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Bullying: Facts for Schools and Parents

By Andrea Cohn & Andrea Canter, Ph.D., NCSP

Bullying is a widespread problem in our schools and communities. The behavior encompasses physical aggression, threats, teasing, and harassment. Although it can lead to violence, bullying typically is not categorized with more serious forms of school violence involving weapons, vandalism, or physical harm. It is, however, an unacceptable anti-social behavior that is learned through influences in the environment, e.g., home, school, peer groups, even the media. As such, it also can be unlearned or, better yet, prevented.

A bully is someone who directs physical, verbal, or psychological aggression or harassment toward others, with the goal of gaining power over or dominating another individual. Research indicates that bullying is more prevalent in boys than girls, though this difference decreases when considering indirect aggression (such as verbal threats).

A victim is someone who repeatedly is exposed to aggression from peers in the form of physical attacks, verbal assaults, or psychological abuse. Victims are more likely to be boys and to be physically weaker than peers. They generally do not have many, if any, good friends and may display poor social skills and academic difficulties in school.

Facts About Bullying

  • Bullying is the most common form of violence in our society; between 15% and 30% of students are bullies or victims.
  • A recent report from the American Medical Association on a study of over 15,000 6th-10th graders estimates that approximately 3.7 million youths engage in, and more than 3.2 million are victims of, moderate or serious bullying each year.
  • Between 1994 and 1999, there were 253 violent deaths in school, 51 casualties were the result of multiple death events. Bullying is often a factor in school related deaths.
  • Membership in either bully or victim groups is associated with school drop out, poor psychosocial adjustment, criminal activity and other negative long-term consequences.
  • Direct, physical bullying increases in elementary school, peaks in middle school and declines in high school. Verbal abuse, on the other hand, remains constant. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that younger students are more likely to be bullied than older students.
  • Over two-thirds of students believe that schools respond poorly to bullying, with a high percentage of students believing that adult help is infrequent and ineffective.
  • 25% of teachers see nothing wrong with bullying or putdowns and consequently intervene in only 4% of bullying incidents.

Why Do Some Children and Adolescents Become Bullies?

Most bullying behavior develops in response to multiple factors in the environment—at home, school and within the peer group. There is no one cause of bullying. Common contributing factors include:

  • Family factors: The frequency and severity of bullying is related to the amount of adult supervision that children receive—bullying behavior is reinforced when it has no or inconsistent consequences. Additionally, children who observe parents and siblings exhibiting bullying behavior, or who are themselves victims, are likely to develop bullying behaviors. When children receive negative messages or physical punishment at home, they tend to develop negative self concepts and expectations, and may therefore attack before they are attacked—bullying others gives them a sense of power and importance.
  • School factors: Because school personnel often ignore bullying, children can be reinforced for intimidating others. Bullying also thrives in an environment where students are more likely to receive negative feedback and negative attention than in a positive school climate that fosters respect and sets high standards for interpersonal behavior.
  • Peer group factors: Children may interact in a school or neighborhood peer group that advocates, supports, or promotes bullying behavior. Some children may bully peers in an effort to “fit in,” even though they may be uncomfortable with the behavior.

Why Do Some Children and Adolescents Become Victims?

  • Victims signal to others that they are insecure, primarily passive and will not retaliate if they are attacked. Consequently, bullies often target children who complain, appear physically or emotionally weak and seek attention from peers.

  • Studies show that victims have a higher prevalence of overprotective parents or school personnel; as a result, they often fail to develop their own coping skills.

  • Many victims long for approval; even after being rejected, some continue to make ineffective attempts to interact with the victimizer.

How Can Bullying Lead to Violence?

  • Bullies have a lack of respect for others’ basic human rights; they are more likely to resort to violence to solve problems without worry of the potential implications.

  • Both bullies and victims show higher rates of fighting than their peers.

  • Recent school shootings show how victims’ frustration with bullying can turn into vengeful violence.

What Can Schools Do?

Today, schools typically respond to bullying, or other school violence, with reactive measures. However, installing metal detectors or surveillance cameras or hiring police to patrol the halls have no tangible positive results. Policies of “Zero Tolerance” (severe consequence for any behavior defined as dangerous such as bullying or carrying a weapon) rely on exclusionary measures (suspension, expulsion) that have long-term negative effects.

