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The ABCs of Bullying Prevention

Understanding School Bullying

Bullying is a problem that has been with us since the advent of schools. Yet in recent years, it seems to have become even more serious and more pervasive, exacting a terrible toll on many students. Research indicates that 15 to 20 percent of all students are victimized by bullies at some point in their school career. Nationwide, almost one in three children is involved in bullying, either as a bully or as a victim. Clearly, bullying is a problem that schools must recognize and address. After all, the first and foremost obligation of any school is to provide a safe and secure environment where teachers can teach and students can learn.


Bullying takes place when a stronger or more powerful child intentionally and repeatedly hurts, threatens, or torments a more vulnerable child. Bullying:

  • is deliberate.
  • happens more than once.
  • represents a marked imbalance of power between bully and victim. Bullying is a one-sided, unfair match.

Bullying, therefore, is different from a single incident of teasing. It is, in fact, an abuse of power.

Bullying also differs from play, and from the normal conflicts of childhood. When two children of approximately equal strength or power are engaged in a fight, it is not bullying. Thus, although all acts of bullying are aggressive, not all aggressive acts are bullying.

Bullying can occur face to face or it can happen behind one's back. Bullying can be short-term or it can last a long time. Bullying can be done by an individual or by a group. And, although bullies are more likely to be male, we are seeing an increasing number of girls bullying their classmates.

The kind of bullying done by girls, however, often differs from that done by boys. Boys are more likely to attack their peers verbally or physically; girls are more likely to bully indirectly by using relational methods. For example, girls might exclude their victims from activities, convince others to reject them, or spread rumors about them. Bullying by girls often can take the form of mean-spirited backbiting.

Bullying starts in elementary school, reaches its peak in middle school, and gradually declines in high school. By high school, bullies and victims often are pursuing different interests and subjects, so their paths are less likely to cross than they are in middle school.

Bullying might take place in any part of the school building, but it is most common in areas that have minimal supervision. Bullies might extort lunch money from their classmates in the lunchroom, jostle them in the hallway, hit them in the locker room, or exclude them from games on the playground.


Being taunted or attacked physically can be one of the most painful experiences of childhood; it can leave lasting psychological scars and, in some cases, have life-long consequences. Victims of bullying can experience anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, and, in some cases, even suicidal thoughts. They might come to view school, where most incidents of bullying take place, as an unsafe, anxiety-provoking environment and they might become afraid of attending school. Some victims even refuse to go to school rather than face the ordeal of bullying. In fact, a study by the National Association of School Psychologists estimates that 160,000 children miss school every day for fear of being bullied.

Bullying also affects students who witness the incidents. It can give rise to a climate of fear and anxiety in school, distracting students from their schoolwork and impeding their ability to learn. According to a recent study, about ten percent of students are afraid during much of the school day.

Students who witness their classmates being victimized wonder "Am I going to be next?" The possibility of being bullied might cause bystanders to live in a state of fear and focus on little else. That hardly is surprising when you consider that children surveyed rated bullying the worst experience of childhood, with the exception of the death of a loved one. Witnesses to bullying can also suffer pangs of guilt that they did nothing to stop an attack on a classmate.


Students need assurances that their school will take bullying seriously and take firm action in response to bullying incidents. School staff must send a strong message that bullying is unacceptable and that vigorous measures will be taken to safeguard all students. Schools must convey to students that they will be vigilant in detecting bullying and respond seriously if they become aware of its occurrence.

Fortunately bullying is a problem that schools can do something about if staff and parents are intent on confronting the problem. Schools have at their disposal a variety of strategies they can use to both prevent bullying and to deal with incidents when they do happen.

Those strategies are most effective when they are part of a comprehensive bullying prevention program that's implemented at the district, school, and classroom levels. A single assembly on bullying or an announcement by teachers that bullying is prohibited is simply not adequate to address the problem. Research indicates that schools can cut bullying by as much as 50 percent with a comprehensive school-wide prevention program.

Such programs must be comprehensive in the true sense of the word. They must encompass all school staff, and have the support and commitment of parents and students. Interventions with students should not be limited to bullies and their victims. Other students -- the bystanders -- can help prevent bullying by learning how to take action when they witness incidents.

A bullying prevention program will have minimal impact if it is implemented and then abandoned. Bullying prevention is not a one-shot deal. For a bullying prevention program to be effective, it must be ongoing. That means that schools must revisit the issue every year. It also means they must regularly evaluate the degree to which bullying incidents are continuing. In short, a program will have the greatest impact when it is woven into the fabric of the school culture.

Despite the pervasiveness of bullying and the strategies available for its prevention, schools often have been reluctant to implement bullying prevention programs. Some administrators feel that the school staff already is overburdened with program initiatives. Others hesitate to offer such a program for fear the public will perceive that their school has a bullying problem. Still others don't see the need for such a program, viewing bullying as a natural part of childhood -- one that can "build character."

Those are obstacles, however, that can be overcome with efficient planning, effective education and good communication. The problem of bullying is simply too serious and too widespread for educators to give in to those concerns. Bullying is not a problem that will go away if ignored.

About Ken Shore

Dr. Kenneth Shore is a psychologist who has worked in various public schools for more than 25 years. He has authored six books and produced a book and video series on bullying for schools and parent organizations called The ABCs of Bullying Prevention. Click to read a complete bio. For information on how to obtain his books and videos, go to his Web site.