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What’s a Hidden Bully?

By and — Bullying Special Edition Contributor
Updated on Jul 26, 2010

The child walking through schoolhouse doors enters a world of friends and strangers, collaborators and competitors, possibly even enemies, harassers, and victims. Few adults remember or understand this peer society of youth. Erik Erikson (1) wrote in Childhood and Society that “school seems to be a culture all by itself, with its own goals and limits, its achievements and disappointments.”

Erikson’s thoughts on the challenges of school environments are relevant to every child and parent. As parents and teachers we imagine that school is an environment where children develop competence with peers, produce meaningful friendships, and a social niche. We like to think that children engage in healthy social and emotional behavior to make friends. We hope that adults in schools influence the youth culture in order to help create an environment where children thrive peacefully with one another. Unfortunately, not all children thrive: some are victimized, some victimize others and many adults are unaware of the problem or choose to look the other way.

Can Bullies be Popular?

In our research, we look at bullying as an act of aggression. We recognize that aggression is a part of normal social behavior and not particular to individual children or to school settings. As Robert Cairns (2) put it: “Aggressive acts… are inextricably woven into the patterns of normal interchanges… Perhaps the question should not be ‘Why aggression?’ but ‘Why is there not more aggression?’” Thus, our goal is not, nor can it be, the complete elimination of aggression in schools. We need to distinguish between different types of aggression among children. Assertive aggression that produces a talented rugby or football player may be quite different than an individual or group of children who use aggression as a way to control others and to achieve dominance over their peers (3).

We have identified a small (5-10%) but important group of elementary school boys (4th to 6th grade) who are popular yet exhibit aggression (persistent arguing, fighting, getting in trouble) (4, 5, 6). These children enjoy high status and esteem from their peers and surprisingly, their teachers. In our studies and those of others, popular-aggressive children, or “hidden bullies,” have been identified among 1st graders and into adolescence. An alarming part of what these hidden bullies may do is influence much of social life at school.

Rodkin and Berger (7) reported that the popularity of victims and bullies depends on whether perpetrators are harassing other boys or girls. We have found that when both bullies and victims are boys, bullies are popular and victims are unpopular. This reflects a pattern first discovered by Dan Olweus in his analysis of bullies (8). However, when a boy bullies a girl, the female victim is often popular and the male bully is unpopular. Bullies are rated as highly aggressive regardless of their popularity or the gender of their victims.

What these findings show is great variability in the popularity of bullies (and to some extent the targets of bullying). We have also found important differences in the popularity of elementary school bullies according to ethnic and racial background (9). Hidden bullies somehow manage to escape detection, they do not get in trouble, and they are not faring poorly in school. How can we find and identify these children, and stop the bullying?

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