Instead, researchers advocate school-wide prevention programs that promote a positive school and community climate. Existing programs can effectively reduce the occurrence of bullying; in fact, one program decreased peer victimization by 50%. Such programs require the participation and commitment of students, parents, educators and members of the community. Effective school programs include:

  • Early intervention. Researchers advocate intervening in elementary or middle school, or as early as preschool. Group and building-wide social skills training is highly recommended, as well as counseling and systematic aggression interventions for students exhibiting bullying and victim behaviors. School psychologists and other mental health personnel are particularly well-trained to provide such training as well as assistance in selecting and evaluating prevention programs.
  • Parent training. Parents must learn to reinforce their children’s positive behavior patterns and model appropriate interpersonal interactions. School psychologists, social workers and counselors can help parents support children who tend to become victims as well as recognize bullying behaviors that require intervention.
  • Teacher training. Training can help teachers identify and respond to potentially damaging victimization as well as to implement positive feedback and modeling to address appropriate social interactions. Support services personnel working with administrators can help design effective teacher training modules.
  • Attitude change. Researchers maintain that society must cease defending bullying behavior as part of growing up or with the attitude of “kids will be kids.” Bullying can be stopped! School personnel should never ignore bullying behaviors.
  • Positive school environment. Schools with easily understood rules of conduct, smaller class sizes and fair discipline practices report less violence. A positive school climate will reduce bullying and victimization.

What Can Parents Do?

  • Contact the school’s psychologist, counselor or social worker and ask for help around bullying or victimization concerns. Become involved in school programs to counteract bullying.
  • Provide positive feedback to children for appropriate social behaviors and model interactions that do not include bullying or aggression.
  • Use alternatives to physical punishment, such as the removal of privileges, as a consequence for bullying behavior.
  • Stop bullying behavior as it is happening and begin working on appropriate social skills early.

References

Anderson, M., Kaufman, J., Simon, T. R., Barrios, L., Paulozzi, L., Ryan, G., Hammond, R., Modzeleski, W., Feucht, T., Potter, L., & the School-Associated Violent Deaths Study Group. (2001). School-associated violent deaths in the United States, 1994-1999. Journal of the American Medical Association, 286, 2695-2702.

Banks, R. (1997). Bullying in Schools. ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education. (EDO-PS-97-17). Retrieved October 7, 2003 http://ericeece.org/pubs/digests/1997/banks97.html

Nansel, T. R., Overpeck, M., Pilla, R. S., Ruan, W. J., Simons-Morton, B., & Scheidt, B. (2001) Bullying Behaviors Among US Youth: Prevalence and Association With Psychosocial Adjustment. Journal of the American Medical Association, 285, 2094-2100.

Olweus, D. (1993). Victimization by peers: Antecedents and long-term consequences. In K.H. Rubin & J. B. Asendorf (eds.), Social withdrawal, inhibition & shyness in childhood. Hillside, NJ: Erlbaum.

Olweus, D. (1994). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.

Weinhold, B. & Weinhold, J. (2000). Conflict resolution: The partnership way. Denver, CO Love Publishing Co.

Resources

Batsche, G. (1997). Bullying. In Bear, Minke & Thomas (Eds.), Children’s Needs II: Development, problems and alternatives (pp. 171-180). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

Bonds, M & Stoker, S. (2000). Bully-proof your school. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

Garrity, C., Jens, K., Porter, W., Sager, N., & Short-Camilli, C. (1994). Bully-proofing your school. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Webster-Stratton, C. (1999). How to promote children’s social and emotional competence. Sage.

Online

National Mental Health and Education Center for Children and Families (NASP) www.nasponline.org/families/index.aspx

Safe and Responsive Schools Project www.indiana.edu/~safeschl/

Safe Schools/Healthy Students Action Center www.sshsac.org/

National Resource Center for Safe Schools www.nwrel.org/safe

This article was developed from a number of resources including the chapter by George Batsche.

© 2003, National Association of School Psychologists, 4340 East West Highway, Suite 402, Bethesda, MD 20814.

Posted October 7, 2003.