Bullying: How to Recognize and Prevent It

Bullying has garnered national attention in recent years from parents, policymakers, educators, and practitioners alike. Bullying is defined as a repeated act of aggression toward a child who is weaker in some way, such as physical size or social status (Merrell et al., 2008; Olweus, 1991). Thus, the two primary features of bullying behavior that differentiate it from other kinds of aggressive behavior and normal peer conflicts are: 1) its repeated and chronic nature, and 2) an actual or perceived power imbalance between the child engaging in bullying and the child targeted.

Recent tragedies (e.g., the suicides of Tyler Clementi, http://www.tylerclementi.org/tylers-story; Megan Meier, http://www.meganmeierfoundation.org/statistics.html) bring to bear the most severe consequences of repeated exposure to bullying and peer victimization. Although a rare occurrence, these deaths make clear that early prevention and intervention is necessary to offset the likelihood of experiencing challenges later in life. Most commonly, those targeted by peers are at a heightened risk for experiencing a wide range of social, emotional, and academic difficulties, including loneliness, social anxiety, depressive symptoms, and challenges focusing in school (Card et al., 2008).

As the school year begins, we must be mindful that, while most children do not experience peer victimization or engage in bullying behavior, approximately 25% – 30% of children in elementary school do (Nansel et al., 2001). Although rates of bullying decline as children age, cyber bullying (e.g., occurring through electronic media, such as text messaging, Facebook, or online games) is thought to peak in middle school and persist as the most common form in high school.

The most effective strategies to prevent and intervene with bullying involve broad and collaborative responses, bringing families, schools, and community professionals together. As a starting place, on-going communication between children and the adults in their lives is needed to identify children at risk for being involved in bullying. Many times, those targeted do not actively report their experiences to anyone – thus the more we ask children about their experiences at school and with peers, the more we can learn about their risk for being involved in bullying.

Many resources are available online that discuss a wide range of intervention options and supports for students involved in bullying. For up-to-date, comprehensive information and research, visit http://www.stopbullying.gov/. For a cyberbullying specific resource, see http://cyberbullying.us/.

Anne Williford, PhD
Associate Professor
School of Social Welfare
University of Kansas