In March of 2000, nine year-old Verity Ward of Great Britain had been pushed to the limit. She had been physically and emotionally bullied by fellow students at her school. They had repeatedly kicked, slapped and otherwise abused her for over eighteen months.
At the time, after she and her family tried unsuccessfully to have the problem addressed by the school, she said, “"I just want them to stop. I can't take it anymore. I used to love coming to school, but now I hate it." (BBC News, 2000)
Sadly, Verity’s experience is somewhat common. In a 2001 survey funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, sixteen percent of U.S. school children reported being bullied sometime during the current term. (National Institute of Health, 2001) Bullying is something we tend to think of as taking place between individuals or small groups. The reality is that such destructive interactions not only affect the lives and learning of those directly involved, but those affects can ripple outward, negatively affecting the across classrooms and even the entire school.
While bullying can encompass any number of behaviors, the general definition involves one individual using an imbalance of power to dominate another. While this imbalance can be real or perceived and exist between individuals or groups, it manifests in a combination of three ways: physical, verbal and psychological abuse. Interestingly, males tend to be bullies and/or bullied more often than females. Between males, physical and verbal bullying is more prevalent. Among females, verbal and psychological forms tend to be more common. (U.S. Department of Justice, June 2001)
Bullying can create a stressful, anxiety-filled environment where it becomes difficult for individual victims, classrooms and even the whole of a school population to learn effectively. Studies have already shown that victims of bullying are more likely to have cognitive deficits than their peers and score lower on tests that measure executive function. Researchers suspect that the lower academic performance in such individuals may be a result of the chronic stress that can actually kill brain cells. (Seattle Times, March 2010)
So what can an institution do to remedy the problem? In the 1980s, researcher Dan Olweus of Norway implemented a multi-level intervention program to address bullying:
- At the school level, he surveyed the bullying problems, increased supervision, held school-wide assemblies, and offered staff training to increase awareness.
- In classrooms, he helped to establish rules against bullying and helped conduct classroom meetings--including parents--to discuss the problem of bullying at school.
- Finally, he performed individual interventions with those identified as bullies and victims. (Limber and Nation)
The results of Olweus’s work were more than promising. In just two years, reported incidents of bullying had dropped by half. What is more, students reported drops in truancy and vandalism and theft, and, maybe most importantly, they characterized their school environment as “more positive as a result of the program.” (Ibid.)
While bullying is an extremely serious and prevalent problem in schools across our nation, work such as that of Olweus gives us as educators a clear response. The fact is, we must respond. We cannot let bullying go un-addressed as it so often is. In taking actions that involve whole school populations as opposed to just the bullies and victims, we make the issue a public one. We give the victims a voice, and we give every member of the school community the tools to talk about and deal with the issue head-on.
In the end, we can relieve the victims of their pain, freeing them to take advantage of all the school has to offer. We can also help bullies build self-esteem and positive relationships. As educators, it is our responsibility to help every individual--bully as well as victim--to find their positive life path and achieve success.
For more information, check out these articles:
- Bullying Widespread in U.S. Schools, Survey Finds, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, April 24, 2001.
- Addressing the Problem of Juvenile Bullying, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Fact Sheet, June 2001.
- Bullying Among Children and Youth, Limber, Susan, and Nation, Maury.