School bullying is a type of bullying that occurs in an educational setting. Bullying can be physical, sexual, verbal or emotional in nature.

Bullying in schools is a systemic problem that affects all school districts in the United States. In 2016, the National Center for Educational Statistics reported that 1 in 5 students have been bullied in school. Bullying is a repeated aggressive behavior characterized by a power imbalance and the intent to cause harm. Students who are bullied often feel threatened and powerless.

While bullying can be destructive and persistent, it can also be subtle enough that teachers are not aware of it. Since bullying can lead to long-lasting psychological, emotional, and physical problems, it is essential for teachers to recognize the signs of bullying and how to combat it.

Types of Bullying

The three types of bullying students can experience are direct bullying, indirect bullying, and cyberbullying. Within these categories lie verbal, physical, and social or relational bullying.

Direct bullying is a combination of both verbal and physical bullying. Verbal bullying involves spoken comments or written information that is emotionally damaging to the targeted student. Physical bullying consists of physically harming a student or their possessions. An example of direct bullying is hitting a student while also calling them rude names or using foul language.

Indirect bullying is mainly verbal and is experienced frequently in schools. An example of such behavior would be a student spreading false information about another student with the intent to cause humiliation.

The rise of technology has taken bullying to the internet. Cyberbullying is when students use email or social media platforms like Facebook to write damaging content. A 2015 Centers for Disease Control study found that 15.5% of high school students are cyberbullied, while 24% of middle schoolers are cyberbullied.

A common form of cyberbullying is sharing a student’s private photos or videos without their consent. This form of bullying is more insidious and often takes place off of school grounds, so it is more difficult for teachers to detect and address.

Similar to cyberbullying, social or relational bullying is when students gossip or spread rumors to hurt the reputation of the student being bullied.

Causes of Bullying

The causes for bullying are varied, meaning any student can become a target, regardless of gender, race, religion, or socioeconomic status.

Understanding why students bully others can help teachers better combat it. Factors that can lead to bullying include differences in appearance, social status, race, and sexual orientation. The National Center for Educational Statistics found that 25% of African American students were bullied in 2016, while 22% of Caucasian students, 17% of Hispanic students, and 9% of Asian students were.

Some students who bully others have low self-esteem; however, there are others that have much higher self-confidence. Those with high self-confidence tend to lack compassion and empathy and can respond aggressively whenever they feel threatened.

Current societal events and conversations can compound bullying problems. As an example, bullying based on sexual orientation has increased as the conversations surrounding LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual) have increased in recent years.

In some cases, students’ need for attention and the desire to be perceived as brave and confident can cause them to bully. Students who experience issues at home, such as abuse and neglect or a divorce, can cause them to bully others due to despair, anger, or jealousy.

Effects of Bullying

Bullying during formative school years can have long-lasting effects. Students who are bullied may have poor academic performance as their interest and participation in school decreases, and unexplained injuries and self-destructive behavior can occur. A 2016 National Center for Educational Statistics survey reveals that 14% of bullied students struggle academically.

Emotional effects include struggles with low self-esteem, insomnia, depression, and suicidal thoughts and actions. In addition, students who are bullied are twice as likely to suffer from health problems, such as stomach issues or headaches.

Bullying does not only impact the students, but also their family and classmates. Feeling powerless and confused,parents and other family members of bullying targets may experience depression, anxiety, and stress-related illnesses. Some parents become overprotective of their children if they feel they “failed” to protect them. Friends and classmates of the student who is bullied may feel powerless to help, guilt over not standing up for the target, and fearful of becoming the next target.

School bullying may be more specifically characterized by:

  • An intention to harm: intention suggests that the harm caused by bullying is deliberate, not accidental.
  • Victimisation distress: bullying causes the victim to suffer mild to severe psychological, social or physical trauma.
  • Repetition: bullying is persistent; it happens more than once or has the potential to occur multiple times.
  • Power inequity: definitions of bullying often state that bullying includes a real or perceived imbalance of power between the bully and the victim. This characteristic is disputed, as both bullies and victims have reported that the conflict and/or behaviours most commonly occur between two equals.
  • Provocation: bullying is proposed to be a part of progressive aggression: motivated by perceived benefits of their aggressive behaviours.

The long-term effects of school bullying are numerous, and can include sensitivity, anxiety, and depression. Recent statistics suggest that the majority of students will experience bullying at some point in their academic careers. In the early 21st century, increasing attention has been given to the importance of teachers and parents understanding and recognizing the signs of bullying (among both bullies and victims), and being equipped with strategies and tools to address school bullying.

Bullying is a common occurrence in most schools. According to the American Psychological Association, “40% to 80% of school-age children experience bullying at some point during their school careers.” Regardless of grade level, socioeconomic environment, gender, religion, or sexual orientation, bullying can happen to anyone. However, various studies point out that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more bullied than students from higher ones. The following statistics help to illustrate the severity of bullying within classrooms:


  • In a study conducted across 32 Dutch elementary schools, 16.2% of 2766 participating children reported being bullied regularly (several times a month or more).
  • At least 1 in 3 adolescent students in Canada have reported being bullied recently
  • 47% of Canadian parents report having a child victim of bullying
  • The rate of discrimination experienced among non-heterosexual students is three times higher than heterosexual youth
  • In a Canadian study that surveyed 2,186 students across 33 middle and high schools, 49.5% reported being bullied online in the previous 3 months. 33.7% of the sample reported being the perpetrator of cyber bullying.
  • The most common form of cyber-bullying involved receiving threatening or aggressive e-mails or instant messages, reported by 73% of victims
  • Statistics referencing the prevalence of bullying in schools may be inaccurate. In a U.S. study of 5, 621 students, aged 12–18, 64% of the students had experienced bullying and did not report it.

