Bullying is a relationship problem that requires relationship solutions. Over the past 20 years, the dominant perspective has been to view bullying as an aggressive behaviour problem that requires consistent punishment of those who bully (1, 2). Recent research has demonstrated considerable diversity among children who bully. Although some have serious problems with aggression and behavioural regulation, others are socially skilled and central members of a peer group who have learned to acquire power through bullying (3, 4, 5). Given such diversity, behavioural management and punitive approaches may not be well- suited for those socially competent children who understand the dynamics of their peer group and use power and aggression to keep their high-status position. Punitive approaches also fall short of meeting the needs of children who bully because they have not acquired the skills, motivation, and understanding that are essential for positive social behaviour and healthy relationships.
Bullying as a Relationship Problem
Through our research, we have come to understand bullying as a relationship problem, suggesting that this behavior arises from complex interpersonal dynamics rather than an individual child’s problem with aggression or another child’s inability to defend him or herself. When viewed within a relationship context, those children who bully are learning how to use power and aggression to control and/or distress their peers. While children who are repeatedly victimized become trapped in abusive relationships that are increasingly difficult to escape. A relationship problem requires relationship solutions. The goal of interventions, then, is to enhance children’s interpersonal capacity in order to promote healthy relationships both in the present and throughout life. In addition, we must consider children’s age and gender, so that our relationship solutions match the students’ developmental needs.
Children develop the capacity to form healthy relationships from moment-to-moment learning experiences starting at birth (6). The lessons for successful social interactions are complex: they require understanding of one’s own behaviors and emotions and those of other people. The people children interact with are highly variable and often unpredictable; even a single person varies from day to day in warmth, responsivity, and emotionality. Given the complexity of social interactions, there can be no simple recipe for finding the appropriate relationship solutions. Adults need to provide extensive, dynamic, and ongoing support to youth to enable them to learn how to relate to others positively, be effective in achieving social goals, and use power in a positive manner.
Interventions for Children Who Bully
Children who bully others are asserting their social power and have learned to use their power aggressively (7). The lessons of power and aggression learned in playground bullying can transfer to sexual harassment, dating aggression and may extend to workplace harassment, as well as marital, child, and elder abuse (8). The challenge, then, is to redirect this leadership potential from the negative strategies of bullying to positive leadership skills and opportunities. These children require support to find positive ways of gaining power and status within their peer relationships. They need to be provided with formative, rather than punitive consequences – interventions that provide a clear message that bullying is unacceptable, but that also build awareness, skills, empathy and insights. These interventions also must provide appealing alternatives to bullying. Children who bully others could be encouraged to read a story or watch a film, and write about how hurtful bullying can be. Or they might be called upon to help implement anti-bully programs in younger grades. The key for children who bully is to turn their use of power from negative to positive leadership (9).
- For the majority of children (70-80%) bullying problems are temporary (10). With minor intervention and support (e.g., anti-bully programs offered in schools) these children will understand bullying problems and learn to engage positively with peers.
- A smaller proportion of children (10-15%) will have ongoing problems with bullying (10). These children may require support beyond the standard class lessons on bullying, character development, and citizenship. They may require specialized interventions to learn the essential building blocks of healthy relationships.
- For a small proportion of children (5-10%) bullying problems will persist and require comprehensive intervention, such as mental health support and parental engagement (10). These children require education in positive relationship skills since they have missed the essential lessons in healthy social development. Early intervention may divert them from a pattern of lifelong relationship problems.
Interventions for Children Who are Victimized
The relationship problem for children who are persistently bullied is that they are experiencing abuse from peers and are not being supported by those peers who witness bullying, nor by adults who may be unaware of the problem. We must protect these children and find ways to help them develop positive connections with peers and a trusted adult.
Teachers can help promote positive relationships through:
- establishing buddies,
- circles of support,
- peer mentors, and
- by finding ways to highlight the victimized child’s talents for others to see.
For web links to specific programs visit: www.prevnet.ca.
There is no single profile of children who are victimized. Responses to these children must depend on an assessment of their individual and relationship strengths and weaknesses. Some of the difficulties experienced by children who are victimized include, problems with social and assertiveness skills, emotional and/or behavioural regulation, and internalizing problems. Support can be provided through programs that emphasize social skills, but especially through consistent moment-to-moment support from teachers, parents, and peers.
Interventions for Children who Witness Bullying
Bystanders hold significant power when it comes to promoting, or stopping, bullying. There is a great deal of promise in engaging bystanders to take a stand against bullying by intervening directly, telling a trusted adult, or at least by not encouraging the bullying child. Children need help understanding their social responsibility to do something when they know that bullying is taking place (11).
