KiVa: Helping schools and parents beat bullying

KiVa is an effective school-based bullying prevention program from Finland. Nick Axford, Judy Hutchings, and colleagues describe how it is now leading the way in tackling bullying in the UK

A recent review of 44 anti-bullying programs reported that the involvement of parents significantly reduced both bullying and victimization. It concluded: “New anti-bullying initiatives should go beyond the scope of the school and target wider systemic factors such as the family… [E]fforts should be made to sensitize parents about the issue of school bullying through educational presentations and teacher–parent meetings.” One intervention singled out for praise in this review was KiVa, an evidence-based Finnish program targeting children aged 7–15.

KiVa includes:

  • A KiVa team – typically comprising teachers and associated staff such as school counsellors – to deal with incidents of bullying;
  • A launch meeting for parents and an online parents’ guide to help them recognize what is and is not bullying, and what is being done within the school to combat bullying;
  • A whole-school introductory assembly;
  • An annual online survey of bullying and victimization completed by all students in a school;
  • Ten monthly lessons, each lasting one-and-a-half hours, that teach children the core KiVa rules;
  • Online games to help children rehearse ways of dealing with bullying;
  • Playground staff wearing KiVa tabards to remind children of the school’s commitment to the program; and
  • School-wide posters demonstrating core KiVa principles.
What we know
● Bullies have high status and target lower-status, weaker children with repetitive bullying acts.
● Helping bystanders to oppose bullying reduces bullying.
● KiVa is a whole-school approach that significantly reduces bullying across different types of bullying.
● KiVa includes a launch meeting and online guide for parents, a component that is significantly related to decreases in both bullying and victimisation.

Involving parents

So, how does KiVa involve parents? Schools are encouraged to hold a parents’ evening (“Back to School night”) early in the school year at which the definition of bullying is discussed. There is a pre-prepared slideshow informing parents about the program, and the results of the student survey may also be shared. If there is a lot of bullying at the school, head teachers (principals) are advised to show parents that the school is aware of the problem and taking it seriously. Parents are typically told how the school tackles bullying incidents (ie, via the KiVa team) and how it keeps in touch with parents during and/or after tackling a bullying case.

There is also an online KiVa Parent Guide ( This includes a summary of current research in bullying and what can be done to prevent it. It discusses different types of bullying (visible or hidden), how bullying can affect a whole class, and how to recognize when a child is being bullied. The KiVa definition of bullying as involving a power differential – and being a repeated act – helps teachers, parents, and children to differentiate between bullying and arguments, disagreements, and misunderstandings between children.

The guide also provides advice about what parents can do at home. This includes asking questions that allow children to express their thoughts and feelings (such as “How was school today?”). Parents are encouraged not to settle for a short answer (like “Fine”) but to have a dialogue with their child. Advice is given on how to support a child who is being bullied – for example, not over- or under-reacting; increasing the child’s self-esteem; helping the child to think about tactics to survive bullying incidents (such as walking away); and talking to school staff about what is being done to stop the bullying. Parents whose children are displaying bullying behaviour are urged to provide the child with more adult supervision, teach them to respect others, and not accept excuses, like: “We were only playing”.

Involving bystanders

KiVa offers an innovative approach to bullying. In addition to a very structured method for dealing with instances of bullying, a common element of most bullying initiatives, it focuses on bystanders – students who witness bullying events. Class lessons and online games teach children to recognize what is and is not bullying, and how to respond when they see bullying. This strategy builds on research showing that victims report the worst thing about being bullied is when others did nothing to help and the fact that bullies tend to behave aggressively to attain higher status, and are reinforced by onlookers’ apathy or encouragement. Generally, other children are present when bullying takes place and, although many believe that it is wrong, they often do not intervene or tell a teacher. When they do intervene, bullying tends to stop.

Success in Finland

KiVa is probably the best-evidenced bullying prevention program available. A randomized controlled trial (RCT) in Finland involving more than 8,000 children in 78 schools found that it was effective at reducing bullying, particularly in the mid- to late-primary school years. Compared with control schools, KiVa schools reduced self-reported victimization by 30% and self-reported bullying by 17%. Importantly, the effects were seen across all types of bullying, including verbal, physical, racist, sexual, and cyber-bullying. Following this trial, the Finnish government supported the roll-out of KiVa across the country, and it is now delivered in more than 90% of schools in Finland. Evaluation of this wide-scale roll-out demonstrated smaller but still positive effects.

