Reflection Essay on Bullying in School
Bullying is now recognized as a common form of victimization on American school campuses and a significant school safety problem (Nansel et al., 2001).This special issue of School Psychology Review provides thoughtful conceptual and practical information for school psychologists, who can play a central role in the schools’ response to this growing concern about school bullying.
In this paper, I review and expand on topics discussed, particularly as they relate to the American school context.
Reaching a national consensus on school bullying represents a significant challenge that will require balancing needs across researchers, educators, and public policy makers. Whatever the effectiveness of specific bully prevention programs, the national effort to minimize the negative effects of bullying will need to address fundamental matters related to the definition of school bullying and the translation of best research practices into public policy and educational practice at the school site level. I suggest that clarity on matters of definition is of the utmost importance.
First, it is needed for the scientific purpose of having precision in what is being studied. Second, it is needed because a lack of a common understanding about what constitutes bullying could result in a confusing array of national, state, and local policies and responses to the problems created by bullying. Introduction Contributions of Special Issue Articles Espelage and Swearer Espelage and Swearer (2003) set the stage for other contributors to this volume with their thorough review of bullying literature.
They effectively argue that bullying research has reached a critical stage where future investigations should capitalize on the lessons learned about the definition and measurement of bullying, the nature of gender differences, and the varied topography of the bully-victim relationship. They set forward the challenge of how best to define and measure bullying; the extent of that challenge was demonstrated by the varied definitions and methods of articles in this special issue.
Perhaps most important is the vision that pushes researchers in this area to recognize the importance of contexts; for example, familial, peer, school structures as determinants, correlates, and perpetuators of bullying behavior. Whereas improved definitions and measurements of bullying will help define the individual behavior, determining the contextual influences will require careful and creative research methodologies. Rodkin and Hodges Rodkin and Hodges (2003) frame their discussion of bullying in the context of peer ecology and school culture.
In particular, their emphasis on identifying and understanding “popular bullies” takes an important step toward the recognition that not all bullies fit the profile of children who are socially marginalized or deviant. Rodkin and Hodges’s article discusses a type of bully who is well-liked among his or her peer group and is thus better able to attract others to engage in their bullying behaviors. These discussions emphasize the complex influence of peer ecology, the diversity of children who engage in bullying, and varying motivations and functions that bullying may serve.
Although there are many popular students in school, only a select few use their popularity as a platform for bullying other students. One question that emerges from Rodkin and Hodges’s article is why some popular students take advantage of the opportunity to bully, but most do not. Long and Pellegrini Long and Pellegrini (2003) add an additional perspective to this bullying issue (i. e. , focus on the dynamism or long-term nature of bullying and dominance). Researchers are often constrained by their research designs and methodologies to characterizing bullying through the use of static, one-time measures.
As Espelage and Swearer have noted, an important aspect of bullying is the fact that is occurs repeatedly over a long period of time. Long and Pellegrini suggest that observing or measuring this concept across several years will provide an important perspective about the role of dominance and bullying in group behavior of students in a middle school cohort. They hypothesized that dominance would increase during a time when groups are being formed and then settle once the relationships have been established.
These authors demonstrated the use of linear mixed models to track measures of dominance and bullying over time and to determine the conditional effects of gender on change on these concepts. They clearly outline the complex statistical techniques utilized, thereby encouraging the use of such models for future research. Their findings confirmed a pattern of increase, then decrease across time. However, their findings suggested a slight increase for seventh grade students at the end of their school year, perhaps anticipating the need to reestablish relationships in the transition to eighth grade.
Overall, dominance and bullying were higher for males. As with other studies in this issue, these results, although demonstrative of the potential utility of change models for explaining bullying, are constrained by the definition of bullying because they relied on student self-definition of “bullying” behavior. It is very likely that students varied in their conception of “bullying. ” Future investigations might include a specific descriptor for this term to ensure that survey responses are valid. Leff, Power, Costigan, and Manz
Although much research on bullying has focused on assessment and prevention at the classroom level, the playground and lunchroom are also prime locations for bullying to occur. Left, Power, Costigan, and Manz (2003) explain that bullying often occurs in these settings because of a lack of structured activities and a lack of structured supervision. Left et al. evaluate an assessment tool that is designed for completion by paraprofessionals supervising during lunch and recess. This approach is one that accounts for the context in which bullying often occurs and the school ecology that can contribute to its prevention.
Although the data from this study fail to provide information on instances of bullying that occur within the lunchroom and playground contexts, accurate assessment of the school climate in these areas will presumably enhance the school’s ability to develop targeted interventions. As there is no definition of bullying provided in this article, future efforts should examine the extent to which changes in lunchroom and playground climate are expected to influence bullying behaviors, separate and distinct from generally reducing student aggression.
Orpinas, Horne, and Staniszewski Developing empirically validated programs that effectively reduce school bullying is a challenge that many schools face. Orpinas, Home, and Staniszewski (2003) describe the development and evaluation of an innovative program designed to reduce bullying and victimization at the elementary school level. The program discussed is notable for its ability to garner commitment and cooperation from many members of the school community, specifically teachers.
