Beating Bullying

Bullying examined and new approaches suggested

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

With the fall comes cooler weather, school supplies and the start of the school year for students. But sometimes with the new semester and new classes also comes new potential situations for bullying.

Bullying has always been an issue for kids, but with a recent surge in publicity due to modern bullying opportunities (like "cyber-bullying"), the social issue is being studied and potential new approaches proposed.

This research is also exploring how other personal issues intertwine with this cruelty among kids, in terms of factors like quality of other relationships and disabilities.

Such studies have the potential to help us understand why these situations occur and hopefully provide educators, parents and mental health professionals new means to preventing them.

Rewarding Relationships

A 2008 study published in the journal Child Development took a look at children who bully and their other personal relationships.

Lead author Debra Pepler, PhD, of York University, and team followed a group of 871 students for seven years.

The group of students, which consisted of 466 females and 405 males, were interviewed every year from the age of ten to the age of 18.

The interviews involved questions about bullying behavior, other behavioral habits and the students' relationships with friends and family members.

Nearly ten percent of those interviewed reported consistently high levels of participation in bullying from elementary school all the way throughout high school, while 13.4 percent reported high levels of bullying in elementary school that decreased to extremely low levels by the end of their participation in the study.

Additionally, 35.1 percent reported moderate levels of bullying, and 41.6 percent claimed to have bullied others extremely rarely.

All in all, these figures lead researchers to the conclusion that bullying is an act that the majority of adolescent engage in on some level, at some point in time, during these years.

The children who bully the most reported higher levels of conflict in their relationships with both parents and friends than their peers who bullied less. They also were more likely to befriend other students who bully.

According to Pepler, these results show that bullying is actually "a relationship problem," a notion that provides a different route for handling and preventing the issue.

“Interventions must focus on the children who bully, with attention to their aggressive behavior problems, social skills and social problem-solving skills. A focus on the child alone is not sufficient. Bullying is a relationship problem that requires relationship solutions by focusing on the bullying children’s strained relationships with parents and risky relationships with peers,” said Pepler.

Pepler recommends starting support early for those students who bully at high levels, with a focus on building healthy relationships.

Follow up research for the type of program suggested will have to be done to show the effectiveness of preventing bullying in this manner. However, this study does provide unique insight into other emotional health issues that may go hand in hand with bullying.

Disability Danger

A study published in the August 2012 issue of the Journal of School Psychology explored another interesting aspect of the type of child who engages more heavily in bullying.

The study, led by Susan Swearer, PhD, from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, looked at 816 students between the ages of nine and 16 - 130 who were involved in special education, 686 who were not.

The students' school records were examined for things like office referrals, instances of bullying and positive behavior and the students were surveyed.

Results showed that 38.1 percent of all the students reported bullying in the past, while 61.9 percent claimed to have never engaged in this behavior. The peak of the bullying behavior seemed to occur during the seventh grade.

On the other side of the coin, 67 percent said they had themselves been bullied, and 33 percent said they had never been a victim.

Furthermore, the data showed that those students in special education were more likely to both be bullied and bully others.

These differences were most marked in students with "observable disabilities" including mild mental disabilities or language and hearing disabilities. Those with "non-observable disabilities" like learning disorders, did not show as high of levels.

According to the authors, "The observable nature of the disability makes it easy to identify those students as individuals with disabilities, which may place them at greater risk for being the easy target of bullying. Also, being frustrated with the experience of victimization, those students might engage in bullying behavior as a form of revenge."

The special education students as a whole were also more likely to show antisocial behavior and to be referred to the office for behavioral issues.

The authors suggest that this data be used in a new approach to prevent bullying, one that focuses on increasing positive behaviors and environments.

According to the authors, "Programming should be consistently implemented across general and special education, should occur in each grade and should be part of an inclusive curriculum.

A culture of respect, tolerance and acceptance is our only hope for reducing bullying among all school-aged youth."

As a result of both Swearer's study on bullying and disabilities and Pepler's study on bullying and relationships, new courses of action are encouraged by the authors. Though the specific focuses differ, they both suggest comprehensive plans that look at larger areas of the students' lives and behavior than just bullying.

More research will need to be done to determine the effectiveness of either approach, and to confirm the findings documented.

However, the findings do suggest that bullying is not a singular issue, and could potentially be tied to emotional health, disabilities and other relationships. 

Review Date: 
September 17, 2012