Bullying continues to be one of the most common forms of aggression and victimization experienced by school-aged children. It is broadly defined as a class of intentional and repeated acts that typically occurs in situations where there is a power or status difference (1). Bullying can be:

  • physical (hitting, theft),
  • verbal (harassment, threats, name calling),
  • and/or relational (spreading rumors, influencing social relationships).

Despite the recent attention given to bullying, teachers and school staff tend to underestimate the prevalence of bullying (2). In order to better serve the needs of students, teachers and school staff need to be able to identify and understand the consequential effects of bullying in order to intervene effectively. Likewise, students and teachers should aim to collaborate on bullying prevention efforts to better meet the needs of both groups and the school as a whole.

Prevalence of Bullying

A recent study using self-reports of nearly 25,000 elementary, middle, and high school students found that approximately 36% of students were “frequently” involved in bullying (2 or more times per month). Of these,

  • 19% were involved as a victim,
  • 9% as a bully,
  • and 8% as both a bully and a victim (i.e., bully/victim) (3).

The prevalence of frequent involvement in bulling appears to increase over the elementary school years, peak during the middle school years, and decline in high school. Boys are more likely than girls to be bullies and bully/victims (4).

What’s the Big Deal?

Research has shown that students who are involved in bullying, as either a bully, victim, or bully/victim, are at an increased risk of developing some of the following problems:

  • Symptoms such as depression or anxiety. A study by O’Brennan et al. (3) revealed that children who are victims of bullying are at risk of experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and insecurity.
  • Poor peer relationships. Victims tend to struggle with creating and maintaining peer relationships, which can limit their opportunity to develop effective social skills. An even more worrisome group is the bully/victims, for these children are at greatest risk for displaying mental health problems and becoming involved in delinquent behavior later in life (5, 6). Bully/victims also tend to provoke negative interactions with their peers and are often perceived as social outcasts (4).
  • These students tend to develop less favorable perceptions of the school environment as compared to students not involved in bullying (4, 7).

Students in schools with high rates of bullying tend to feel less safe and disconnected to the school, teachers, and their peers (2). Students who are frequently victimized often feel unsafe at school and may be at risk of bringing weapons to school in order to protect themselves (8).

Of particular concern is that among middle and high school students, majority of bullies tend to be perceived as popular (2). It is likely that the bullies’ power and dominance over their peers increases their social status within a peer group. However, research has also shown that despite bullies’ high social status, they also tend to be disliked by many of their peers and some are often viewed as unpopular (9). Thus, it is important for teachers to be aware of the varying social standings of bullies when intervening.

Discrepancies between Student and School Staff Perceptions of Bullying

Given the negative consequences of bullying on students’ emotions, friendships, and connection to school, it is essential that teachers and school staff have effective strategies for handling bullying situations.

A recent study found that over half of the middle and high school students surveyed believed that school staff were not doing enough to prevent bullying (2). Yet 97% of staff reported that they would intervene in a situation if they saw bullying, and approximately 87% felt that they had effective strategies for handling a bullying situation. On the other hand, 34% of middle school students and 25% of high school students thought that school staff did nothing to follow up when a student had reported a bullying event at school. Moreover, only 21% of students who were bullied had reported the event to a school staff member. In fact, students were more likely to report bullying events to their friends and family than an adult at school. These findings highlight the importance of providing additional training to staff in order to effectively prevent and respond to bullying.

Implications for Teachers and School Staff

  • Research shows that one of the most effective ways to prevent bullying is to implement a school-wide program that aims to alter students’ perceptions of bullying and the social norms related to aggressive retaliation (10). School staff and administrators may need to also develop strategies for communicating their prevention efforts with students in a way which does not draw negative attention to or exclude the victim or the bully.
  • Specific interventions such as social skills training and assertiveness training show promise for children who are victims of bullying. They have been shown to improve victimized students’ self-esteem, sense of competence, and abilities to effectively cope with bullying behavior (11). Teachers and staff also can work collaboratively to create opportunities for victims to interact with prosocial peers. As for working with children who bully, components of anger management programs may be useful to help these students apply problem solving skills and avoid conflict (12).
  • Based on the prevalence and negative consequences of bullying, it would be helpful for schools to conduct teacher and parent training sessions in order to increase knowledge on the topic and teach appropriate positive behavior strategies that can be used if a child is bullying others or being victimized. For instance, providing schools with data on school specific bullying rates, “hot spots” where bullying occurs, and the most common forms of bullying that are used at the school can be helpful for parents and staff to gain awareness of the issue. In addition these sessions can help school staff learn to recognize the various forms of bullying (e.g., physical vs. relational) and train parents and teachers to be more proactive in their anti-bullying efforts.

By increasing awareness of the problem of bullying and providing training on skills for effectively handling a bullying situation, teachers and school staff can work collaboratively with students to promote a safe and supportive learning environment.

References

  1. Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school. Oxford, England: Blackwell.
  2. Bradshaw, C. P., Sawyer, A., & O’Brennan, L. M. (2007). Bullying and peer victimization at school: Perceptual differences between students and school staff. School Psychology Review, 36, 361-382.
  3. O’Brennan, L. M., Bradshaw, C. P., & Sawyer, A. (in press). Examining developmental differences in the social-emotional problems among frequent bullies, victims, and bully/victims. Psychology in the Schools.
  4. Juvonen, J., Graham, S., & Schuster, M. A. (2003). Bullying among young adolescents: The strong, the weak, and the troubled. Pediatrics, 112, 1231-1237.
  5. Espelage, D. L., & Swearer, S. M. (2003). Research on school bullying and victimization: What have we learned and where do we go from here? School Psychology Review, 32, 365-383.
  6. Tobin R., Schwartz, D., Gorman, A. H., & Abou-ezzeddine, T. (2005). Social-cognitive and behavioral attributes of aggressive victims of bullying. Applied Developmental Psychology, 26, 329-346.
  7. Nansel, T. R., Craig, W., Overpeck, M. D., Saluja, G., Ruan, W. J., & the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children Bullying Analyses Working Group (2004). Cross-national consistency in the relationship between bullying behaviors and psychosocial adjustment. Journal of the American Medical Association, 158, 730-736.
  8. Leary, M. R., Kowalski, R. M., Smith, L., & Phillips, S. (2003). Teasing, rejection, and violence: Case studies of the school shootings. Aggressive Behavior, 29, 202-214.
  9. Vaillancourt, T., Hymel, S., & McDougall, P. (2003). Bullying is power: Implications for school-based intervention strategies. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 19, 157-176.
  10. Olweus, D., Limber, S. P., Flerx, V. C., Mullin, N., Riese, J., & Snyder, M. (2007). Olweus Bullying Prevention Program: Schoolwide guide. Center City, MN: Hazelden.
  11. Macklem, G. L. (2003). Bullying and teasing: Social power in children’s groups. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.
  12. Smith, D. C., Larson, J., & Nuckles, D. R. (2006). A critical analysis of school-based anger management programs for youth. In S. R. Jimerson & M. J. Furlong (Eds.), Handbook of school violence and school safety: From research to practice (pp. 365-82). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  13. Nansel, T. R., Overpeck, M., Pilla, R. S., Ruan, W. J., Simmons-Morton, B., & Scheidt, P. (2001). Bullying behaviors among US youth: Prevalence and association with psychosocial adjustment. Journal of American Medical Association, 285, 2094-2100.