Bullying in Schools: Understanding Bullying
and How to Intervene with Schools
Patricia Quistgaard, Ph.D.
Bemidji Area Schools
Bullying was once regarded as an ordinary part of growing
up. However, in recent years, the expectations for school climate in American
schools have changed. American
schools are charged with providing safe and secure environments to maximize the
ability of children to learn and develop. From this perspective has grown an
increasing concern about recognizing, intervening, and preventing bullying
within American schools.
What do we know about bullying?
To assist us in recognizing bullying, this paper reviews
commonly identified types of bullying and how children become bullies. Next, types of victims and the impact
of victimization on children’s psycho-social development are reviewed.
How do we develop interventions within our schools?
To improve the lives of our children while in school,
strategies and interventions addressing both victims and bullies have been researched
and programs have been developed. The first challenge is to identify barriers
to system level changes within the school. The next level of intervention
involves the adoption of a school-wide approach aimed at the prevention of
bullying. The classroom level of interventions involves training small groups
in prosocial and anger control skills.
The individual level of interventions is targeted at both victims of
bullying and bullies. Programs aimed at preventing bullying are becoming more
prevalent among American elementary and middle schools. An example of the
process used in creating an anti-bullying program at the Bemidji Middle School
Over the past twenty years, increasing attention has been
paid to children’s experiences with peer harassment in American schools. An
estimated 15 percent to 30 percent of American students are identified as
either victims or bullies. In a
recent survey of 1200 students from 85 schools, 98 percent reported that
bullying occurred in their schools.
Forty percent reported being bullied and 76 percent reported that they
had witnessed other students being bullied (Schroeder, 2002). Research has identified negative
outcomes on children’s development not only for victims of peer harassment, but
also for the perpetrators and peers who witness it (see Hawker & Boulton,
2000 for review). As American schools
have focused on providing safe and secure environments to maximize children’s
ability to learn and develop, there has been increasing concern with
recognizing, intervening, and preventing peer harassment or victimization
within schools. A number of
school-based bullying prevention/intervention programs and curricula have been
developed and implemented.
What do we know about
Peer victimization is an aggressive act from one or more
students to another. Bullying is a
form of peer victimization that involves an intention to harm, an imbalance of
power, and repeated occurrences (Olweus, 1993, 2001). The hurtful experiences
of victims can be external (physical) or internal (psychological). Bullying is
not accidental but rather is intentional.
The bully wants to harm the victim. Bullying is characterized by an unfair advantage or
difference in power that the bully has over the victim. Bullying is not a single incident but
rather a pattern of repeated harassment of targeted victims (Hymel &
Swearer). An acronym useful in explaining bullying to children is PIC: Purposeful, Imbalanced and
Continual (Horne, Bartolomucci & Newman-Carlson, 2003). The PIC criteria help adults and
students distinguish bullying from typical play and interactions. The difference is often in the
relationship between the bully and the victim and in the perceived intent of
Forms of Bullying and
Our understanding and awareness of different forms of bullying
is continuing to evolve. We know
that bullying experiences can be overt or indirect.
is any type of behavior that intentionally inflicts bodily harm on a victim.
Common examples include hitting, kicking, pushing, or spitting on a victim.
harms victims through the use words to humiliate or emotionally assault a
victim. Teasing, taunting, threatening, and ethnic slurs are examples.
is the experience of being directly or indirectly excluded or socially
manipulated by others who intentionally use their relationship with the victim
as the “vehicle” for harm. Examples include gossiping, rumor spreading, exclusion,
or rejection from peers or “friends” (Cullerton-Sen & Crick, 2005).
the most recently identified form of bullying, using the computer, cell phones,
and other electronic technology to victimize others. Cyberbullying involves
both overt forms such as sending vulgar or threatening messages and relational
forms such as impersonating the victim to make them look bad, posting sensitive
private information to denigrate the victim, or intentionally excluding the
victim from online groups (Willard, 2007). Unlike face-to-face bullying, the cyberbully can target a
victim anytime and to a large audience.
The anonymity associated with electronic forms of contact has shielded
cyberbullies from sanctions.
victimization, bullies indirectly harm innocent bystanders who watch the
bullying occur but do not feel they have the power to confront the bully. Reported emotional impacts of this
experience on Bystanders include increased anxiety and somatic complaints.
