Bullying has been defined as repetitive instrumental aggression that results in an imbalance of power between perpetrator and victim (Smith & Brain, 2000) and affects approximately 30% of American students during their school careers (Nansel et al., 2001).

Unfortunately, bullying is harmful to both victims and perpetrators.  Victims can experience anxiety, depression, and low self esteem (McKenney, Pepler, Craig, & Connolly, 2002), while bullies have an increased vulnerability to certain mental health disorders and are more likely to engage in criminal behavior, domestic violence, and suffer from substance abuse as adults (Farrington, 1993).

Although there is much research that documents the prevalence and negative effects of bullying, there is literature that also suggests that teachers may contribute to or tolerate the problem.

Indeed, the teachers who are the most successful when dealing with bullies are those who tackle behavior problems with the same zeal as they would students’ academic concerns.

Interestingly, the primary difference between successful and unsuccessful behavior managers is not the manner in which they handle discipline problems, but instead the number of discipline problems they address in the classroom.

The most successful teachers: 1) create a structured environment in their classrooms where student conduct and behavior is explicitly described and understood and, 2) manage behavioral antecedents to diminish the likelihood of behavior problems ever occurring (Duke, 1982; Elliott, Witt, Kratochwill & Stoiber, 2002).

Here are some strategies teachers can use in addressing bullying in the classroom:

  • Assessment: Take stock of bullying behaviors in the same way any teacher would review academic skills.

    • Group Students: Compile a list of students’ names and divide the children into three groups: bullies, victims, or bystanders. Alternately, group children into the behavioral categories of aggressive, assertive, and passive. After students have been identified as bullies or victims, they can be targeted for individual intervention efforts.
    • Increase Accuracy: Teachers can improve their identification accuracy by observing students in a variety of settings (e.g., classroom, lunchroom, and playground). Also, teachers may compare their impressions to those of other teachers who also know the children.
    • Compare Perceptions with Students: When possible, information provided through teacher assessment should be compared with students’ perceptions of which students are bullies and victims, since their shared experiences increase knowledge about the problem (Pellegrini & Bartini, 2000).
  • Use General Strategies: It is useful to sensitize students to issues of bullying through building or classroom wide instruction. Large group instruction gives students the language to describe what they see.

    • Use Media: Fiction and non-fiction books, videos, and puppets are appealing tools for reaching students. These activities should match students’ maturity and cognitive levels.
    • Be Explicit: Teachers should explicitly teach the difference between good vs. bad (manipulative) relationships and reward pro-social behaviors (e.g., acts of kindness).
  • Use Strategies for Victims: Students should feel that school is a safe environment and they will be protected. Clear action plans on how to deal with bullying situations are important to establish so that victims feel prepared.

    • Teach Students Social Skills: Social skills development appears to be an essential skill base, since researchers have found that social isolation is a major risk factor for victimization (Boulton, Trueman, Chau, Whitehand & Amataya, 1999), and because perpetrators likely recognize the vulnerability of a student whom no peer will assist.
    • Teach Students How to Make Friends: Friendships provide the unpopular student with a support network to ease the emotional pain of low social status.
      • Teachers can promote victims’ self-esteem through helping these students identify their personal strengths that might attract peers as potential friends.
      • Victimized students are often realistically pessimistic about their chances of success in developing friendships. Thus, victimized students often need encouragement to engage in the necessary risk-taking efforts to establish social connections.
      • Teachers can ask victimized students to think about who seems to want or need a friend, explaining that since popular students have many friends, they may not have enough time for another relationship.
  • Use Strategies for Bullies: Perpetrators of bullying tend to have above average popularity in primary grades, and declining popularity in junior and senior high school. Teachers should communicate to bullies that their efforts to establish social dominance are unlikely to pay off in the long term.

    • Get Serious: When first meeting with a student who appears to be bullying peers, it is important to use a serious tone to convey an important message. The teacher should immediately indicate that he or she is speaking with the student because of his or her inappropriate behavior.
    • Encourage Trust: In order to gain the trust of the bully, it is probably best to begin the conversation with: 1) the identification of the bullying behavior and 2) the consequence for this behavior. A straightforward delivery assures the student that you are fair. Inform the bully that other teachers and school staff will be made aware of the incident to prevent such behaviors from occurring in the future.
    • Encourage Self-Evaluation: Teachers should tell the bully that “I believe that you will do right thing.” Ideally, this tactic will enable the student who frequently bullies to realize that victimization of peers is unnecessary to the achievement of his or her desire for social status. It also serves to help build the teacher-student relationship, which increases the likelihood that the student will engage in self-evaluative behavior.
    • Determine Restitution: As the student begins to develop trust in the educator, the teacher can more assertively raise the value of concern for others by encouraging the student to consider what the victim was feeling and determining what restitution may be owed.

Questions about Bullying? Ask your school psychologist – every school has one!

Drs. Laura M. Crothers and Tammy L. Hughes  of Duquesne University and their colleagues Julaine E. Field and Jered B. Kolbert are the authors of Understanding Girl Bullying and What to Do About It: Strategies to Help Heal the Divide.