As an educator, what can do you to make an impact? How can you create a classroom climate that prevents bullying, but also put interventions in place that stop the behavior in its beginning stages? We talked to experts in education and mental health counseling to come up with these six strategies.

1. Teach kindness and empathy.

When students are able to approach ideas and problems from multiple perspectives, they’re less likely to bully others.

From the earliest ages, students should participate in activities that boost social-emotional learning. As a teacher, find ways to help children understand and appreciate their identity as well as others’. To do this requires empathy and kindness, two skills that educators like Susan Patterson, who leads a cyberbullying course at Lesley University, believe can be taught.

“Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and teachers need to embed this skill into their curriculum,” says Patterson. “We need to do identity work with children early on so that kids know who they are and who everybody else is and what their place is in the world.”

One way to do this is to have kids get together and talk about their differences. Allow them to practice conflict resolution, work through problems, and build their understanding of those around them.

2. Create opportunities for connection.

Fostering a sense of community in your classroom can lower bullying incidents and facilitate healing for targeted students.

Research shows that when targeted students feel connected to peers, they’re better able to cope with being bullied. Studies also indicate that teaching students to speak up when they witness bullying behavior, and to take a stand against it, can reduce future bullying situations by more than 50 percent.

“It’s all about connection,” says Nancy Beardall, who created and implemented a bullying prevention curriculum in Newton Public Schools. “When students feel connected to their peers, their school, and their community, they do better.”

In the classroom, start by creating a safe place for students to express themselves and feel heard. Cultivate students’ abilities to advocate on behalf of themselves as well as others. Outside of the classroom, facilitate opportunities for positive reinforcement by helping students get involved in afterschool activities that align with their hobbies and interests.

3. Identify ‘gateway behaviors.’

Researchers have found that small behaviors can often signal the beginning patterns of bullying. Often missed by educators who already have so much on their plates, these indicators, called  “gateway behaviors,” can be difficult to detect. But, if you can recognize them early on, there’s a chance you could prevent bullying behavior from developing down the road. As an educator, here are some of the key behaviors you should take notice of:

  • Eye rolling
  • Prolonged staring
  • Back turning
  • Laughing cruelly/encouraging others to laugh
  • Name calling
  • Ignoring or excluding
  • Causing physical harm
  • Spying
  • Stalking

While these behaviors may not be classified as bullying, putting interventions in place now could mitigate the likelihood of them growing into something more problematic. “The research would imply that [these behaviors] lead to bullying, and that if we can stop kids here, then we’re going to go a long way to stopping the problem,” says Patterson.

4. Use the arts to create context.

The arts can be a powerful tool for helping young people see situations from different perspectives. Using drama, literature, and the visual arts as a vehicle for conversation, educators can help students understand the negative impact of bullying. Erika Dawes, early childhood literacy professor at Lesley, does this using the storybook Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson.

Each Kindness is the story of a young girl who engages in bullying behavior toward a classmate,” says Dawes. “It’s not a typical story in that there’s not a happy ending. This means students are left with conflicting emotions. And this ambiguity is perfect place to enter into conversation.”

After reading to students, Dawes holds an open circle conversation. Drawing attention to issues raised in the story, she creates a safe and open atmosphere for students to talk about bullying. In this way, she’s able to contextualize bullying behavior that happens in the classroom without highlighting specific events.

5. Minimize ‘concentric circles’ in schools.

It’s a truth that most teachers don’t like to talk about: Educators can be bullies, too. And when teachers feel bullied by colleagues, their students can also become negatively impacted.

“There are schools where there is bullying within the adult culture,” reflects Patterson. “In the courses I teach, my students tell me that they feel bullied by other teachers, assistant principals, and department heads. If we live in a culture of bullying, we have to be so much more diligent about making sure it doesn’t go down to the classroom.”

In order to stop the spread of bullying from the leadership level down to students, start by looking within your own classroom. After a bad day or tense interaction with a colleague, try not to bring negativity into your teaching. Focus your energy on cultivating a learning environment built on positivity, openness, and support. And be sure to advocate for yourself by talking with supervisors or HR professionals about issues in your school’s culture that compromise your ability to be a fully present and effective educator.

6. Participate in simulations.

Theorizing about how to prevent and respond to bullying in schools is one thing. Witnessing it for the first time is entirely another. Without adequate pre-service training, it can be difficult for new teachers to know exactly how they’ll react when bullying situations arise. At Lesley University’s Graduate School of Education, faculty are doing something about it.

“We’re currently using technology to recreate the experience for pre-service teachers in a mixed reality lab,” says Maureen Creegan-Quinquis, who leads Lesley’s creative arts and learning department.

In the mixed reality lab, pre-service teachers are bystanders in a bullying scenario. On their feet, they’re asked to respond to the situation and facilitate a solution. According to Creegan-Quinquis, participants are often surprised by how difficult the exercise can be.

“For many of them, this is the first opportunity in their life to actually be in a room and experience [bullying], and be asked to negotiate through those feelings,” says Creegan-Quinquis. “What an electric experience it is when you’re wide awake enough to see it happening.”