School Climate & Safety

Researchers and Schools Diverge in Definitions of Bullying

By Evie Blad — October 07, 2014 7 min read
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One of the biggest challenges for those who seek to end bullying among students has been defining exactly what “bullying” is.

Even as efforts to address the behavior have moved to the front burner of child well-being initiatives in recent years, researchers and educators say that major studies have relied on inconsistent definitions and methods of measuring its prevalence.

Some focus on the essential interpersonal dynamics of bullying—including an imbalance of power between the perpetrator and the victim—while others seek to be more objective by focusing on a list of common bullying behaviors.

And if researchers can’t agree on exactly what the problem is, they can’t help identify effective solutions for K-12 educators, who are increasingly facing new accountability measures that incorporate issues related to school climate and student behavior.

Further complicating the situation, many school leaders take an “I know it when I see it” approach to defining the problem, or they use broader definitions for bullying than researchers do, said David Finkelhor, a sociologist and the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham.

Those types of definitions, listed in student handbooks and school policies, often encompass other forms of peer aggression, which may have different social and emotional dynamics.

“There’s a tremendous disconnect between how the term is used colloquially by students, teachers, and parents, and how researchers and advocacy types define it,” Mr. Finkelhor said.

And that gap can often mean evidence-based interventions, which are based on narrower definitions used in research, fall short of expectations in schools because they aren’t designed to address the problems administrators expect them to fix, he said.

Getting on the Same Page

Even the two largest federal surveys on bullying—by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Education—use very different language to ask students if they’ve been a victim of bullying. While the CDC provides a short definition, the Education Department’s method asks about a list of behaviors.

The CDC has sought to bring consistency by convening a panel of experts and federal officials to write a uniform research definition.

That work, which originated at a 2010 federal summit on bullying-prevention efforts, follows similar endeavors to craft uniform definitions to aid in the research of other social and behavioral issues, including intimate-partner violence, child maltreatment, and elder maltreatment.

What is Bullying?



Recognizing that researchers rely on a variety of definitions of bullying and use different approaches to measure it, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention worked with a group of federal agencies and experts in education and psychology to create a uniform research definition, which it released this year. The definition is to be used for research purposes, and still varies from the ways schools define bullying in their rules and policies, the agency emphasized.

Under the uniform research definition, acts of bullying:

“Are unwanted aggressive behaviors” / This behavior could be online or in person, and it is committed by “another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or current dating partners of the victim.” While those peers are also capable of peer harassment, those actions fall into another category of behavior, researchers say.

“Involve an observed or perceived power imbalance” / This power imbalance between the perpetrator and the victim could involve factors like social stature, resources, physical size, or influence.

“Are repeated multiple times or are likely to be repeated” / Many schools consider individual acts of peer harassment bullying without considering whether they are part of or likely to be part of a larger pattern of behavior, which is an essential part of the uniform definition, researchers say.

“Definitions don’t agree, even within those [federal] branches, between state laws, between research studies, the definition really varies,” said Deborah Temkin, a research scientist at the Bethesda, Md.-based Child Trends who led the Education Department’s anti-bullying efforts at the time of the summit. “This is really problematic because we need to have a common understanding of what we’re talking about.”

The CDC’s new uniform definition, which it describes as a “starting point to guide public-health surveillance of bullying,” is derived largely from the work of Daniel Olweus, a psychologist at the University of Bergen in Norway, who has studied bullying for more than 30 years.

The uniform definition describes bullying as “any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or current dating partners that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.”

It adds: “Bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted youth including physical, psychological, social, or educational harm” and that the behaviors could be verbal, physical, or relational. Relational bullying includes attempts to damage a peer’s relationships or reputation through ignoring, isolating, or spreading defamatory information.

What distinguishes the new definition most from current approaches is its emphasis not just on repeated behaviors, but also behaviors that are likely to be repeated, Ms. Temkin said.

Making Changes

In response to the uniform definition and its own internal research, the Education Department is seeking to change how it asks students about bullying in the 2015 edition of its School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey, the agency said in a proposal to revise the survey. That request must be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice and the White House Office of Management and Budget before the changes can be finalized.

That survey, one of the country’s largest measures of peer victimization in schools, currently doesn’t define bullying for participants at all. Rather, it asks students if, in the past year, they have been the victim of seven specific actions—including threats and destruction of property. Working with a research firm, the department confirmed previous research showing that “respondents’ own concepts of bullying did not always include all definitional elements, such as repetition and power imbalance,” which meant their responses may have encompassed other forms of harm from peers, skewing the statistics.

So that it doesn’t lose the ability to track trends over time using previous survey findings, the Education Department is proposing that half of respondents to the 2015 questionnaire answer the current questions. If the agency’s proposal to change the survey is approved, the other half of respondents would answer those items, plus follow-up questions about power imbalance and repetition to provide new, more specific insights into bullying trends.

A spokesperson for the CDC said the agency does not plan to change the way it asks about bullying on its Youth Risk Behavior Survey, the other commonly used national measure, because that language and the uniform definition already “align in a meaningful way.”

That survey asks a representative sample of high school students about bullying, prefacing its questions with a statement that bullying “is when one or more students tease, threaten, spread rumors about, hit, shove, or hurt another student over and over again. It is not bullying when two students of about the same strength or power argue or fight or tease each other in a friendly way.”

But that approach is ineffective because the description differs from the uniform definition, said Dorothy Espelage, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. And many students disregard the bullying definitions provided in such questionnaires, relying instead on their own understanding and experiences, she said.

In a 2008 study, researchers at the University of Ottawa in Canada asked students to define bullying. While 92 percent of respondents mentioned negative behaviors, just 26 percent said something about the presence of a power imbalance, and just 6 percent mentioned repetition.

Schools’ Approaches Differ

But bullying, which includes shunning peers and encouraging isolation, is often more subtle than other forms of peer aggression, and research needs to measure that subtlety, experts say.

“We reduce fighting [in schools], but we don’t reduce the more subtle bullying, which suggests it’s different than pure peer aggression,” Ms. Espelage said.

Research suggests bullying is a public-health concern that can have effects for victims, for perpetrators, and even for bystanders well into adulthood.

As the issue grabbed headlines in recent years, every state except Montana has implemented anti-bullying laws, most of which require schools to adopt policies that outline specific discipline for perpetrators.

While researchers generally focus on the perspective of victims, school policies necessarily focus on objective behaviors of perpetrators that can be identified by a third party and defended in student discipline hearings, said Nancy Willard, the author of several books about bullying. Many schools define bullying as on or off-campus behavior by one student that disrupts the learning environment for another.

That gap between research and school-level definitions will likely never fully close, experts agree. But some coordination will likely be necessary as state and federal policies increasingly include measures of school climate issues in school accountability plans.

For example, the Safe Schools Improvement Act of 2013, proposed by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., would require the Education Department to collect and review data about the effectiveness of school anti-bullying policies.

Mr. Finkelhor, who still finds flaws in the new uniform research definition, thinks schools should step back from efforts to define and combat bullying and focus more broadly on all forms of peer victimization.

A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2014 edition of Education Week as To Stop Bullying, Researchers Pursue a Universal Definition of Problem


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