Free of Bullying and then applied this to their children’s groups over a five-month period, while the control group continued working in their usual way. Both groups completed pre- and post-evaluations of the children’s social-emotional skills based on the validated measurement tool SEAM (Social-Emotional Assessment/Evaluation Measure). The results were then adjusted for other background factors that have the potential to influence children’s social-emotional development.

• The preschools in the control group were also provided with the Free of Bullying materials and instruction in how to use them after the study was completed.

• SEAM has been developed by Professor Jane Squires from Oregon University, which conducts research into early childhood learning.


Effektevaluering Fri for Mobberi og børns socioemotionelle kompetencer, 2017. (Impact evaluation: Free of Bullying and children’s social-emotional skills, 2017.) Produced by Rambøll for The Mary Foundation and Save the Children Denmark.

Why early intervention is necessary

• Research shows that bullying already starts in preschool (Kit Stender Petersen, Mobning i en børnehavesammenhæng (Bullying in the context of preschool), Roskilde University, 2015).

• While few studies on bullying among preschool children have been conducted in Denmark, Norwegian studies show that 10–20% of all preschool children experience bullying at least once a week (Mai Brit Helgesen, Mobbing i barnehagen (Bullying in kindergarten), Universitetsforlaget, 2014).

• Bullying can occur in all social situations where people are “forced” to spend time together (Helle Rabøl Hansen, Grundbog mod mobning, Gyldendal Uddannelse, 2005).

• The Danish researcher Dorte Marie Søndergaard explains that bullying does not arise as a result of children lacking empathy.

But when groups are affected by bullying, children are not “at liberty” to show empathy towards the child/children who are being subjected to the bullying, because they would then be at risk of being excluded from the group as well. They are perfectly capable of showing empathy towards their family and friends. This phenomenon is called “selective use of empathy” (from the chapter ‘Mobning og social eksklusionsangst’ in the Danish anthology Mobning – Sociale processer på afveje, Hans Reitzels Forlag, 2009).