By her own admission, Maria Garvey should be long retired. Instead, the social entrepreneur remains as energised and enthused as ever, determined to ensure that the culmination of her life’s work reaches – and benefits – as many people as possible in as many countries as practical.

For Garvey, it is not about profit. Instead, it is about driving a deeper mission – preventing bullying in schools around Ireland and abroad.

Garvey is the CEO of Cooperative Learning Institute, a social enterprise that runs the Helping Hands Anti-Bullying Programme, a technology-based diagnostic tool that analyses hidden group dynamics in the classroom.

The tool – along with the training and support that underpin it – has already been rolled out into 50 schools around the country, and Garvey and her team are currently onboarding the first school in Northern Ireland. For the former teacher, this is just the start.

“We want to be in every school in Ireland, and then moving abroad,” Garvey says. “We have a worldwide vision. I might not be around to see it all. But there is no point in me saying that our vision is any smaller than that, because it isn’t.”


Maria Garvey started out life as a teacher, before graduating to train student teachers as well as providing continuous professional development classes to working teachers. However, her eureka moment came while completing her PhD in cooperative learning at Trinity College when she came across the work of Jacob Levy Moreno, a US educator and psychiatrist who was the pioneer of the sociogram and group social structures.

His work was published in the 1920s and was ahead of its time. It required significant amounts of data and, even if used on a small scale, delivered hundreds of potential data possibilities.

The more Garvey studied the potential use of Moreno’s sociogram, the more she realised that it could have a huge impact on identifying bullying in the classroom by delving into group dynamics. Plus, the technology existed to make it happen.

“I looked around and there was no comparable programme on the market. There was one that I used for my own PhD but it was taken off the market because it was very clunky and difficult to use. So I wanted something that was really easy for teachers to use, but one that has produced the maximum amount of data,” she said.

Garvey subsequently cajoled her son and some of his computer-literate friends to turn her idea into a functioning piece of technology. “From the beginning, I had an interest or a sensitivity towards the vulnerable students. I was watching out for the vulnerable student,” Garvey said. “And this programme watches out for them, but in a different way.”

Maria Garvey: “This programme is about keeping kids psychologically safe.” Photo: Bryan Meade

The cost of the programme is €4 per child. “It is a social enterprise. We need to make money to survive, and it has to survive. The software has cost €300,000, but it is extremely simple for teachers to use,” she said.

Helping Hands sounds simple in practice, but Garvey says it has big results. Every student in a class is asked to identify pupils who they work best with, who they don’t mind working with and who they like to work with least. The survey is not limited, and students can put all members of the class into a category. The teacher then inputs the data into the computer programme and allows subtle group dynamics to be identified – and therefore managed.  

“So, for example, if there was a kid in the class that nobody picked, the teacher can now see that,” according to Garvey. “The programme allows for unlimited nominations. There are other programmes, and they say pick three kids you like and three kids you don’t like. And that’s a forced choice. But it doesn’t show what’s called the socio dynamic effect, which is a kid being excluded in the context of unlimited nominations.

“The research is fairly solid. When that happens, there’s a class dynamic going on. It doesn’t tend to happen by accident – that there is just someone nobody likes, and nobody wants to work with. So, if there’s a class dynamic going on, it’s led by a powerful student, and the rest of the class feel that they cannot stand up against that powerful student. So, the perpetrator or the bully will use the class as an instrument of aggression to show they have power over the class. It will be hidden from the teachers.”

Garvey said that Helping Hands is about giving teachers the skills and knowledge to identify what is being hidden in what she describes as “the hidden psychological world of the peer group”.

“Schools have become very successful at keeping kids physically safe. Physical bad behaviour is completely unacceptable in schools. Overt verbal bad behaviour is completely unacceptable in schools. But they cannot see into the hidden world. This programme is about keeping kids psychologically safe and included, and happy and looking after their wellbeing,” she said.

Garvey said the programme was in keeping with the ethos of education in the 21st century. “In education as in life, the 20th century is the century of the mass production model – get them all into school, get them educated, get them out. We are in the 21st century – the century of the high-performance, multi-disciplinary team – and there is a requirement now on schools for kids to work in teams. We’re also in an age of student voice, giving students an input, and empowerment of students. That is why identifying the group dynamic is so important and so crucial,” she said.

In addition to rolling out the technology, Garvey said the programme will also deliver training to help teachers identify issues, understand them and then make suitable interventions.

Covid and bullying

A large number of schools have reported an increase in the number of potential bullying cases since the pandemic arrived. For Garvey, the impact of Covid was isolation. “The psychologists are telling us, they didn’t just lose out educationally, but kids lost out developmentally. So if you’re more isolated, in that sense, you’re more vulnerable,” she said.

While other programmes look at the characteristics of the victim, she said Helping Hands was not about profiling the victim but identifying the bully.

 “Bullying is an abuse of power. So, there will be powerful parents, powerful students. And that’s a very difficult dynamic,” she said. “How can the teacher see something that’s deliberately hidden from them, by somebody with what we call a very good theory of mind skills? Theory of mind – being able to attribute mental states to others. Perpetrators of bullying can have high cognitive empathy, but they may lack effective empathy. That is what our programme is designed to identify.”

Garvey said that Covid-19 had allowed the social enterprise to roll out its product quicker due to the rise of online learning.  “With Covid, we put all the training online,” she said. “So the training now is all available to teachers flexibly, because it’s online. It’s more flexible for schools, so they can pick their own time. Now we do live work with schools, but online mostly. And we’re trying to support our customer schools by providing regular question and answer sessions.

“The learning from Covid is that we can support a number of schools together, rather than pre-Covid, where we were going from school to school for a day, which is very, very difficult.”

Finally, I ask Garvey what drives her. Her response is both simple and profound: “It is the culmination of my life’s work.”