When rising middle school students are asked to name their biggest worry about going to a new school, they most often answer, “That I will not have any friends” or “That people will make fun of me” . The prospect of being friendless or getting teased looms large for many students at this age and can profoundly affect their sense of affiliation with school. Students tell us with heartbreaking regularity of the pain and anger they feel when their peers do not see them, include them, or care about them. At the extreme, some students not only are treated with indifference but also become targets of bullying.
Olweus (1993) defines bullying as verbal, physical, or psychological abuse or teasing accompanied by real or perceived imbalance of power. Bullying most often focuses on qualities that students (and the broader society) perceive to be different from the established norm, such as expected genderspecific behavior for boys and girls, dress and physical appearance, and manner of speaking. Bullying is connected to diversity, and reducing bullying means taking steps to make the community and the school safe for diversity of all kinds.
Research indicates that bullying—with its accompanying fear, loss of self-efficacy, anger, and hurt—negatively affects the school environment and can greatly diminish students’ ability to engage actively in learning (Hoover & Oliver, 1996). Being bullied has been linked with high rates of school absence (Fried & Fried, 1996); dropping out of school (Weinhold & Weinhold, 1998); and low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression (Banks, 1997). A U.S. Department of Education study (1998) found that students who had experienced sustained threats and verbal and physical peer aggression carried out two-thirds of school shootings.
Some researchers and practitioners believe that the impact of bullying is as devastating and life changing as that of other forms of trauma, such as physical abuse. The effects of bullying may linger long into the victims’ adulthood (Kaltiala-Heino, Rimpelae, Rantanen, & Rimpelae, 2000). Recent research has documented increased levels of depression and anxiety in adults who had been bullied in their youth (Gladstone, Parker, & Malhi, 2006).
Because of the documented harmful effects of bullying—as well as other forms of social isolation—on school climate and student achievement, educators are taking this problem seriously. Many schools have explored the benefits of implementing schoolwide programs to promote social and emotional learning, prevent bullying, and nurture positive peer relationships. A survey of middle school students that we recently conducted in three schools provides information on bullying behavior that can inform such programs.
A Middle School Survey on Bullying
To measure students’ experience with physical, verbal, and relational1
bullying, we administered surveys in spring 2006 to 211 7th and 8th grade students in three K–8 schools in New England. The three schools differ significantly by race, socioeconomic status, and urbanicity. Rural School,2
located in a small town, serves a student population that is socioeconomically diverse but is 94 percent white; 25 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Big City School is located in a low-income urban neighborhood and serves primarily Latino (65 percent) and black (33 percent) students; 93 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Small City School has a socioeconomically and ethnically diverse student body composed of 40 percent white, 36 percent black, 11 percent Latino, and 10 percent Asian students; 30 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
We surveyed nearly all the students in each grade, with the exception of 8th graders at Rural School, where we were able to survey only half of the class. The surveys included multiple-choice and open-ended questions. Respondents were evenly split between boys and girls. Most of our findings were consistent with what other research has found and what middle grades teachers know about bullying in the adolescent years. Some of our most significant findings follow.
Extent of Bullying
Most students (76.5 percent) felt safe most of the time. However, students at Big City School reported feeling safe much less often than did their peers at the other two schools (65 percent, compared with 83 percent at Small City School and 81 percent at Rural School). They also feared bullying more, even though students at Rural School reported seeing it occur more often. We believe this reflects the greater incidence of community violence to which Big City School students are exposed.
Rural School was the only school in which a majority of students (about 2 in 3) said that bullying was a serious problem. Many of the respondents from Rural School spoke about the difference between physical and emotional safety. As one 7th grade girl said, “I feel safe physically but my emotions take a blow here.”
In terms of grade level, bullying was more common for 7th graders than for 8th graders at the three schools we surveyed, with two notable exceptions: Verbal bullying affected 8th grade girls more than any other subgroup at Small City School, and physical violence affected 8th grade boys and girls more than 7th graders at Big City School.
Finally, across schools, boys and girls experienced physical and verbal bullying to a similar extent, but girls experienced more relational bullying than boys did. Girls at all three schools worried more often than boys that if they did or said something wrong, their friends would gang up on them and decide not to be their friends. This problem appeared to be most dire for girls at Rural School: A full 72 percent of them reported suffering relational bullying either “every once in a while,” “often,” or “every day,” compared with 58 percent of girls at Big City School and 48 percent at Small City School. This finding raises the question of the effect of socioeconomic status and cultural background on the bullying phenomenon. The almost entirely white population of girls at the school with the widest gap between wealthy and poor students was the group most at risk of relational aggression.
Boys were more likely to admit to bullying other students than girls were (which may have something to do with the way bullying is traditionally defined), but no significant gender difference was expressed overall when we asked students whether boys or girls bullied other students more. We also found that boys bullied both boys and girls, whereas girls typically only bullied other girls. We were troubled by girls’ graphic narrative responses that demonstrated that boys often bullied girls with demeaning comments about the girls’ appearance and demands for sexual interactions, particularly oral sex.
