Teasing and Bullying is Harming our Students Psychologically and Academically: Here's How to Change this Epidemic through Behavioral Science and Evidence-based Practices
The issue and impact of teasing, taunting, bullying, harassment, hazing, and physical aggression on students’ feelings of safety and security in their schools, their academic engagement in the classroom, and—for some—their academic achievement and graduation have been well-chronicled over the past 25 years or more. While many different legal and other definitions exist for these acts, it is not always clear when teasing becomes taunting, taunting becomes bullying, and bullying becomes hazing, and hazing becomes harassment.
For this reason, while this Blog focuses on “bullying,” it is essential to recognize that we really are discussing a continuum that varies in severity and/or intensity from teasing through physical aggression.
A Definition and the Incidence of Bullying
Relative to schools, Bullying is defined as:
A form of repeated aggression where one or more students socially, psychologically or emotionally, physically or behaviorally, or sexually harass or harm other students (a) to a significant degree during one or more incidents, or (b) repeatedly over a period of time. More specifically, bullying can include physical aggression; verbal aggression—including persistent teasing, taunting, and threats; virtual aggression—such as through cyberbullying; the more subtle or indirect “aggression” that results in social exclusion; or aggression that is sexual, sexually motivated, gender, or gender identity (e.g., gay, lesbian, gender confused) related. Typically, acts of bullying are unprovoked, and the bully is perceived as stronger or as having more power than the victim
While some surveys report more students experiencing bullying in their schools each year, a recent Data Point from the U.S. Department of Education, revealed that 22% of a nationally representative group of student (aged 12 to 18 and in Grades 6 to 12) said that they were bullied in school, on school property, on the school bus, or going to or from school during the 2012-2013 school year (the year with the most-recent national data).
Specifically, students were asked if they were: (a) made fun of, called names, or insulted; (b) the subject of rumors; (c) threatened with harm; (d) pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on; (e) pressured into doing things they did not want to do; (f) excluded from activities on purpose; and/or victimized by having their property destroyed on purpose.
An additional analysis from this survey found that, when comparing bullied versus non-bullied students, bullied students attended schools with higher incident levels of the following:
… the presence of gangs, knowing another student who brought a gun to school, the availability of drugs and alcohol, and seeing hate-related graffiti on school property. Relative to drugs, students reported that they could get any of the following at school: marijuana, crack or other forms of cocaine, uppers, downers, LSD, PCP, heroin, prescription drugs illegally obtained without a prescription, or other illegal drugs.
Moreover, another study by the American Educational Research Association (see Section below) noted that:
- Students with disabilities are twice as likely to be identified as both perpetrators and victims as students without disabilities; and
- Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and questioning students experienced more bullying (79% versus 50%) and more sexual harassment than heterosexual students.
The Impact of Bullying on Students
In 2013, the American Educational Research Association published a summary of the bullying research titled, Prevention of Bullying in Schools, Colleges, and Universities. In this Report, the following “Measurable Negative Consequences of Bullying” were identified:
- Bullied students experience higher rates of anxiety, depression, physical health problems, and social adjustment problems that can persist into adulthood
- Bullied students become less engaged in school, and their grades and test scores decline
- In high schools where bullying and teasing are prevalent, the student body is less involved in school activities, performs lower on standardized tests, and has a lower graduation rate
- Students who engage in bullying are more at-risk of poor school adjustment and delinquency, and higher rates of criminal behavior and social maladjustment in adulthood
- Students who are bullied but who also engage in bullying (so-called “bully-victims”) have more negative outcomes than students in bully-only or victim-only groups
- Cyberbullying (through its many social media vehicles) has become more prevalent, increasing the potential for more frequent, intensive, and widespread levels of bullying for targeted students
- Cyberbullied students experience negative outcomes similar to those experienced by their traditional counterparts, including depression, poor academic performance, and problem behavior. Cyber-victimization is also linked to suicidal ideation, and students with these thoughts are more likely to attempt suicide
The longitudinal impact of bullying especially on students’ academic achievement was confirmed in a recent article, “Peer Victimization Trajectories from Kindergarten through High School: Differential Pathways for Children’s School Engagement and Achievement,” published three weeks ago (January 30, 2017) in the Journal of Educational Psychology.
This article analyzed the differential impact of chronic bullying on 383 Illinois public school students (190 boys, 193 girls) whose social, emotional, behavioral, and academic progress was tracked from 1992—when they were in kindergarten—to when they were in high school.
The results indicated that the 24% and 18% of the students who experienced chronic and increasingly moderate levels of bullying had lower academic achievement levels, a greater dislike of school, and less confidence in their academic abilities.
