Fall 2008



Bullying in Schools: Understanding Bullying and How to Intervene with Schools

Patricia Quistgaard, Ph.D.

School Psychologist

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 is presented.





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 bullying?

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 the interaction.

Forms of Bullying and Victimization

Our understanding and awareness of different forms of bullying is continuing to evolve.  We know that bullying experiences can be overt or indirect.

Physical bullying is any type of behavior that intentionally inflicts bodily harm on a victim. Common examples include hitting, kicking, pushing, or spitting on a victim.

Emotional bullying harms victims through the use words to humiliate or emotionally assault a victim. Teasing, taunting, threatening, and ethnic slurs are examples.

Relational bullying 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).

Cyberbullying is 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.

In bystander 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 become Bullies?

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 contexts. 




Figure 1




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.

ô The child is rejected or perceived negatively by one or both parents.

ô There is a lack of nurturing and emotional support provided by the family.

ô Often poor bonding exists between the parent and child. 

ô Parental disharmony and conflict is present.

ô Harsh, physical punishment is used to coerce and control the child.

ô The parent’s discipline is inconsistent and based on the parent’s mood rather than on the child’s behavior.

ô The 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 bullies themselves.

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:

ô Academic Problems: a decrease in school performance, absenteeism, truancy, dropping out, lowered academic risk taking

ô Peer Problems: peer rejection, fear and avoidance of social situations, feelings of alienation, trouble making friends

ô Health Problems: inability to sleep, illness, bed-wetting, depression, stomach aches, headaches,  nervousness, loss of appetite, frequent trips to nurse, stress

ô Adjustment 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).

Barriers to 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 environment.

Erroneous Beliefs That Maintain Bullying

ô Bullying is just a normal part of childhood.

ô Children outgrow bullying.

ô Some children are just born rough.

ô Teachers cannot intervene in bullying situations because they lack adequate training and skills.

ô It is pointless for teachers to intervene because they cannot change the way bullies are treated at home, where they learn to be aggressive.

ô Frustrations at school cause bullies to behave aggressively.

ô Intervening will only result in continued or increased bullying.

ô It 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: 

ô Sometimes kids ask to be bullied by doing things in a way that attracts the bully.

ô Bullying is just child’s play; kids will outgrow bullying and victimization.

ô Bullying actually helps weaker kids by teaching them to stand up for themselves.

ô It is only victimization when kids threaten to harm or harm other kids physically.

ô Only boys bully, and they only victimize other boys.

ô There is not enough time during the school day to address bullying incidents and teach the academic curriculum.

ô As an educator, I do not have much power to change the bully-victim interaction.

ô I hope my students will talk to me, but I do not want them tattling on one another.

ô Addressing bullying problems is overwhelming – all the change will be on my shoulders.

ô Bullying 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.

Building Bullying 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 many

evidenced-based school-wide 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.

Table 1

Steps to Respect: Program Activities, Goals, and Examples


Activity                                                          Goals and Examples


                                                       Whole-School Components

Create antibullying policy & procedures      Develop shared understanding of bullying,

                                                                            consequences, & sequences

Conduct staff training in bullying                  Increase adult awareness, monitoring, &

   prevention                                                        intervention school-wide

Give parent presentation; send home             Increase parent awareness & involvement

   program materials                                            with student learning


Classroom Lessons

Teach friendship skills                                   Promote good peer relations & reduce the

                                                                              likelihood of victimization

Practice emotion regulation skills                  Role-play “cool & calm” responses to


Identify types of bullying behavior               Define & discuss direct, indirect or relational                 

                                                                            sexual bullying behaviors

Teach specific bullying prevention                Assess safety, & recognize, report, & refuse

    skills                                                               bullying behaviors (“The 3 R’s”)

Discuss peer group values &                          Identify fair, respectful & responsible

    behavior                                                         behaviors (e.g., helpful bystanders)

Support transfer of learning                           Encourage skill use in daily events (e.g., cue

                                                                            students to invite others to join in games)


Individual Interventions

Take student bullying report                          The 4-A Response: affirm behavior, ask

   using protocol                                                 questions, assess safety, act

Coach students involved in                            Determine history, provide support &/or

   bullying                                                           consequences, make plan for future

Follow up with involved students                  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 2). 




Figure 2




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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Olweus, D. (2001). Peer harassment: A critical analysis of some important issues. In Juvonen, J. and Graham, S. (Eds.). Peer harassment in school: The plight of the vulnerable and victimized. New York: Guilford Press.


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Willard, N. (2007). Cyberbulling and cyberthreats: Responding to the challenges of online social aggression, threats and distress.  Champaign, IL: Research Press.



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