The authors identify staff collaboration, in conjunction with the comprehensive approach of the program, as the heart of its success. Although this program is effective at reducing aggression, as it is measured by the study’s self-report questionnaire, the program and the assessments used to evaluate the program do not target bullying independently from other forms of peer aggression. The program appears to successfully reduce aggressive behavior, but it is unclear how much of this behavior meets criteria for the hallmarks of bullying: intentionality, power imbalance, and repetition.
The commitment and motivation of the school staff participant that was engendered by this approach is admirable and would certainly contribute to a program with the specific aim of reducing bullying behavior, as well. Limber and Small Several state legislatures have enacted laws related to bullying in an attempt to ad dress the perception that bullying is a growing problem in American schools. Limber and Small (2003) review the state laws that have been passed and some of the major issues surrounding bullying legislation.
In particular, they note a trend towards defining bullying in conjunction with other types of peer aggression, such as “harassment” or “intimidation. ” By considering these terms as synonymous, Limber and Small suggest that states fail to capture the unique qualities of bullying, potentially resulting in school personnel being confused or misled. Limber and Small offer several recommendations for state legislators, state departments of education, and local policy makers seeking to develop sensitive and appropriate bullying laws.
Limber and Small’s focus on legislation recognizes the most formalized approach to bullying–one that may mandate state resources. This raises the question: What else are states doing to prevent and intervene with bullying that has not been formalized into legislation? The way that bullying is addressed in schools, by school districts, and by state departments of education is often not reflected in their state laws. In addition, only 15 states have passed legislation, leading to the question of what is happening in the other 35 states. Implications of Special Issue Articles for School Psychology Practice
The topic of bullying in American schools was neglected for too long (Espelage & Swearer, 2003). This issue affirms the crucial roles that school psychology researchers and practitioners can contribute to future efforts to better understand this phenomenon and to develop evidence-based strategies designed to reduce its incidence and consequences. I suggest that these efforts will move forward most efficiently and effectively if thought is given to carefully defining bullying and to building a national consensus about the nature of this problem.
In an effort to be better informed about the actions being taken in the 50 United States to reduce bullying and to build on Limber and Small’s (2003) efforts, we turn to a presentation of state-level responses to bullying. The Status of School Bullying Policy and Practice in the United States The analysis of forensic psychologists McGee and Debemardo (1999) helped to popularize the idea that school shooters are awkward adolescents who had past histories of bully victimization and social isolation.
Amidst the national angst after the multiple school shootings in the late 1990s, the notion that these youth had been victimized to the point of extreme violence was offered as one explanation for these terrible events. Subsequent analyses (Fein et al. , 2002; O’Toole, 2000; Vossekuil, Fein, Reddy, Borum, & Modzeleski, 2002) have shown this to be a qualified and limited relationship, but they also reinforced the perception that at least some school shooters were bully-victims who acted to avenge long-term peer abuse.
Although bully victimization cannot be used with any degree of accuracy to predict school shootings (Reddy et al. , 2001), one potentially positive response to the recognition of this phenomenon is that it modified perceptions that bullying was a relatively innocent rite of youth passage. Instead, bullying is now seen as one set of behaviors that might have deadly consequences. Legislative Responses to School Violence Interestingly, as mentioned by Espelage and Swearer (2003), the motivation to address bullying in Finland (Dan Olweus’s home) emanated from concern about suicides among bully victims.
Similarly, in response to American school shooting tragedies (many of the school shooters also were suicidal), educators and policy makers began to take action (e. g. , California Governor’s School Violence Task Force, 2000). After years of neglecting the bullying phenomenon, beginning in 1998, states began to pass laws using the term “bullying. ” As might be expected, states that have experienced notable school shooting incidents are more likely to have formal school bullying laws than other states.
In recent years, a number of states have passed legislation that directly mentions bullying and articulates school responses and disciplinary consequences. Limber and Small (2003) provide an overview and discussion of these legislative responses. In addition to the passage of formal educational laws, various states have responded more informally through the dissemination of resources and training. Although the prevention of school-associated deaths is an essential objective, formal legislative responses can only be as effective as the implementation of bullying prevention and intervention strategies in schools, a topic to which we now turn.
State-Level Bullying Practices Unfortunately, in the rush to address the new perceived threat of school shootings, insufficient time was taken to formally define bullying. Consequently, efforts to pass state laws and to implement local policies have had limited coherence (Limber & Small, 2003). Many state statues, in fact, do not define “bullying” other than to use the word itself; others equate it to peer harassment; and yet others include hate crimes of all types including those directed against gay, lesbian, and bisexual students.
New Hampshire, for example, actually requires a school employee “who has witnessed or has reliable information that a pupil has been subjected to insults, taunts, or challenges, whether verbal or physical in nature, which are likely to intimidate or provoke a violent or disorderly response shall report such incident to the principal, or designee who shall in turn report the incident to the superintendent” (2001). These codified definitions of bullying are at times inconsistent with international perspectives and research (Espelage & Swearer, 2003; Juvonen & Graham, 2001; Rigby, in press; Smith et al.