Why import KiVa to the UK?

One reason for importing KiVa from Finland is that bullying is an entrenched problem in the UK, showing little change over the years. Like Finland, the Welsh government requires local authorities and schools to have anti-bullying policies to prevent and respond to incidents of bullying. However, it was not until KiVa was funded by the Finnish government that bullying started to fall in Finland, demonstrating the need for both policies and tools. KiVa provided the means to implement the policies in Finland and, based on our pilot trial in Wales, seems likely to do the same here.

Evaluating KiVa in the UK

The first KiVa trial in the UK followed a visit to Wales by program developer Professor Christina Salmivalli of Turku University, and was run from Bangor University in Wales during the 2012/13 school year. The program was delivered in 13 Welsh and four Cheshire schools to children in Years 5 and 6 (age 9–11). Children completed the online bullying survey at the beginning and end of the school year. Preliminary analysis of results showed that teachers found the program easy to deliver and the lessons and activities very engaging for the children. The reported significant reductions in bullying behaviour and victimization are currently being written up for publication.

The first trial provided useful background information for a larger and more comprehensive Big Lottery-funded RCT in primary schools across Wales. This is being run by a team from the Social Research Unit at Dartington, the Centre for Evidence Based Early Intervention (CEBEI) at Bangor University, and the Children’s Early Intervention Trust. Adaptations since the pilot trial include the translation of all classroom, school, and parent materials into the Welsh language. Like the pilot trial, this trial has support from the program developer and is being implemented in Years 3–6 (age 7–11) in 21 schools. Schools have been randomly selected to run KiVa either in the first (2013/14) or the second (2014/15) year, with 11 schools in the first phase and 10 in the second phase. The study will rigorously test whether KiVa reduces bullying and victimization in schools in Wales, and whether it impacts on children’s well-being and school attendance. It is also trying to find out whether KiVa is acceptable to schools in Wales and, if effective, whether it could be rolled out to all primary schools in the country in a way that ensures quality while being affordable. This is being done in consultation with policy makers, anti-bullying NGOs, teachers, and parents.

This exciting project is leading the way in the UK in implementing and evaluating an evidence-based program to reduce bullying.

About the authors

Nick Axford is a Senior Researcher at the Social Research Unit. He leads the Unit’s work on KiVa and the Investing in Children and European Communities that Care projects. Nick is also Co-Editor of the Journal of Children’s Services.

Judy Hutchings leads the Bangor University Centre for Evidence Based Early Intervention. She has undertaken trials and published results from more than 30 years of research into parenting and school-based programs to prevent and reduce violence. Judy led the pilot KiVa trial.

Gretchen Bjornstad is a Post-doctoral Researcher at the Social Research Unit. She specialises in the meta-analysis of interventions and undertakes the cost-benefit analysis for Investing in Children. Gretchen also works on the KiVa project.

Suzy Clarkson completed an MRes at Bangor University on the Welsh KiVa pilot trial and is preparing the results for publication. She is currently working as a Research Officer on the KiVa RCT, and undertaking a PhD on its impact on academic attainment.

Anna Hunt is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Public Health, Liverpool John Moores University. Until December 2013 she was a Researcher at the Social Research Unit, where she worked on the KiVa bullying prevention project.

Further reading

Kärnä A et al (2011), Going to Scale: A Nonrandomized Nationwide Trial of the KiVa Antibullying Program for Comprehensive Schools. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 79(6), 796–805.

Kärnä A at al (2011), A Large-Scale Evaluation of the KiVa Anti-bullying Program: Grades 4–6. Child Development, 82, 1, 311–30.

Salmivalli C, Kärnä A, and Poskiparta E (2011), Counteracting Bullying in Finland: The KiVa Program and its Effects on Different Forms of Being Bullied. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 35, 405–11.

TtofiMM and Farrington DP (2011), Effectiveness of School-based Programs to Reduce Bullying: A Systematic and Metaanalytic Review, Journal of Experimental Criminology 7, 27–56. 


May 2014