The 26% and 32% of the children who experienced decreasing levels of bullying over time, or little or no bullying, respectively, showed fewer negative academic effects.
While all of the students attended schools in Illinois at the beginning of the study, they were living in 24 different states by the fifth year of the study.
Approximately 77% of the participating students were white, 18% were African-American, and 4% were Hispanic, biracial, or had other backgrounds. Approximately 25% lived in families below the poverty line, 37% had low to middle incomes, and 39% had middle to high incomes.
State Laws and (New) Federal (ESEA) Statutes are Not Enough
The negative impact of school-related bullying on students’ academic and social, emotional, and behavioral status and progress is notable because, by November, 2011, 47 states and the District of Columbia (DC) had already passed state laws or policies related to bullying in schools.
Moreover, ten of these states including cyberbullying in their statutes, and 35 states including “electronic harassment.” Indeed, at least 46 states (including the DC) now have state laws or policies that require schools to have cyberbullying policies, and 39 of these states (not including the DC) require school sanctions. Many of these states had these policies in place well before 2011.
The Point is: When contrasting the fact that one-fifth to one-quarter of our country’s students reported some level of bullying during the 2012 to 2013 school year, and the fact that virtually every state had an “anti-bullying” law or statute at least one year before, it seems clear that the state laws or statutes were NOT substantially affecting the depth, breadth, and impact of school bullying.
The Conclusion is: While the laws and statutes are important—
- Districts and schools need to implement effective, integrated, sustainable, outcome-based, and multi-tiered preschool through high school approaches that collectively address teasing, taunting, bullying, harassment, hazing, and physical aggression;
- These programs, processes, and actions need to involve all school staff, students, parents/guardians/families, and communities;
- The goal should NOT ONLY be the elimination of all teasing, taunting, bullying, harassment, hazing, and physical aggression in or infiltrating into our schools;
- BUT ALSO, a simultaneous focus on increasing everyone’s interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional coping skills.
This is essential for the health, mental health, and wellness of all of our students, but it is similarly essential for our students’ academic progress and proficiency.
It is also now required by the recently reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)--which requires states to annually report the number of bullying incidents in every school. . . as well as to develop plans on how they will reduce bullying and harassment, student restraints and seclusions, and student suspensions and expulsions—all of which (expanding from the points above) disproportionately affect students of color and with disabilities.
To Prevent and Respond to Bullying, You Need to Know the Science
In order to effectively prevent and/or respond to teasing, taunting, bullying, harassment, hazing, and physical aggression, a multi-tiered (prevention, strategic intervention, and crisis management/intensive response) approach is needed.
Critically, this approach must align with (and receive the personnel, training, and other supports for) the social, emotional, and behavioral science required for its success.
Moreover, as noted above, “success” is defined not just as the elimination of teasing, bullying (etc.)—but the simultaneous increase in students’ social, emotional, and behavioral self-management skills.
Briefly, the “science” underlying the prevention and effective response to teasing, bullying (etc.) is embedded in five interdependent components:
- Staff, Student, and Parent/Community relationships and supports that establish Positive School and Classroom Climates
- Explicit Classroom and Common School Area Expectations supported by Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Skill/Self-Management Instruction (that are embedded in preschool through high school "Health, Mental Health, and Wellness" instructional activities)
- School-wide and Classroom Behavioral Accountability systems that include Motivational Approaches reinforcing students’ prosocial behavior, while holding them accountable for changing antisocial behavior
- Consistency—in all of the areas immediately above
- Application—across all school settings, all student peer groups, and all continuing situations of persistence, significance, or crisis
More descriptively, and applied to Teasing, Taunting, Bullying, Harassment, Hazing, and Physical Aggression, these components involve the following:
Positive Relationships and School/Classroom Climate
Effective schools and communities are committed to and work consciously, planfully, and on an on-going basis to develop, reinforce, and sustain positive and productive relationships so that community-wide, across-district, within-school, and inside-classroom interactions create and sustain positive and supportive climates.
When students, staff, parents/guardians, and the community-at-large consistently demonstrate these positive and productive relationships. . .
. . . then differences due to gender, age/generational, geographic, (multi-)cultural/racial, religious, socio-economic status. . .
. . . are understood, accepted, and celebrated. . . and teasing, bullying (etc.) decrease or do not occur at all.
Positive Behavioral Expectations and Skills Instruction
Students—from preschool through high school—need to be taught the social, emotional, and behavioral skills that will help them succeed in the classroom, across the common areas of the school, with peers and adults, and out into the community.
These skills (e.g., Listening, Asking for Help, Ignoring Distractions, Dealing with Teasing, Responding to Peer Pressure, Beginning a Difficult Conversation, Safely Walking away from a Fight, Handling Fear or Anxiety) must be taught and learned, practiced and mastered, and applied and infused in a systematic and continuous way.
