A 5th grader terrorizes a smaller boy on the playground. A middle school girl, physically mature for her age, stands up to speak, and her classmates begin “mooing.” Sixth grade girls spread malicious rumors about a loner in their class.
Bullying, a timeless aspect of growing up, happens all the time in schools around the world. Yet for all the sunny childhoods darkened by taunts and torments, research on the subject is scant--especially in the United States. The few studies conducted in recent years, however, have produced strikingly similar conclusions that offer useful lessons for educators.
One major finding is that teachers and principals underestimate the amount of bullying that takes place under their noses--on playgrounds, in hallways, even in classrooms. And too many are reluctant to get involved when they do spot it. “Kids say that when they tell the adults about the bullying, adults don’t take them seriously, or they make them feel responsible for going back and working it out,” says Nan Stein, a senior research scientist at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
Some adults see bullying as inevitable--"kids being kids"--and something all children must learn to handle. But researchers say the problem is too pervasive and damaging for educators to ignore. “You’re talking about 10, 11, 12 percent of kids saying their lives are miserable in school,” says John Hoover, an associate professor of teaching and learning at the University of North Dakota. “I don’t think that’s something that kids need to go through.”
One of the world’s best-known experts on bullying is Dan Olweus, a professor of psychology at the University of Bergen in Norway. Olweus began studying the phenomenon in the early 1980s after three Norwegian boys who had been frequently harassed committed suicide. Surveying 130,000 children in Norway and 17,000 in Sweden, Olweus found that about 15 percent had been bullied “now and then” or more frequently. Similar rates have been reported in Japan, Canada, England, Finland, Ireland, Australia, Spain, and the Netherlands.
In the United States, surveys of small samples of children have turned up wildly ranging results, with anywhere from 10 percent to 24 percent saying they have been bullied recently in school.
Virtually all studies on the subject, however, show a wide gap between the amount of bullying students say they endure and the amount their teachers see. Part of the reason for the gap is that most bullying takes place where there is little adult supervision. “I’ve had to take teachers and walk them around the playground to show them,” says Carla Garrity, a Denver psychologist who has developed an anti-bullying program for schools.
Research shows that bullying starts in elementary school, peaks in middle school, and falls off in high school. The stereotypical bully is a boy, but girls can be bullies, too; they just go about it differently, relying more on verbal and psychological techniques than physical intimidation. A girl might pointedly exclude a classmate from a birthday party or start a hurtful rumor.
Whether male or female, bullies tend to have troubled backgrounds: They have more family problems than other children, a history of physical or emotional abuse, and inconsistent discipline at home.
Experts say there is a fine line between bullying--the systematic and chronic tormenting of classmates--and the more pervasive, random harassment that students endure from their peers on a daily basis.
Charol Shakeshaft, chairwoman of the department of administration, policy studies, and reading at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, studied eight middle and high schools in New York state over two years. She and her colleagues interviewed students, asking them what it is like being a teenager today. Out poured tales of harassment, most of it verbal and all of it hurtful. “Random acts of unkindness,” Shakeshaft says, are part of the daily fabric of school life.
One girl told the researchers: “People make fun of you. They make fun of your hair and the way you dress. They’re just cruel.”
Most researchers agree that the roots of the problem may be partly cultural. Students learn to bully and tease from the actions--or inactions--of the adults they see around them and on television. “If you look at television situation comedies, there’s a lot of angry humor out there,” says Hoover of the University of North Dakota. “And kids bring it to school.”
Norway’s Olweus suggests that some bullying comes from teachers who use sarcasm as a teaching tool. Shakeshaft believes teachers are culpable in other ways, as well. “What we found,” she says, “was that kids believe that teachers thought it was OK to behave this way because teachers didn’t intervene.” When teachers turn a blind eye, she says, students get confused. “Kids would say, `I know I’m not supposed to feel bad because it’s only a joke. But I do; I hate it.’”
Some teachers inadvertently reinforce bullying behavior in other ways. Stein tells a story about a school that Wellesley researchers studied. Typically during recess, the boys played with balls, and the girls jumped rope. One week, the boys decided it would be more fun to steal the girls’ jump ropes. The girls complained but were told to work out their dispute with the boys. After listening to the children fight for a week, the teachers banned the jump ropes, depriving the girls of their only plaything. “The boys gloated about this for weeks,” Stein says. They had won.
Such incidents teach students that might makes right. Hoover and colleagues Ronald Oliver and Richard Hazler surveyed 207 middle and high school students in Minnesota, Ohio, and South Dakota in the early 1990s. The survey found that students believe that victims bring bullying on themselves and that bullying actually helps people by making them tougher.
Although teachers often fail to stand against bullying, research shows they are not ambivalent about it; in fact, they hate the teasing and tormenting. The problem is that many feel powerless to do much about it. " When we talked to teachers, they said they didn’t think it was acceptable,” Shakeshaft says. “But they didn’t know how to stop it, and they felt that they wouldn’t be supported by their principals.”
Still, some schools are fighting back. Several years ago, surveys taken at McCormick Middle School in McCormick County, South Carolina, showed that nearly half the students had suffered at the hands of bullies. “And they said they were picked on most often in classrooms,” says principal James Nolan. “That was the place that really shocked us.”
The principal and his staff launched an anti-bullying campaign with the help of researchers from the University of South Carolina’s Institute on Family and Society. Using a successful prevention program pioneered by Olweus in Norway, the staff and researchers engineered regular schoolwide discussions on bullying.
The school also adopted and posted three rules: “We will not bully others. We will help children who are being bullied. We will try to include shy children who tend to be left out.”
Clear sanctions were set to punish bullying, and the staff began identifying both bullies and their victims for intensive counseling, among other measures. “Nobody had used the word `bully’ before,” Nolan says. " Now everyone knows we’re not going to tolerate bullying behavior from anybody, and we’ll call parents in and say, `Hey, your son is a bully.’”
At the end of the 1995-96 school year, when researchers again surveyed students at the school, they found the campaign had paid off. The number of students who reported they were bullied had dropped from nearly half to 22 percent.
The program McCormick Middle School used is just one of several field-tested anti-bullying tactics available to educators. Another popular approach is Bullyproof, a curriculum developed by Stein of Wellesley College. Stein argues that early bullying behavior, like that of the boys who stole the girls’ jump ropes, can lead to outright sexual harassment in middle school and high school. Studies show that much of the teasing that goes on during those years is based on gender.
Adolescent girls who show early signs of physical development are a particular target of harassment. These are the girls who get “mooed” by classmates or labeled “sluts” or “whores"--abuse that comes from both boys and girls.
Stein’s curriculum, aimed at 4th and 5th graders, does not dwell on adult terms like “sexual harassment.” Instead, it walks children through a variety of activities designed to heighten their awareness of the problem. They examine the difference between teasing and bullying, record instances of bullying, and learn to deal with harassment through role-playing.
“You can outnumber the bullies if you teach the silent majority to stand up,” says Garrity, the Denver psychologist. “If children aren’t taught otherwise, they’ll side with the bully--even nice kids who certainly know better but are frightened that the bully will turn on them.”
The bottom line, she and other researchers say, is that adults should not tolerate bullying or teasing. Both hurt, and the consequences of ignoring such behavior can be great. After all, Hoover asks, how much learning can take place when children are scared? “We have to ask ourselves what the quality of life should be for these young people.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1997 edition of Teacher