bullying in school &; community:
kid stuff or a precursor to violence?

Most adults have childhood memories of bullying. We may have been involved directly, or just indirectly as a witness or a bystander, but very few of us have completed the journey into adulthood without experiencing bullies, victims and the interaction between them. But research examining this area over the last two decades or more, reveals that much of our understanding of bullying is distorted or just flat out wrong. It's almost as though we've matured, but our perception of bullying is still mired in the observations, experiences and interpretations of childhood.

In the pages that follow, bullying will be defined and described in research terms, that is in terms that are fact-based. We will look at current knowledge about how bullying is manifested in school and community settings, and how adults tend to react to it. We will touch on causes, to the extent that they are understood, and finally we will discuss controlling bullying in ways that are appropriate and effective.

Bullying Defined

Very often when bullying is discussed, the topic is really violence or aggression. While these are related concepts, they aren't the same thing. An accurate definition of bullying could be stated as follows:

“Bullying occurs when a victim (or victims) is exposed to serious 'negative experiences' created by or due to another individual or group, the bully or bullies. These negative experiences often involve physical discomfort or pain, but can also be social or emotional in nature and involve psychological pain. In bullying, these negative experiences occur repeatedly over a period of time, There is always an imbalance of power between the victim and the bully, and this power imbalance can be physical, psychological or psychosocial.”

(Adapted from Olweus, 1993).


By this definition then, not every fight in the schoolyard is bullying. If the children involved are of roughly equal power and the altercation is a one-time event, it's a fight. We don't ignore it, but it's probably not bullying. On the other hand, the little girl who is isolated and teased by other children over a long period of time probably is a victim of bullying, and the intervention in this case should be quite different, as we will see below.

The Nature and Extent of Bullying

One of the most experienced researchers in the field of bullying is Dr. Dan Olweus, a professor of Psychology at the University of Bergen in Norway, who has been studying the problem for more than two decades. Using observations and both student and teacher questionnaires, his early studies in Norway and Sweden found that at any given time about 15% of the population in an average school was involved in ongoing bullying, 7% as a bully and 8% as a victim, though some children actually played both roles depending upon the situation. Of course, 15% is approximately one in seven, meaning roughly four children would be involved in a typical class of 28 students. Given the distracting and disruptive potential of bullying behaviour, this clearly would have a significant effect on the classroom climate, and eventually on behaviour and academic achievement.

But that incidence rate was in Scandinavia. In light of the differences in cultures, it was hypothesized that the number of children involved might be higher in North America (Olweus, 1990, personal communication). In a study conducted in three randomly 'chosen schools in a southern Ontario school board, it was found that the number of children who bullied others was about the same as in Scandinavia, but a higher percentage of children, almost 12%, complained of being victimized. The result was an overall rate of about 18% (DiPasquale, 1993). A similar study conducted in Toronto area schools suggested 21% of children were involved in some way (Pepler &; Craig, 1995), while similar or higher numbers have been reported in studies in England (Olweus, 1993, Boulton &; Underwood, 1992), and in the United States (Batsche &; Knoff, 1994).

In every country studied, bullying appears to be a pervasive phenomenon that does not co-vary with any demographic variable. That is, the frequency of bullying behaviour is not consistently different in schools or neighbourhoods that are urban versus rural, more versus less populated, or more versus less affluent. It appears instead to relate to broader societal factors within each country, possibly related to child rearing traditions, child supervision standards and tolerance for competition and conflict.

The most common location for bullying behaviour is at school or on the way to and from school; This should not be surprising, since the school is the one place where we find all children interacting in a situation of limited supervision. Bullying also is often reported by children to occur in the home. It is unclear from present research whether this involves siblings, parents, playmates or some other group.

Gender differences are apparent in both the extent and the nature of bullying behaviour. Most researchers find significantly more boys than girls involved, both as bullies and as victims (Olweus, 1993, Whitney &; Smith, 1993). In general, boys are the perpetrators about 80% to 90% of the time, while girls or mixed groups of boys and girls are responsible for the rest. As victims however, boys and girls appear in a ratio closer to 60/40 respectively. However, these gender difference are being challenged by more recent research suggesting that the gap, if it really exists at all, may be closing as girls become more aggressive.

