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?
The Social Networks of Popular Bullies: Hidden in Plain Sight
Hidden bullies are a small subsection of the peer group -- but their influence is greater than their numbers. The problem is that hidden bullies are typically ringleaders. Bullies are sometimes hidden in plain sight as the popular and cool kids everyone looks up to (5, 6).
One principal from the Bronx uses teachers and students to change the culture of middle school from bleak to bright by working with students with power and influence. The principal said: “It’s just textbook counterinsurgency. The first thing you have to do is you have to invite the insurgents into the government … I wanted to have influence over the popular kids (10).”
Preventing Bullying by Identifying Social Relationships and Working with Peer Leaders
The reality of hidden bullies becomes even more problematic when schools engage in bullying prevention programs. Whole school approaches to bullying intervention can run into difficulties when faced with antisocial aggressive children who are popular. In our work aimed at implementing programs in Illinois schools, popular bullies have attempted to sabotage the programs by using various complaints that such programs talk down to them, or that they are ineffective. These students have high social skills and not only influence their peers but also schoolteachers and administrators (11).
Hidden bullies use aggression for the social rewards of control and dominance and in many cases, material rewards such as money, food, and goods. Programs that effectively target bullies, by changing the entire culture of a school, are a direct threat to popular bullies’ social and economic strategies within the existing school culture. Concerned adults should identify the leaders of peer cultures as peers view them, working with peer leaders when possible to reorient peer values and redirect social influences.
The renowned psychologist Urie Bronfrenbrenner (12) worried that the peer societies of even young children veer towards antisociality and apathy without prudent adult guidance. Mutual knowledge and communication between the worlds of children and adults is vitally important in schools. A comprehensive, and effective program to reduce bullying involves empathy, assertiveness, moral education, and a caring environment elevating all individuals in the school to a common purpose (3). These programs should include close monitoring by adults of how and where children are getting along-- or not getting along-- in the challenging landscape of peer life.
Knowledge and alteration of social networks is a leverage point for effective intervention in childhood bullying, just as social networks successfully model patterns of contagion for bulimia, AIDS, obesity and other public health epidemics (13). The study of the natural spread of aggression through childhood social relationships is one of the next great frontiers of educational research. This work will produce great practical benefits to children and schools in helping to prevent the endemic spread of bullying.
- Erikson, E. H. (1950/1963). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.
- Cairns, R. B. (1979). Social development: The origins and plasticity of interchanges. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.
- Rodkin, P. C., & Wilson, T. (2007). Aggression and adaptation: Psychological record, educational promise. In P. H. Hawley, T. D. Little, & P. C. Rodkin (Eds.), Aggression and adaptation: The bright side to bad behavior (pp. 235-267). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- 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.
- Rodkin, P. C., Farmer, T. W., Pearl, R., & Van Acker, R. (2006a). They’re cool: Social status and peer group supports for aggressive boys and girls. Social Development, 15, 175-204.
- Rodkin, P. C., Farmer, T. W., Van Acker, R., Pearl, R., Thompson, J. H., & Fedora, P. (2006b). Who do students with mild disabilities nominate as cool in inclusive general education classrooms? Journal of School Psychology, 44, 67-84.
- Rodkin, P. C., & Berger, C. (2008). Who bullies whom? Social status asymmetries by victim gender. International Journal of Behavioral Development.
- Olweus, D. (1978). Aggression in the schools: Bullies and whipping boys. New York: Hemisphere (Wiley).
- Garandeau, C. F., Wilson, T., & Rodkin, P. C. (in press). The popularity of elementary school bullies in gender and racial context. In S. R. Jimerson, S. M. Swearer, & D. L. Espelage (Eds.), The international handbook of school bullying. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Gootman, E. (2008, February 8). In Bronx school, culture shock, then revival. New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com on February 8, 2008.
- Berger, C., Karimpour, R., & Rodkin, P. C. (2008). Bullies and victims at school: Perspectives and strategies for primary prevention. In T. W. Miller (Ed.), School violence and primary prevention (pp. 287-314). New York: Springer.
- Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Rodkin, P. C., & Hanish, L. D. (Eds.). (2007). Social network analysis and children’s peer relationships. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Philip C. Rodkin is an associate professor of child development in the Departments of Educational Psychology and Psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His interests include social status, social networks and aggression in childhood, with particular reference to issues of gender and ethnicity. One goal of his work is to understand the socialization and development of aggressive behavior, and eventually to devise interventions that use children's existing social networks to reduce problem behavior in schools.
Ramin Karimpour is a third-year doctoral student in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Illinois. Mr. Karimpour specializes in social-ecological bullying prevention programs, with a particular interest in field implementation opportunities and challenges. Mr. Karimpour has deep roots as a minority educator, having served for seven years as a primary school teacher and secondary principal in the Tohono O’odham Nation of southwest Arizona.
The writing of this chapter was supported by grants from the Spencer Foundation (Small Grant #20050079) and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (R03 HD48491-01). We thank Christian Berger for his comments on this article.
Selected Author References
Garandeau, C. F., Wilson, T., & Rodkin, P. C. (in press). The popularity of elementary school bullies in gender and racial context. In S. R. Jimerson, S. M. Swearer, & D. L. Espelage (Eds.), The international handbook of school bullying. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Rodkin, P. C., & Ahn, H-J. (2008). Social networks derived from affiliations and friendships, multi-informant and self-reports: Stability, concordance, placement of aggressive and unpopular children, and centrality. Social Development.
Rodkin, P. C., & Berger, C. (2008). Who bullies whom? Social status asymmetries by victim gender. International Journal of Behavioral Development.
Berger, C., Karimpour, R., & Rodkin, P. C. (2008). Bullies and victims at school: Perspectives and strategies for primary prevention. In T. W. Miller (Ed.), School violence and primary prevention (pp. 287-314). New York: Springer.
Rodkin, P. C., & Hanish, L. D. (Eds.). (2007). Social network analysis and children’s peer relationships. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Rodkin, P. C., & Wilson, T. (2007). Aggression and adaptation: Psychological record, educational promise. In P. H. Hawley, T. D. Little, & P. C. Rodkin (Eds.), Aggression and adaptation: The bright side to bad behavior (pp. 235-267). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Rodkin, P. C., Wilson, T., & Ahn, H-J. (2007). Social integration between African American and European American children in majority Black, majority White, and multicultural elementary classrooms. In P. C. Rodkin & L. D. Hanish (Eds.), Social network analysis and children’s peer relationships (pp. 25-42). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Rodkin, P. C., Farmer, T. W., Pearl, R., & Van Acker, R. (2006a). They’re cool: Social status and peer group supports for aggressive boys and girls. Social Development, 15, 175-204.
Rodkin, P. C., Farmer, T. W., Van Acker, R., Pearl, R., Thompson, J. H., & Fedora, P. (2006b). Who do students with mild disabilities nominate as cool in inclusive general education classrooms? Journal of School Psychology, 44, 67-84.
Rodkin, P. C. (2004). Peer ecologies of aggression and bullying. In D. L. Espelage & S. M. Swearer (Eds.). Bullying in American schools: A social-ecological perspective on prevention and intervention (pp. 87-106). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Rodkin, P. C., & Fischer, K. (2003). Sexual harassment and the cultures of childhood: Developmental, domestic violence, and legal perspectives. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 19, 177-196. [Reprinted in J. E. Zins, M. J. Elias, & C. A. Maher (Eds.). (2007). Bullying, victimization, and peer harassment: A handbook of prevention and intervention (pp. 279-298). New York: Haworth Press.]
Rodkin, P. C., & Hodges, E. V. E. (2003). Bullies and victims in the peer ecology: Four questions for psychologists and school professionals. School Psychology Review, 32, 384-400.
Rodkin, P. C., Pearl, R., Farmer, T. W., & Van Acker, R. (2003). Enemies in the gendered societies of middle childhood: Prevalence, stability, associations with social status, and aggression. In E. V. E. Hodges & N. Card (Eds), Enemies and the darker side of peer relationships (pp. 73-88). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
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.
Rodkin Website: http://www.ed.uiuc.edu/edpsy/frp/rodkin