When this is done, and when supported by peers and parents, students learn the interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional control and coping skills that they need. . .
. . . and this helps them avoid, prevent, and respond to moderate levels of teasing, bullying (etc.).
Student Motivation and Accountability
For the skill instruction described above to “work,” students (and existing peer groups) need (a) to be motivated to demonstrate their positive social, emotional, and behavioral skills; and (b) to consistently be held accountable (and make restorations) for their antisocial (i.e., teasing, bullying, etc.) interactions.
Motivation is based on two component parts: Incentives and Consequences. But critically, these incentives and consequences must be meaningful and powerful to the students—both individually and as embraced by the different peer groups in a school.
Accountability occurs reactively when consequences and restoration is needed, but it is strongest when students and the peer group hold themselves proactively accountable for consistently demonstrating their prosocial behavior without the need for extrinsic motivators.
Too often, schools create “motivational programs” for students that involve incentives and consequences that the students could not care less about. Thus, while it looks good “on paper,” it bears no weight in facilitating students’ prosocial behavior, and preventing their antisocial behavior.
Thus, students need to be active partners in developing any classroom or across-school motivation/accountability system.
In the end, when students and their peers are motivated to demonstrate their interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and intervention, and emotional control and coping skills, teasing and bullying (etc.) does not occur, and positive relationships and school/classroom climates result.
Consistency is a process. It would be great if we could “download” it into all students and staff. . . or put it in their annual flu shots. . . but that’s not how it works.
Consistency needs to be “grown” over time, so that it eventually becomes internalized and sustained. It is grown through effective strategic planning with explicit implementation plans, good communication and collaboration, sound implementation and evaluation, and consensus-building coupled with constructive feedback and change.
This is not easy. . . but it is necessary for success.
Relative to teasing and bullying (etc.), consistency must occur within and across all four of the other scientific components.
That is, in order to be successful, staff (and students) need to (a) demonstrate consistent prosocial relationships and interactions—resulting in consistently positive and productive school and classroom environments; (b) communicate consistent behavioral expectations, while consistently teaching them; (c) use consistent incentives and consequences, while holding students consistently accountable for their appropriate behavior; and then (d) apply all of these components consistently across all of the settings and peer groups in the school.
Moreover, consistency occurs when staff are consistent (a) with individual students, (b) across students, (c) within their grade levels or instructional teams, (d) across time, (e) across settings, and (f) across situations and circumstances.
Critically, when staff are inconsistent, students feel that they are treated unfairly, they sometimes behave differently for different staff or in different settings, they can become manipulative—pitting one staff person against another, and they often emotionally react—some getting angry with the inconsistency, and others simply withdrawing because they feel powerless to change it.
Said a different way: Inconsistency undercuts student accountability, and you do not get the behavior (or it occurs inconsistently or differentially)—relative to teasing and bullying (etc.) that you want in class or across the school.
Applications to All Settings and the Peer Group
The last component focuses on how the previous four components are applied to preventing and addressing teasing and bullying (etc.) across all settings, different peer group interactions, and persistent or significant acts of teasing and bullying (etc.).
Relative to the first area, it is important to understand that the common areas of a school are more complex and dynamic than classroom settings, and that most teasing and bullying (etc.) occur in schools’ common areas.
Indeed, there typically are more multi-aged or cross-grade students, more social interactions, more space or fewer physical limitations, fewer staff and supervisors, and different social demands in a school’s hallways, bathrooms, buses, cafeteria, and on the playground (or playing fields).
As such, the social, emotional, and behavioral interactions that occur in the classroom are very different when put into “multi-dynamic” common school area settings.
Accordingly, students need to be taught how to demonstrate their interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional control and coping skills in each common school area.
Moreover, the training needs to be tailored to the social demands and expectations of these settings.
Relative to the second area, it is important to understand that the peer group is often a more dominant social and emotional “force” than the adults in a school. As such, the other four components need to focus both on individual students, as well as on the various peer groups in a school.
Truly, when both individual students and different peer groups in a school are trained, motivated, and reinforced for holding each other accountable for their prosocial behaviors, everyone will be more successful relative to the goals and outcomes of a school-wide and community-based teasing and bullying (etc.) initiative.
Finally, in the face of persistent and/or significant acts of teasing and bullying (etc.), every district and/or school needs a School Discipline Committee whose members are trained in assessing the underlying reasons for the acts in question, and linking the results to strategic (i.e., Tier II) or intensive (i.e., Tier III) interventions. Eventually, this multi-tiered approach may need to target community or systemic issues, staff or peer group issues, and/or aggressor, victim, or bystander issues in order to ameliorate the persistent or significant acts.