Part of the problem may stem from the fact that there are differences in how boys and girls bully each other. In general, when bullying other boys, boys tend to be physical far more often, especially prior to age twelve, although taunting and harassment are also apparent. In the case of girls bullying other girls, however, the preferred strategy more often involves social isolation of the victim, followed by teasing, harassment and passing rumours, often with a sexual promiscuity theme. This kind of behaviour is often less visible and therefore easy to underestimate.

Causes of Bullying Behaviour

While there are no definitive answers regarding the causes of bullying behaviour, several factors are known to be involved. There is a small but significant correlation between parental aggression and child bullying. That is, parents who have aggressive personalities are more likely to have children with aggressive personalities. Furthermore, parents who model aggression as a way of meeting their needs, or who use harsh or aggressive methods of discipline are significantly more likely to have children who engage in aggression or bullying (Olweus, 1993).

But parental influences are only part of the story. Bullying behaviour can also develop as a result of peer modelling, independent of parental influences. This is most commonly seen in gang related situations, but it also occurs in less dramatic peer environments.

There is another major causative factor that should not be overlooked. In many cases, independent of parental or peer modelling, bullying is a learned behaviour which develops in children because it works. From toddler age onward, the child discovers that aggressive, harassing, intimidating or violent behaviours are highly successful in acquiring), desired objects or manipulating the environment. The more this kind of behaviour is reinforced by success, the more often it occurs, and the more difficult it will be to eliminate. This fact alone emphasizes the need for very early intervention if prevention of bullying behaviour is taken seriously.

Long Term Effects of Bullying

Researchers are largely unanimous in concluding that bully-victim relationships can last a long time, even for several years (Craig &; Pepler, 1999). Furthermore, follow-up studies have shown that effects of the experience can persist into adulthood, for victims and for bullies (Eron et al., 1987; Olweus 1993, Craig &; Pepler, 1999). In the case of victims, there is both good news and bad. The good news is that in adulthood victims appear to have outgrown the role. That is, they do not appear to be victims in their social or work settings. However, in males there do appear to be depressed levels of self esteem, particularly in relation to their image of themselves as "manly" - a not unexpected consequence of spending one's early childhood years fleeing from bullies. These self-esteem issues in turn appear to sometimes affect the way these victims relate to their sons.

In the case of bullies, the long term consequences appear to be even more serious. Evidence shows that males identified as bullies in their elementary school years are at risk for a wide variety of social problems as adults (Craig &; Pepler, 1999). For example, studies have found much higher rates of divorce and spousal abuse, job loss, and criminal conviction (Olweus, 1991, 1993, Eron et al., 1987). It is especially critical that these findings are shared with parents of bullies, since often a defensive reaction prevents them from admitting that a problem exists, particularly since the problem does not seem as detrimental to their children as it is to their children's victims.

Other long term studies have clearly shown that youth who are incarcerated for offences involving violence, are significantly more likely to have been identified as bullies in elementary school than those incarcerated for non-violent crimes (Loeber &; Keenan, 1995). Therefore, some of the children who,bully their peers in the early school years will go on to perpetrate violent crimes in their teens and twenties. Young people do not suddenly become violent when they reach adolescence, and prevention is not a task that should be left to secondary schools. By then it is very likely too late.

The Role of Adults

When children are asked what teachers, parents or other adults do to stop bullying, the most likely response is "nothing". There is a tendency for adults to either avoid involvement or to intervene at a very superficial level when they witness bullying behaviour. There are many reasons for this, most of which appear to be rooted in culture and tradition. This can best be illustrated with a common scenario where a child is being physically bullied in the schoolyard. If a teacher on yard supervision duty notices the situation and attempts to intervene, he/she is usually assured by the aggressor and the bystanders that the altercation is just "play fighting" or some other non-serious activity. If the teacher investigates further by asking the victim, the response will usually be to confirm what the other children have said. That is, the victim will help to hide the problem. There is a "conspiracy of silence" and the victim is part of it.