- Peers can be coached in taking a stand and intervening when bullying occurs.
- Children may need scripts for what to say and do to intervene in a positive way.
- When more than one child steps in, it can help shift the balance of power away from the bully.
- The key is for adults to establish conditions in which children feel responsible.
- Children need to feel safe and to be encouraged to take the risk of speaking out against bullying.
- Adults who listen respectfully and respond with relationship solutions will facilitate the development of social justice and give children the power to act.
The Role of Adults
Adults are responsible for constructing environments that promote positive peer interactions. If adults are not aware of the dynamics in children’s peer groups, natural peer processes will place some children at risk for victimization.
- Adults need to discourage grouping together children who are similarly aggressive and engage in bullying. When troubled children are together, they reinforce each other for deviant behavior and in that way train each other to become more aggressive (11).
- Within the classroom, teachers should avoid the practice of having children determine their own working groups. Instead, teachers need to take responsibility for working groups to ensure that they are balanced, with a mix of students who are highly skilled for the particular assignment and other students, who will bring strengths in other specific domains. By taking responsibility to organize and reorganize children’s social groupings, teachers can avoid embarrassment and humiliation for students who have not been chosen by any group.
- Children need consistent lessons to develop the complex skills required for healthy relationships. They can only learn these skills in the context of positive relationships with the adults in their lives and with their friends and other peers. Solutions need to focus on promoting relationship skills for all children involved in bullying: those who bully, those who are victimized, as well as those who are bystanders. By supporting children’s healthy social and emotional development and by providing an environment that promotes healthy relationships, we can lay a foundation for healthy adaptation and positive relationships that last a lifetime.
- McGrath, H. & Stanley, M. (2005). A comparison of two nonpunitive approaches to bullying. In H. McGrath and T.Noble (Eds.) Bullying Solutions: Evidence-basedapproaches to bullying in Australian schools. pp.189-201, Frenchs Forest NSW: Pearson Longman.
- Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Farmer, T. W., Estell, D. B., Bishop, J. L., O’Neal, K. K., & Cairns, B. D. (2003). Rejected bullies or popular leaders? The social relations of aggressive subtypes of rural African American early adolescents. Developmental Psychology, 39, 992-1004.
- Rodkin, P. C., Farmer, T. W., Pearl, R., & Van Acker, R. (2000). Heterogeneity of popular boys: Antisocial and prosocial configurations. Developmental Psychology, 36, 14-24.
- Xie, H., Cairns, B. D., & Cairns, R. B. (2005). The development of aggressive behaviors among girls: Measurement issues, social functions, and differential trajectories. In D. J. Pepler, K. C. Madsen, C. Webster, & K. S. Levene (Eds.). The development and treatment of girlhood aggression (pp. 105-136). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
- McCain, M. Mustard, J.F., & Shanker, S. (2007). Early Years Study 2: Putting science into action. Canada: Council for Early Child Development.
- Vaillancourt, T., Hymel, S., & McDougall, P. (2003). Bullying is power: Implications for school-based intervention strategies. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 19, 157-17 (also appears in M. Elias & J. Zins (Eds), Bullying, peer harassment, and victimization in the schools: The next generation of prevention. Haworth Press, NY.)
- Pepler, D., Craig, W., Connolly, J., & Henderson, K. (2001). Bullying, sexual harassment, dating violence, and substance use among adolescents. In C. Wekerle & A. M. Wall (Eds.), The violence and addiction equation:Theoretical and clinical issues in substance abuse and relationship violence. pp 153-168. Philadelphia: Brunner/Mazel.
- Pepler, D., Jiang, D., Craig, W., & Connolly, J. (2008). Developmental trajectories of bullying and associated factors. Child Development, 79, 325-338.
- Craig, W. M. & Pepler, D. J. (2003). Identifying and Targeting Risk for Involvement in Bullying and Victimization. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 48, 577-583.
- Craig, W. M., Pepler, D. J., & Atlas, R. (2000). Observations of bullying on the playground and in the classroom. International Journal of School Psychology, 21, 22-36.
- Dishion, T.J., Andrews, D.W., & Crosby, L. (1995). Antisocial boys and their friends in early adolescence: Relationship characteristics, quality, and interactional process. Child Development, 65, 139-151.
- Atlas, R, Pepler, D.J., & Craig. W. (1998). Observations of bullying in the classroom. American Journal of Educational Research, 92, 86-99.
- Pellegrini, A., & Long, J. (2002). A longitudinal study of bullying, dominance, and victimization during the transition from primary school through secondary school. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 20(2), 259-280.
- Pepler, D., & Craig, W. (2007).Binoculars on bullying: A new solution to protect and connect children. Voices for Children Report. February 2007.