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Inside the Mind of a Bully

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By Kwok-Sze Wong, Ed.D., Executive Director of the American School Counselor Association (ASCA)

Most educators are aware of the damaging effect bullying can have on an entire school environment. It's detrimental to school climate, academic performance and even the health of students.

As we pass the midpoint of this year's National Bullying Prevention Month sponsored by Pacer's National Bullying Prevention Center a great deal has been written and said about people who have been bullied and how to stop bullying behavior. In fact, the theme of the month is The End of Bullying Begins with Me.

Most of the focus of bullying prevention seems to focus on two groups, those who are bullied and those who witness a bullying incident, to educate them about how to respond to bullying behavior and how to avoid being a target.

A third party is always involved in bullying, and this group may be the most vital link in bullying prevention. These are the bullies themselves. Popular media likes to portray bullies as one-dimensional, self-absorbed, mean-spirited students who prey on the less popular, less attractive, less fill-in-the-blank of the school population.

True, students who bully do tend to fit some stereotypes. According to the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, students who bully their peers are more likely to get into frequent fights, steal and vandalize property, use alcohol and other drugs, receive poor grades, engage in sexual activity, be abusive to romantic partners, have criminal records and carry a weapon.

But not all students who bully others are discipline problems or engage in risky behaviors. Some have highly tuned social skills and interact well with teachers and other adults. The American Federation of Teachers identifies two types of students who are most likely to engage in bullying behavior. In one group, students are well-connected to their peers, have social power, are overly concerned about their popularity and like to dominate or be in charge of others. In the other group, students are more isolated from their peers and may be less involved in school, be easily pressured by peers or not identify with the emotions or feelings of others. Students who bully others aren't necessarily stronger or bigger than those they bully. The power imbalance can come from a number of sources, such as popularity, size, intellect or maturity level.

Of course, students who intentionally bully others should be held accountable for their actions, but they should not be automatically condemned. Those who bully often have deeper issues and problems in their lives, such as depression, substance abuse, family problems or lack of family support, physical or emotional abuse, or general stress and anxiety. Sometimes students bully to fit in. Many students who bully have low self-esteem and a negative self-perception. One commonly overlooked fact is that many students who bully have been bullied themselves.

Educators can use several strategies to help change the behavior of students who bully.

  • Make sure students know what the problem behavior is. In particular, younger students who bully must learn their behavior is wrong and harmful others.

  • Teach students that behaviors have consequences both to others and to themselves.

  • Work with students who bullied others to make amends or to repair the situation.

  • Help students understand the reasons they bullied. They may need additional support, such as counseling or mental health or social services.

  • Show students the school takes bullying seriously and bullying will not be tolerated.

  • Avoid strategies that don't work or have negative consequences.

    • Zero tolerance or "three strikes, you're out" strategies don't work.

    • Punishment such as suspension or expulsion doesn't reduce bullying behavior.

    • Conflict resolution and peer mediation don't work. Bullying is not a conflict between people of equal power who share equal blame.

    • Group treatment for students who bully doesn't work. Group members tend to reinforce bullying behavior in each other.
  • Follow up after a bullying issue is resolved to continue reinforcing positive behavior. Most students can benefit from participating in productive activities such as sports and clubs. Those activities also can give them opportunities to take leadership roles and make friends without feeling the need to bully.

All educators want to create a safe and positive learning environment. One way to ensure bullying doesn't impair school climate is to understand students who exhibit bullying behavior and to address both the behavior and the underlying needs of the students, not just this month but throughout the school year.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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