This leads us to ask why. Why does the victim not reveal that he/she is being harassed or beaten up or whatever? The answer is, of course, that the victim is afraid of retaliation from the bullies. But if we analyze that reasoning, it really says that the victim does not believe that we, the adults, can or will protect him. And why would a victim fear that we can't or won't provide pmtection? Because we don't. And we don't, in part at least, because our culture has immersed bullying in a mythology that says that if a child is being bullied, especially a boy, adult intervention will make matters worse, In fact, the conventional wisdom says, the only solution is for the victim to fight back, at which time the bully, who is really a coward, will decide to find a new victim.

In our culture this myth is reinforced in every movie or television program where children are featured characters. Unfortunately, the research literature clearly indicates that these bullying scenarios very rarely play out in this fashion. First of all, victims tend to be children who are introverted, sensitive, small, and highly unlikely to defend themselves. That's why they are chosen as victims. Secondly, when these children do attempt to fight back, usually at the urging of others such as their parents, they often are easily defeated and sometimes even hurt. Bullies do not behave as depicted in the media. They tend to strive for control and do not tolerate resistance from the victim.

Besides the mythology described above, there is another cultural factor that mitigates against adults taking action. As has been suggested in countless studies of victimology, we tend to dislike victims. A consequence of this dislike is that adults who discover a bullying situation, first tend to look for evidence that the victim in fact caused the problem and brought the bully's wrath upon himself. This is often clear from the "interrogation" which greets children who approach adults for help:

"What did you do?"; 
"Did you say anything to those bigger boys?";
"Why were you playing in that area when you know that's where the big boys play?";
"Why did you wear your new shoes when you must have known they would tease you if you wore them?".

Such questions are unsettling in the context of serious bullying. Their impact is even more disturbing when we note their resemblance to questions often posed to other victims subjected to blame, namely women reporting harassment or even rape:

"Did you know the man or talk to him?";
"Why were you in that part of town at night?"; 
"What were you wearing?"; 
"Were you drinking?".

This behaviour on the part of authority figures serves to demonstrate to the victim that instead of protection they might well get blamed for the very problem they are reporting. The message is clear. Victims should find a way to solve the problem themselves, or simply live with it.

Are victims never involved then, in causing their own problems? Do they never deserve what they get? In my view just asking such questions is tantamount to suggesting that individuals whose behaviour is unacceptable to us should be punished, and anyone who has the physical ability to do so has society's permission. In a civilized society, a person whose behaviour is annoying or unusual should not be subjected to vigilante justice, where those who feel wronged or bothered are allowed to mete out any level of retribution they feel is justified. Yet with children, this seems to be common and adults are often tacitly-complicit.

Reducing Bullying Behaviour

There are many programs and strategies described in the research literature which have been shown to effectively reduce bullying behaviour (Olweus, 1993, Garrity et al., 1997, Craig &; Pepler, 1999). Generally, they share most of the following components.

1. Community Component: Many effective programs or strategies to address bullying involve a variety of stakeholders besides teachers and parents. Others in the community such as retailers, police, and residents without children, are invited to get involved, usually by the school. One reason for this is the sure knowledge that bullying may begin as a school problem, but as bullies get older they either reduce their aggressive behaviour or they intensify it and expand it into the community (Loeber &; Keenan, 1995). The community at large then must help get the message out that bullying will not be tolerated, and that bullies will be held accountable for their behaviour. Olweus' program in Norway is probably the most ambitious in this regard, with community members actually recruited to sit on school committees assembled specifically to deal with aggressive behaviour (Olweus, 1993).

Overall, community involvement is one way to inform parents about their children's behaviour when they are out of sight. When neighbours have each other's permission to help with child-rearing by serving as extra eyes and ears, or by reinforcing parental expectations throughout the neighbourhood, then children are more accountable, and they lose the cloak of anonymity that often facilitates unacceptable or even criminal behaviour. The bottom line is that raising children is difficult, and doing it in isolation is even harder. When community members co-operate and assist parents with the very vital role of monitoring , both parents and children benefit (Barnes &; Farrell, 1992).

