Do’s and Don’t of Bullying – for Teachers

School bullying is associated with a host of adjustment difficulties (see Juvonen & Graham, 2014, Sanders & Phye, 2004). Students who are chronic victims of bullying are often the same children who are rejected by their peers; have low self-esteem; and feel depressed, anxious and lonely. Part of this psychological distress may revolve around how victims think about the reasons for their plight. For example, repeated encounters with peer hostility or even a single isolated, yet especially painful experience, might lead that victim to ask, “Why me?” In the absence of contrary evidence, such an individual might come to blame their predicament on their own shortcomings. Victims often conclude, for example that “I’m someone who deserves to be picked on” (Graham, Bellmore, & Mize, 2006; Graham & Juvonen, 1998). It is as if the victim is saying to himself or herself: “It’s something about me; things will always be that way, and there is nothing I can do to change it”). Self-blame can lead to many negative psychological outcomes because individuals who make this attribution tend to feel both helpless and hopeless.

In addition to psychological challenges, some victimized children also have real physical symptoms that lead to frequent visits to the school nurse and absenteeism (Nishina, Juvonen, & Witkow, 2005). It is not difficult to imagine a chronic victim of bullying who becomes so anxious about going to school that she or he tries to avoid it at all costs. Victims of bullying can also develop negative attitudes toward school, which then can lead to poor performance. The academic problems associated with bullying begin as early as kindergarten and extends into the adolescent years (e.g., Schwartz, Gorman, Nakamoto, & Toblin, 2005).

Respond to any bullying incident that you witness. Most bullying takes place in “unowned spaces” like hallways, playgrounds and restrooms where adult supervision is minimal (Astor, Meyer, & Behre, 1999). It is important for teachers to be more visible in these places and to respond to all bullying incidents that they witness. A response by a teacher communicates to bullies that their actions are not acceptable and it helps victims feel less powerless about their predicament. The frequent presence of teachers in all areas of the school helps give students a feeling of safety. Teachers should also keep an eye on students who are physically smaller than their peers, or who behave or look different from others, since these variables often serve as risk factors for bullying (Jvonen & Graham, 2014).
Use witnessed bullying incidents as “teachable moments.” Teachable moments are defined as situations that open the door for conversations with students about difficult topics. These may include: why many young people play bystander roles and/or are unwilling to come to the aid of victims, how social ostracism can be a particularly painful form of peer abuse, and why bullies are sometimes popular among their peers. An effective way to send the message that bullying will not be tolerated is to engage students in these difficult dialogues rather than to quickly and harshly punish the perpetrator.
Seek outside help when needed. Most teachers do not have the training to deal with students who have serious problems as either perpetrators or victims of bullying. Hence, they should request professional assistance when it is needed either from the principal, a school counsellor or the school psychologist. Although bullying in American schools affects the lives of many youth, about 10% of students are chronic bullies or victims and they may be at risk for long-term adjustment difficulties (Juvonen, Graham, & Schuster, 2003; Nansel et al., 2001).
Set an example with your own behaviour. Unfortunately, peer bullying also occurs among educators and between educators and students (e.g., Brendgen, Wanner, & Vitaro, 2006). It is critically important that adults in school settings refrain from targeting each other and from targeting students.

Never ignore a student who reports being victimized by peers. Victims of peer bullying are often reluctant to tell their teachers about their experiences because they fear retaliation. Others who avoid disclosure believe that their teachers do not care or are unwilling to come to their aid. Because so many victims of school bullying “suffer in silence” it is important that teachers follow up on every reported incident.
Do not rely too heavily on a zero tolerance approach to disciplining bullies. Zero tolerance approaches that advocate suspension or expulsion of school bullies are sometimes preferred because they presumably send a message to the student body that bullying will not be tolerated. However, research suggests that these policies do not always work as intended and can sometimes backfire (APA Task Force on Zero Tolerance, 2008). Before deciding on a discipline strategy, teachers need to give careful thought to the scope of the problem, where change should be targeted, who will be affected by those changes, the fairness of the strategy, and the kinds of messages that are being communicated to students.
Do not adopt a “one size fits all” model for intervening in school bullying. Because bullying can take many forms (e.g., psychological vs. physical), it may be temporary or chronic. Because bullies and their victims have different challenges, teachers need to tailor their intervention approaches to the specific needs of each child.
Do not let the peer group off the hook. Bullying involves more than perpetrators and victims. Students are often witnesses to bullying incidents and may take on roles of bystanders or re-inforcers who encourage bullies (Salimalvalli, 2010). Peers need to learn that there is no such thing as an innocent bystander and how their group behaviour can indirectly encourage bullies.

So what can be done about it?