Without effective Tier II and Tier III responses to persistent and/or significant incidents of teasing and bullying (etc.), the commitments to and success of an entire teasing, taunting, bullying, harassment, hazing, and physical aggression initiative can be undermined. Too often, teasing and bullying (etc.) programs only implement at the Tier I levels— thereby completely ignoring the training and resources needed to address both existing and/or future Tier II and Tier III needs.
To Prevent and Respond to Bullying, You Need Good Science
While there are many who have developed programs and approaches that they tout as addressing bullying in the schools, the vast majority of them have not been independently and objectively field-tested for a long enough time, with participating student and comparison/control groups, in different geographic settings, and under varying circumstances.
Moreover, the vast majority of them have not integrated the underlying scientific principle and components described above.
Given this. . . even though some bully-program authors may point to “research” that they say “validates” their program. . .
- Their “research” may not be sound (that is, reliable and valid);
- It may not be field-sensitive (that is, conducted under conditions that replicate the realities of our schools and classrooms); and
- It may not be transferrable to most other schools (because of different student, staff, or school characteristics or conditions)
What this means is that districts and schools must do their own due diligence—independently evaluating the bullying programs they are considering.
In doing this, before purchasing their preferred program, districts and schools must ensure that their program is scientifically sound, and has a high probability of delivering the outcomes expected with THEIR students and staff. This is a necessary cost- and time-effective step—one needed before investing the money and time (e.g., for professional development, implementation, and evaluation) that accompanies all programs.
None of this is to be argumentative, disparaging, or elitist.
The fact is: Anyone can do research (exceptional, acceptable, questionable, or shoddy) on a bullying program, post it on a website, and market it to the public. Districts and schools need to do their due diligence to discriminate the exceptional and acceptable, from the questionable and shoddy.
Beyond the “time and expense” issue noted above. . . more importantly, this is a student health, mental health, and wellness issue.
Summary, a Free Webinar, and a Free District Bully Policy Sample
The prevalence of bullying and its social, emotional, behavioral, psychological, and academic impact on students of all ages creates a compelling “moral imperative” for immediate action in every school across America.
But the Elementary and Secondary Education Act’s requirements also establish this as a mandate.
Districts and schools need to recognize that initiatives to prevent and respond to teasing, taunting, bullying, harassment, hazing, and physical aggression must be anchored in the behavioral and psychological science of social, emotional, and behavioral self-management and peer group interactions.
As such, districts and schools must independently apply the science, as embedded in the components described above, to any program or approach that asserts that it has and can effectively—due to its own research and practice—help schools to effectively address this area.
But beyond, teasing and bullying (etc.), it is important for districts and schools to understand, that the behavioral science and the components above, are the same components that also address such issues as:
- Positive school climate and school safety
- Student engagement and collaboration (especially in cooperative groups and project-based instruction)
- Student attendance and truancy
- Student discipline and disproportionality
- Trauma and students’ emotional coping needs
Thus, based on our work all across the country—work that resulted in our approaches being designated as evidence-based in 2000 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), there are important extended and beneficial effects to when school bullying is addressed by using the science-based components above.
Free Resources. Because of the importance and impact of these issues across our country, we would like to give you two additional free resources.
Resource 1: A few years ago, I presented a national webinar on Teasing, Taunting, Bullying, Harassment, and Physical Aggression: Prevention, Strategic Intervention, and Crisis Management.
You can watch this webinar on your own or with other colleagues below:
Resource 2: Once again, a few years ago (2012), I researched all of the relevant state statutes and selected school policies around the country in this area, and integrated them into a sample Teasing, Bullying, Harassment Policy for a School Board or School District.
You can download a free copy of this sample policy state for your own use by CLICKING HERE and looking down the page at the fourth block of free resources on our website.
We hope that this BLOG, the reviewed research and practice, and the free resources are helpful to you.
With the ESEA requirements (on bullying and in other critical academic and social areas) kicking in in the next school year, we all have a great deal of planning, training, instruction, assessment, intervention, and evaluation coming up.
If I and my colleagues can help you in any of these areas, we are happy to provide a free one-hour consultation conference call to help you to clarify your needs and directions on behalf of all of our students.
This is a critical strategic planning and budgeting time for all schools and districts. Let’s make this time the most productive possible—for our students, staff, schools, parents, and communities.
And let’s review and renew of approaches to teasing, taunting, bullying, harassment, hazing, and physical aggression—to rid our schools of these interactions, while replacing them with prosocial skills and behaviors that help students to be personally and academically successful.