Gender and Age
Differences in Bullying
A number of gender and age differences in bullying are
identified in literature. Boys
tend to bully by using direct physical or verbal aggression. Girls tend to engage in more indirect
relational bullying. Boys tend to
bully boys or girls who are one to two years younger than they are. Girls tend
to bully other girls their same age.
Girls are more likely to be the target of relational bullying. Girls are
more likely to be bullied by a group. Girls are more likely to involve both
girls and boys in their bullying of victims. Girls report higher levels of negative affect than boys in
response to relational bullying. Boys are more likely than girls are to
identify their behaviors as “bullying”. Younger students use aggression that is
more overt. Adolescents use
relational aggression to maintain perceived popularity and social status (see
Bonds & Stoker, 2000; Cullerton-Sen & Crick, 2005).
How do Children
As we are aware, a child’s development is influenced by a
number of factors including genetic, cognitive, and temperament characteristics
at birth; the child’s interactions within the family, with peers and adults in
the school environment and with others in the community; and the child’s
cultural background. Horne et al.
(2003) have addressed these influences in their Bully-Development Model (Figure
1). We will consider examples that
can contribute to the development of bullies. Children learn bullying and
aggressive behaviors through their interactions in various social
For example, the American culture stresses competition and
individual achievement rather than cooperation and collaboration. Children learn early that they may have
to step on others to get ahead. Socio-economic level and the safety of the
neighborhood in which they live impact the type of behaviors children learn are
“necessary for survival.” Family interactions are impacted by economic, housing
and marital stress factors. As illustrated in the Bully-Development Model, a child’s
interactions are impacted by his temperament (impulsive), modeling (adults who
bully, television and video games), discipline (coercion and inconsistent
physical discipline), and communication practices (intimidation) within the
family. Children learn by experiencing and observing the outcomes of their
interactions in their world. Some
children learn effective living skills through these interactions; others learn
coercive and aggressive behaviors (Horne et al, 2003).
Bonds and Stoker (2000) summarize family factors identified
by research that contribute to the development of aggressive and bullying
behaviors in children.
child is rejected or perceived negatively by one or both parents.
is a lack of nurturing and emotional support provided by the family.
poor bonding exists between the parent and child.
disharmony and conflict is present.
physical punishment is used to coerce and control the child.
parent’s discipline is inconsistent and based on the parent’s mood rather than on
the child’s behavior.
family is socially isolated and lacking in outside support.
Types of Victims
In this context, a victim is defined as someone who is
“exposed, usually repeatedly and over time to negative actions on the part of
one or more bullies” (Olweus, 1991).
Experience has shown that children who are bullied during one year
continue to be targets the next year unless interventions occur. Garrity et al. (2000) have categorized
victims into three categories based upon their responses to bullying. The Passive Victim is the most
common type—so labeled because
these victims do not fight back when bullied. Characteristics of Passive Victims include children who are
nonassertive and submissive, cautious and quiet, quick to cry, lacking friends
and a social network, anxious and insecure, lacking humor and prosocial skills,
and physically weak.
The second type is the Provocative
Victim who attempts to fight back but does so ineffectively. Characteristics of Provocative Victims
are children who are argumentative and aggressive, display disruptive and
irritating behaviors, are easily emotionally aroused, may continue the conflict
with bullies even when they are losing, and may be diagnosed with Attention
Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Because they fight back, Provocative Victims may be misidentified as
A recently identified type of victim is the Vicarious Victim or Bystander.
Bystanders experience significant emotional reactions when
witnessing or hearing about bullying.
Vicarious victims feel vulnerable as a future target of bullying, experience
empathy and sensitivity toward victims, fail to take a stand against bullying
due to fear of reprisal, and experience guilt about their failure to act. However, when this silent majority of
children participate in interventions, they can become part of a caring
majority who take a stand against bullying.