2. School Component: The school has the largest, most complex and most varied role to play in reducing bullying. Since the bulk of the problems occur in, at, or on the way to or from school, it isn't surprising that some of the best opportunities for intervention also occur there. Schools have been extremely effective in reducing bullying by increasing supervision; not just by increasing the adult to student ratio, but by providing knowledge and training for staff about the problem and how to deal with it. As well, research has shown that schools that have, or that develop, interesting schoolyards with lots of activities show a reduced frequency of these behaviours.

Schools also need to establish policies that seek to educate students about bullying, including why it's unacceptable, and how we can all help to reduce the problem. In particular, schools need to clearly communicate our expectations of bystanders and witnesses. All students have a role to play in making the school a safe place, and part of that responsibility includes caring about the safety of fellow students. No student should be expected to put him or her self in danger of course, but all students should communicate immediately with staff if they are concerned about violent or intimidating behaviour.

3. Classroom Component: The classroom is the appropriate place for discussion of the moral implications of bullying. It is in classroom discussions that students can talk about human rights and the expectation that in a free, democratic society, no one should feel unsafe or be unable to enjoy that freedom. Discussions about "might versus right", and the equality of all people, are ideal vehicles for shaping attitudes and values that will harness positive peer pressure to reject bullying as a method for solving problems or satisfying one's needs.

As well, in the classroom teachers can model and demand respect for others at all times. Disrespectful behaviour directed toward other students, or even teachers, is the seed from which a wide variety of social and behavioural problems grow. It should always be confronted and seized as a "teachable moment" ripe with the opportunity to change attitudes, beliefs and behaviours.

4. Individual Component: Researchers have found that many of the conventional approaches for dealing with individual bullies and victims is ineffective. In the case of bullies, it has been assumed that part of the problem lies in their low self-esteem and poor social skills. However, studies by Olweus and others have failed to find evidence of this low self-esteem, particularly as it relates to the role of bully. In fact, some studies have reported the opposite, with bullies expressing pride in their power in the school setting, and reporting that they feel respected, though in fact this is probably a confusion with fear.

The traditional approach of treating bullies with self-esteem building or social skills programs has seldom yielded positive results as measured by behaviour change. More success, however, has been reported with programs that focus on both positive and negative consequences. That is, consistent punishment of bullying behaviour, paired with equally consistent positive feedback, praise and encouragement contingent upon prosocial behaviour (Olweus, 1993, Craig &; Pepler, 1996). As well, the use of positive peer pressure, as mentioned above, can be highly effective in helping bullies to adopt more positive and socially acceptable methods for dealing with conflict or in meeting their needs.

In dealing with victims, of course, the paramount need is for protection. It is essential that children who have been victimized by a bullying not be re-victimized by the adults they approach for help. As well, they must be monitored to assure a safe, secure environment both at school and in the community. This may be time-consuming and require considerable effort and creativity, but in my view it is not optional. Failure to provide protection can lead to legal liability (Anderson, 1993, Bailey, 2000) or, rarely, to more serious consequences such as the victim retaliation shootings seen in Columbine, Colorado, Taber, Alberta, and elsewhere (Greenbaum, 1989).

Summary and Conclusions

In summary, the research literature shows that bullying is a pervasive, significant problem among school aged children. It can be a distraction and a disruptive influence in the schools, and is clearly linked to serious criminal behaviour in the community. The literature also provides hope, however, in the sense that many programs and strategies to reduce bullying have been shown to be effective.

It may not be realistic to expect that the phenomenon of bullying would ever be completely eradicated. Some would argue that it is human nature to press one's advantage and take liberties in social situations where a power imbalance allows us to exploit those who are weaker. But in a civilized democracy, it is paramount that we expend the effort to create a society that is fair, safe and equitable. Working with children, especially in the school setting, clearly offers the best hope for moving toward the ideal of social justice.


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Contributed by Dr. Glenn DiPasquale, Former Chief Psychologist, York Region District School Board