Location of Bullying
In all three schools, bullying happened most frequently in the hallways. When asked how to mitigate bullying at their school, many students suggested putting more adult supervisors in the hallways between classes. The second most common place in which bullying occurred differed across the three schools. At Big City School, bullying tended to happen in the bathrooms, where there was generally no adult supervision. At Small City School and Rural School, bullying happened on the playground and in the cafeteria, both places where adults were on duty.
Reasons Students Are Bullied
Students at all three schools perceived that “being overweight” and “not dressing right” were the most common reasons an individual might be bullied. At Small City School and Rural School, the second most common reason stated was being perceived as gay, which suggests rigid behavior expectations for boys and girls. Many students commented that someone might be a target for bullying if they look or act “different” or “weird.”
Students’ Reactions to Bullying
The most common strategies students reported using when confronted by bullies were walking away, saying mean things back, hitting back, or telling the bully to stop. The least common strategy was telling an adult at the school. Hitting back was a particularly popular response to bullying at Big City and Small City Schools, particularly among the boys. Given steadily increasing numbers of violent deaths over the last few years in many urban communities, we believe that this finding highlights the importance that urban youth put on maintaining a tough appearance to survive, as well as a perceived lack of options for nonviolent conflict resolution.
Student reactions to bullying also differed according to gender. More boys than girls believed that they had the right to use violence to protect themselves from physical violence or someone hurting their feelings or reputations. Girls reported being more likely to help a victim of bullying than boys did and more often said that bullying is wrong.
Inadequate Adult Response
Most students said they were not confident that adults could protect them from being bullied. Students at Rural School had more faith that their teachers could stop the bullying when they were told about it than did students at the other two schools. However, students in this school agreed with their urban peers that teachers did not seem to notice bullying and did not take it seriously enough. Most students said they wanted teachers to be more aware of all types of bullying and to intervene more often. These findings are consistent with past research in which students reported that most bullying goes undetected by school staff (Skiba & Fontanini, 2000).
When we talk with students in a variety of settings, they have many thoughts about how adults can help to make school safer and stop bullying. They frequently answer with statements like these: “Watch out for us and don’t ignore us.” “Pay attention.” “Just ask us what’s wrong.” “Talk to the students who have been bullied to see how to stop it.” “Start caring more.” “Believe us.” “Punish the bullies.” “Do something instead of nothing.” One thing seems certain: Most students want adults to see what is going on in their world and respond to bullying in caring, effective, and firm ways.
What Schools Can Do
The following recommendations for a schoolwide approach to bullying prevention are derived from our review of the literature, our survey findings, and a report generated by Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (Railsback & Brewster, 2001). All sources agree that schoolwide strategies must complement classroom curriculum. Schools should not frame the issue of how students and educators treat one another as an issue of behavior. Instead, they should opt for a more comprehensive set of goals that address social and moral development, school and classroom climate, teacher training, school policies, and community values, along with student behavior.
Conduct an assessment.
The first step toward creating an effective schoolwide antibullying program is identifying where, when, and how students experience bullying at a particular school. As our study demonstrated, different types of bullying occur with different frequency and magnitude among different populations in different school settings; therefore, a one-size-fits-all approach is not an appropriate solution. Schoolwide bullying intervention programs are more purposeful and relevant when they are informed by students’ views. We strongly recommend using a participatory action research approach that involves students in framing a problem statement; constructing a survey; summarizing, analyzing, and reporting the results; and generating ideas for how staff and students can respond to the issues uncovered by the survey.
Create a committee to focus on school relationships.
A committee involving students, parents, and community members along with school staff should focus on schoolwide relationships, not only on student bullying. This committee will assist the school in generating developmentally and culturally sound prevention and intervention ideas.
Implement an antibullying policy.
When asked what teachers could do to stop bullying, many of the students we surveyed said that teachers should be stricter with bullies. An effective policy should be developed through collaboration among students, teachers, parents, and administrators.
Pepler and Craig (2000) say that a whole-school policy is the foundation of antibullying interventions, and they recommend that a policy include the following: a schoolwide commitment to address bullying; a statement of rights and responsibilities for all members of the school community; a definition of bullying, including types and dynamics; the process for identifying and reporting bullying; expected ways for students and staff to respond to bullying; strategies that will be implemented; and a way to assess the effectiveness of antibullying efforts.
Train all school employees.
Bullying can be subtle and hard to detect, making it challenging for adults to intervene effectively. To stop bullying, school staff (including custodians, clerical staff, bus drivers, and lunchroom staff) must first have an opportunity to discuss the various ways and locations in which bullying occurs. From there, they can develop structures for communicating across roles within a school district and decide on an appropriate unified response. Considering that the majority of students in our study did not believe they could count on adults to protect them from being bullied, ongoing training and communication in this area is key. For students to develop positive attitudes toward school, they need to know that all staff members are committed to making it a safe and friendly environment.