The Impact of
Victimization on Psycho-Social Development
Research on bullying delineates serious adjustment and
long-term problems for victims of bullying (Olweus, 1992). Victimized children are
frequently characterized as anxious, sensitive, quiet, insecure, isolated from
peers, having few friends, having difficulty handling conflicts independently,
and perceived as weak by peers. Various negative effects identified in the
literature (Bonds & Stoker, 2000; Horne et al., 2003) include:
Problems: a decrease in school performance, absenteeism, truancy, dropping out,
lowered academic risk taking
Problems: peer rejection, fear and avoidance of social situations, feelings of
alienation, trouble making friends
Problems: inability to sleep, illness, bed-wetting, depression, stomach aches,
headaches, nervousness, loss of
appetite, frequent trips to nurse, stress
Problems: withdrawn, loneliness, low morale, poor self-confidence, low
self-esteem, suicidal ideation and attempts, and in extreme cases, homicidal
ideation and attempts( as witnessed by recent school shootings in Red Lake,
Minnesota which is near my home)
Family factors also can contribute to children becoming victims.
In such families, family roles are not clearly defined and family members are
entangled. Parents are
overprotective and prevent their children from developing age-appropriate
coping and problem-solving skills. The parents are overly emotionally involved
in their children’s problems. When these children have problems in relationships
outside of the family, they start to believe they are incapable of handling
difficult situations. Problems also
exist in the parental relationships (Bonds & Stocker, 2003).
intervention within schools
To understand and to recognize bullying within schools is a
challenge for educational systems. Educators frequently underestimate the
extent and impact of bullying and, as a result, fail to stop or prevent it. Although
students are aware that bullying is painful, they may not clearly understand
that bullying is wrong or preventable, so they do not report it. Failure to
stop bullying within the school implies tacit approval of the behavior, thereby
emboldening bullies and leading victims and bystanders to feel further
victimized by the educational system. A starting point is for the educators to
address beliefs that maintain bullying and victimization within the school
Erroneous Beliefs That Maintain Bullying
is just a normal part of childhood.
children are just born rough.
cannot intervene in bullying situations because they lack adequate training and
is pointless for teachers to intervene because they cannot change the way
bullies are treated at home, where they learn to be aggressive.
at school cause bullies to behave aggressively.
will only result in continued or increased bullying.
is best to ignore bullying incidents. (Horne et al, 2003)
Myths about victimization also contribute to a lack of
response to prevent further victimization within schools. How many of these
myths have you heard in schools or your community settings?
The Top 10 Myths about Victimization:
kids ask to be bullied by doing things in a way that attracts the bully.
is just child’s play; kids will outgrow bullying and victimization.
actually helps weaker kids by teaching them to stand up for themselves.
is only victimization when kids threaten to harm or harm other kids physically.
boys bully, and they only victimize other boys.
is not enough time during the school day to address bullying incidents and
teach the academic curriculum.
an educator, I do not have much power to change the bully-victim interaction.
hope my students will talk to me, but I do not want them tattling on one
bullying problems is overwhelming – all the change will be on my
is not a problem in my class or my school. (Horne et al, 2003)
Acceptance of these myths prevents school staff or students
from feeling that they should help children who are victimized. Unfortunately, ignoring or blaming the
victim allows bullying to continue in our schools.
Prevention and Intervention Programs
Fortunately, in response to the prevalence and impact of
bullying within the schools, researchers, educators and others have developed
school-based programs aimed at preventing and intervening in bullying across
multiple levels. The intent of
prevention programs is to reinforce protective factors and reduce risk for all
students (Feinberg, 2003). The focus is on creating a positive, prosocial
environment. Intervention programs
target risk factors and, within a classroom setting, teach skills and
strategies to avoid victimization. The goal is to develop a caring and no
longer silent majority while shifting power away from the bullies.
Many successful programs have
developed based on the model of Dan Olweus (1997) targeting the context where
bullying occurs and the behavior of bullies, victims and bystanders. Step 1 (System level) is to lay the
groundwork of support for the effort with a coordinating team. Social workers in the schools are
well-positioned to lead and coordinate this endeavor. Step 2 (School level) is to develop a code of conduct and
school values with an effective system for enforcing consequences for bullying
and establishing a positive prosocial environment. It is critical to provide training for all personnel to
conduct school-wide bullying prevention activities, to participate in
prevention activities, and to increase adult supervision. Step 3 (Classroom
level) involves teaching prosocial skills and values within the classroom
setting. Communication with
parents about the program is also crucial. Step 4 (Individual level) brings the program down to the
level of the bully and the victim. Social workers and other educational support
personnel work with the involved students, one-on-one, to support the use of
the prosocial skills, to reinforce the use of alternative behaviors and to
monitor the students for associated mental health issues.