School-wide interventions

A school-wide approach targets all students, their parents and adults within the school, including administrators, teachers and staff. Such programs operate under the assumption that bullying is a systemic social problem and that finding a solution is the collective responsibility of everyone in the school. Systemic prevention requires changing the culture of the whole school rather than (in addition to) focusing on the behaviour of individuals or groups actually involved in bullying incidents. This approach requires increased awareness of the nature of the problem, heightened monitoring, and systematic and consistent responses to incidents of bullying. For example, students are asked to create their own rules about bullying and they are provided with information about strategies for dealing with bullying and opportunities for classroom discussions about their experiences. Teachers and school staff receive training that includes strategies for preventing problems associated with bullying.

Evaluations of school-wide interventions have yielded somewhat disappointing findings (e.g., Baldry & Farrington, 2007). Actual bullying behaviour often does not decrease very much and in some cases bullying increased, suggesting that the intervention may have backfired. It is evident that staff buy-in is essential to make these school-wide programs work. Research on decision making about program adoption reveals that many teachers and administrators in American schools are reluctant to embrace whole-school interventions because they either believe that there is not enough time and space in the curriculum or that developing anti-bullying attitudes is primarily the responsibility of parents (Cunningham et al., 2009). The best examples of successful school-wide interventions (see Juvonen & Graham, 2014) enjoy broad-based support from school districts, teachers, administrators, parents and students.

Targeted intervention programs

Unlike school-wide approaches that address the needs of everyone, most interventions target the known dysfunctional thoughts and behaviours of those children who aggress against others. One very well documented research finding is that bullies have a tendency to believe that peers are intentionally causing them harm, particularly in ambiguous situations (Dodge et al., 2006; also see Castro et al., 2002 for a meta-analysis). This tendency has been called hostile attribution bias. Imagine, for example, that you are standing in line and unexpectedly receive a push from the person behind you. Although it may be unclear whether the person intended the push or not, bullies are more likely to infer that the push was instigated “on purpose” (i.e., the person is responsible) and to respond with anger and aggression.

Hostile attribution bias may be only one part of a larger set of deficits that interferes with the adaptive social information processing. For example, Crick and Dodge (1994) proposed a five-step social cognitive model that has become very influential in the bullying intervention literature. In that model, the information processing difficulties of bullies begin when they inaccurately interpret social cues associated with interpersonal dilemmas (e.g., the hypothetical push while waiting in line) and continues as they formulate goals accessed from a repertoire of possible behavioural responses (e.g., should I retaliate or just ignore it?), and finally choose a response.

One of the best-known bullying interventions that includes these kinds of social information processing skills is Fast Track (Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group (CPPRG), 2011). Implemented at four sites (Durham, North Carolina, Nashville, Tennessee, Seattle and a rural community in central Pennsylvania), Fast Track identified a sample of 890 high-risk kindergarten children based on parent and teacher reports of conduct problems at home and at school. These children were then randomly assigned to either an intervention group or to a no-treatment control group. Those in the intervention group participated in a yearlong curriculum with weekly meetings that included training in social information processing, social problem solving, emotional understanding, communication and self-control. When it was needed, the social-cognitive component was accompanied by individualized academic tutoring, and there was also a parent-training component. Intervention activities continued to grade 10, but with heavier concentration in the first two years of elementary school and during the transition to middle school. Other examples of targeted approaches for elementary school students are Brainpower (Hudley, 2008) and Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS) (Greenberg, Kushche, & Mihalic, 1998).

School-wide bullying prevention and targeted interventions, although complementary, represent different schools of thought and each has advantages and disadvantages. School-wide programs aim to build resiliency in all children and to create a more positive school climate, whereas targeted approaches focus on the underlying causes of bullying behaviour in the individual bully. Fidelity and sustainability, two important components of good interventions, are likely to be differentially achieved in the whole-school versus targeted approaches. Fidelity, or the consistency with which all of the components of the intervention are implemented, is easier to both monitor and achieve in targeted approaches because there are fewer adults (trainers) and children to track. With school-wide programs, there are multiple activities at multiple levels involving multiple stakeholders and it is more difficult to monitor treatment fidelity. On the other hand, sustainability may be easier to achieve in the school-wide programs. Systemic changes in peer, classroom, school and community are needed to build the foundation for long-term prevention of bullying. Targeted interventions, typically imported from the outside and implemented by researchers or school staff working with those researchers, usually are too short-lived to achieve that kind of support base.

Hyman, I., Kay, B., Tabori, A., Weber, M., Mahon, M., & Cohen, I. (2006). Bullying: Theory, research and interventions. In C. Evertson & C. Weinstein (Eds.), Handbook of classroom management: Research, practice, and contemporary issues (pp. 855-884). Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.
This chapter is a comprehensive review of the topic of bullying in schools, with a particularly relevant section on interventions that address school bullying.

Juvonen, J., & Graham, S. (2014). Bullying in schools: The power of bullies and the plight of victims. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 159-185.
This article is an up-to-date review of scientific research on bullying in schools. There is a section that may be most useful to teachers on interventions to reduce bullying.