Help the bullied and the bullies.
Another step in implementing a schoolwide antibullying program involves providing resources for those most affected by bullying. Many of the students we surveyed who had experienced bullying said that they wanted adults to listen to their stories. Some schools have had success with facilitating groups in which students address issues directly with their peers. The PALS program at Rocky Mountain Middle School in Idaho trains teachers to facilitate these groups, which increase communication and social skills and give stigmatized students a chance to experience a positive interpersonal connection with others and with the school.
Some students who are highly involved in bullying (either as perpetrators or victims) will need one-to-one support. It is important to involve parents and provide referrals for mentoring or counseling. Journaling with a teacher or counselor who reads and replies to concerns and issues may help particularly reticent students. Connecting students to after-school and summer programs will enable them to socialize with their peers outside of the school and form new friendships.
When children have been treated unfairly or violently in their primary relationships, it can be difficult for them to understand why they and their peers should be treated with respect. Nakkula and Selman (1991) describe an effective intervention called pair counseling
as a way for two children who have difficult peer relationships to come together with the help of a counselor to negotiate differences and learn how to be a friend.
Recognize and name all forms of bullying.
Be aware of the relationships among students and of shifts in cliques and friendships as much as possible. Look for subtle signs of relational aggression that may occur between students, such as whispering, spreading rumors, and exclusion. Let students know that comments and actions against any racial, ethnic, or social group will not be tolerated. Be prepared to explain your ethical position to your students. The students we surveyed suggested that teachers ask students what would benefit them and help students generate realistic and effective ideas. On this topic, one 7th grade girl wrote,
Teachers do everything, I think, in their power, but if they would just listen to the person who says they’re being bullied, instead of just saying “stay away from them” or “ignore it” maybe we would see some change.
School classrooms and corridors contain a full spectrum of behavior, from countless everyday small acts of kindness to serious acts of aggression. In our effort to mitigate negative student behavior, a commonly overlooked but essential aspect of creating emotionally and socially safe environments is noticing, acknowledging, and actively drawing out acts of kindness. Schools are places of tremendous courage, generosity, and thoughtfulness. Some students risk their own social standing by being kind to an “unpopular” classmate. Some students talk with others who appear lonely and try to offer friendship; they speak up when they see injustice because, in the words of one student, they “don’t think it is right to judge people by how they dress.” In past research (San Antonio, 2004) and in the survey we describe here, students frequently spoke with admiration about teachers who actively intervened against stereotyping and teasing based on gender, social class, race, and learning needs. Naming and reclaiming goodness in the school community is an important step toward reducing bullying.
Integrate social-emotional education into the curriculum.
An effective curriculum for social, emotional, and ethical learning addresses bullying as a social and moral development issue. Activities in such a program focus on self-understanding, understanding of others, appreciation for diversity, and responsibility to the community. By encouraging empathy, respect, and acceptance and giving students tools for communicating their feelings and confronting conflict positively, an effective social-emotional learning curriculum will likely improve school climate and culture beyond just the mitigation of bullying. (See Choosing a Social-Emotional Learning Curriculum, p. 34, and Social-Emotional Learning Curriculums Online, p. 37.)
Educators Set the Tone
As a primary social environment for young people, classrooms and schools are uniquely good places to learn how to treat others and how to tell others the way we want them to treat us. Dozens of times a day, people in schools negotiate interpersonal exchanges with others from diverse backgrounds, making schools a premier learning environment for social, emotional, and ethical learning. Nel Noddings (2002) has long held that a key purpose of schooling is to educate moral people:
An emphasis on social relationships in classrooms, students’ interest in the subject matter to be studied and the connections between classroom life and that of the larger world provides the foundation of our attempts to produce moral people. As educators we must make it possible and desirable for students to be good. (p. 85)
Of course, students behave in aggressive or submissive ways for a variety of reasons that are not always easy to discern or manage. Some students may posture aggressively because they face violent behavior at home or in their neighborhoods, some have problems reading social cues or controlling their impulses, and some are simply scared. But in our work with schools, we have found that when educators take students’ concerns seriously, teach them alternative ways to communicate their needs assertively but not violently, and provide adult guidance, vigilance, safety, good role models, and support, students are more likely to interact positively with their peers.
The findings from the survey we conducted among middle grade students support the concept that educators can
influence the social and emotional climate of schools. Students’ written comments on the survey make it clear that they value fairness, respectful communication, and adults who make them feel physically and emotionally safe and cared for. By implementing an effective social-emotional learning curriculum and addressing the systemic factors that determine school climate, we can create schools where bullying is rare and where all students are ready to learn.