Several programs have been
published to assist schools interested in developing or implementing
comprehensive school-wide prevention/intervention programs. Some examples include Bully Busters: A Teacher’s Manual for
Helping Bullies, Victims, and Bystanders (Horne et al, 2003), Bully-Proofing Your School: A Comprehensive
Approach for Middle Schools (Bonds
& Stoker, 2000) and Steps to Respect
(Committee for Children, 2001).
Many programs have developed separate versions for elementary schools
and middle schools. Samples from
these programs are included for illustration. The first sample is from the program activities and goals of
the Steps to Respect program.
Respect: Program Activities, Goals, and Examples
Goals and Examples
Create antibullying policy &
Develop shared understanding of bullying,
consequences, & sequences
Conduct staff training in
Increase adult awareness, monitoring, &
Give parent presentation; send
home Increase parent
awareness & involvement
with student learning
Teach friendship skills
Promote good peer relations & reduce the
Practice emotion regulation
Role-play “cool & calm” responses to
Identify types of bullying
Define & discuss direct, indirect or relational
sexual bullying behaviors
Teach specific bullying
Assess safety, & recognize, report, & refuse
bullying behaviors (“The 3 R’s”)
Discuss peer group values
Identify fair, respectful & responsible
behaviors (e.g., helpful bystanders)
Support transfer of learning
Encourage skill use in daily events (e.g., cue
to invite others to join in games)
Take student bullying report
The 4-A Response: affirm behavior, ask
assess safety, act
Coach students involved in
Determine history, provide support &/or
consequences, make plan for future
Follow up with involved
Assess plan’s success & long-term safety of
children, refer & contact parents as
A visual mapping of the outcomes
for the Bully-Proofing Your School
program is included as an example of the potential impact of a comprehensive
bullying prevention/intervention program on a school community (see Figure
A final example of the process
used in creating an anti-bullying program is the Positive Peer Relations (PPR) program developed at our Bemidji
Middle School. The program began with our Middle School Social Worker and the
building administrators. The Mission Statement of the program is: “Through
Positive Peer Relations (PPR), Bemidji Middle School is committed to creating a
safe environment that fosters respect”. Over the past five years, the impact of
the program has been evident at the community level, the school level, the
class level and the individual level. As an example, the Class Level consists
of two prevention/intervention strategies. 1) A PPR class meets weekly for 25
minutes to talk about bullying, what to do if you are a victim or bystander,
how bullying affects others, etc. The student body is divided into small groups
of about 16 students for each PPR class. 2) School rules against bullying are
posted in every classroom.
The PPR committee continues to
evaluate the program and make revisions as indicated. One revision has been the expansion of PPR class topics to
cover character education issues using a different theme each month, e.g.,
Respect, Diversity/Tolerance, and Relationships. Two critical features in the success of the program have
been, first, the support of the administration in providing time for staff
training and for the weekly PPR sessions within the regular school day and,
secondly, the involvement of all building staff in a half day training prior to
implementing the program with the students.
One purpose of this presentation
is to provide an overview of the challenge facing American schools in
attempting to reduce bullying and to provide a safer learning environment for
our youth. We have learned that ignoring bullying has immediate consequences on
student academic and social achievement as well as long-term impacts on the
psycho-social development of the bullies, victims, and bystanders in our
schools. Research and practice
have demonstrated that evidence-based school-wide systematic bullying
prevention/intervention programs are an effective method of dealing with the
problems of bullying and peer harassment in schools. There are positive impacts on safety and security within the
school buildings, the morale of teachers and students and improved academic and
social learning. Although
implementing Bullying Prevention/Interventions programs require a commitment of
time, resources, and a willingness to change attitudes and to learn new skills,
continuing to ignore bullying is more costly than addressing it in terms of
resources spent, lowered achievement, and poorer social outcomes for our youth.
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