, 2002). Summary of State Policy and Practices Formal state legislation. As Limber and Small (2003) reported, 15 states have enacted bullying legislation. When state representatives were asked whether their state had a law addressing bullying, 13 additional representatives wrote that their state legislation addresses bullying, but does not explicitly use the term “bullying. ” Instead, bullying behavior is subsumed under the heading of another law (e. g. , harassment, assault, injurious hazing). As Limber and Small discuss, failing to accurately label bullying makes intervening more challenging.
Such misunderstandings may also lead to punitive laws, rather than a commitment to supporting and guiding bullies toward change. State definitions of bullying. State definitions of bullying (defined by state law or the state representative) were compared with the primary components of Olweus’s (1993) definition of bullying. Olweus’s definition is composed of three primary components: intentionality, an imbalance of power, and repetition. In addition, Olweus (2001) explains that a wide range of behaviors can be considered bullying, including physical aggression, relational aggression, systematic exclusion, and destruction of property.
Table 2 includes information for each state law in the following areas: Many Forms of Bullying (the definition of bullying includes more than one type of bullying behavior, physical, verbal), Intentional, Imbalance of Power, and Repetition. In addition, several definitions of bullying specify outcomes of the behavior. To be considered bullying, the behavior may need to disrupt learning or the school environment, cause emotional stress or distress in a victim, or result in physical harm to a student.
The number of states that included a discussion of the effect of bullying on victims indicates an increasing awareness of victims’ experiences. However, most formalized legislation continues to focus on actions to be taken with bullies, to the exclusion of responding to victims. Although laws in New York and Rhode Island require that schools provide mentors for students concerned about bullying or violence, victim issues and needs are notably absent from most legislation. State-level bullying resources.
This special issue is evidence that practitioners and researchers are moving forward in defining bullying and developing targeted evidence-based interventions. Nonetheless, the definitions provided by state legislation and state representatives do not appear to be based in a strong research grounding. Not one of the 15 states that have enacted bullying legislation provides a definition of bullying that includes all components of Olweus’s definition. Further, none of the other state representatives who provided a definition that was not formalized into legislation cited all aspects of the definition.
This disconnect between research and policy leads to questions about the development of legislation. In particular, there may be political pressures from various constituencies that influence the wording and scope of bullying laws. For example, if legislation is partially or primarily a response to media-intensive school violence, as mentioned above, then the most immediate response is likely to be the quick fix (i. e. , punitive and controlling through strict disciplinary provisions). Conclusion Researchers in many countries (e. g.
, Finland, England, Canada, and Australia) have intensively focused on the problem of school bullying far longer than those in the United States by seeking an empirically based understanding of bullying (Smith et al. , 2002). As a result, an international dialogue on theories of bullying has accumulated over the years based on careful investigation and intervention. In contrast, the interest in the U. S. on the topic of bullying has been more recent. Now that bullying has passed through a period of awareness building, the time has come to move into a period where research is conducted with more precision and complexity.
The clarity provided will support more effective, targeted, evidence-based practice. Ironically, although the U. S. Department of Education has developed a flier (U. S. Department of Education, 1998) with evidence-based definitions and research on bullying, state legislators have produced diverse legislation. According to the U. S. Department of Education, bullying is defined as: “intentional, repeated hurtful acts, words or other behavior, such as name-calling, threatening and/or shunning committed by one or more children against another.
The victim does not intentionally provoke these negative acts, and for such acts to be defined as bullying, an imbalance in real or perceived power must exist between the bully and the victim. Bullying may be physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual in nature” (p. 1). This definition is closely aligned with well-accepted research definitions (e. g. , Olweus, 1993), yet state departments of education have not incorporated all components of this definition. One conceptualization of bullying is that of a continuum of verbal and nonverbal aggressive behaviors that are commonly exhibited by students (Espelage & Swearer, 2003).
At the extreme end of the continuum are behaviors of students who repeatedly victimize other students; their actions are not qualitatively distinct from those of other students on the continuum; they are simply more frequent and persistent. This idea that bullying lies on a continuum and that most students engage in some form of peer victimization suggests that perhaps bullying should be addressed in conjunction with other forms of peer aggression. However, this does not preclude accurately assessing this form of aggressive behavior.
For example, a recent study by Solberg and Olweus (2003) indicates that the frequency and duration of victimization has a significant effect on victim outcomes. Specifically, marked negative consequences were found among those students who experienced bullying events two to three times in the previous month. Although the threshold of how “repetitious” bullying needs to be to have a generalized negative effect on a youth may vary by child, Solberg and Olweus’s (2003) analysis provides a marker to possibly differentiate general aggression from bullying.
In addition, increased precision in defining bullying will affect prevalence research. Among the most commonly cited work on bullying prevalence in American schools is work by Nansel et al. (2001). In their survey, the definition of bullying provided to students included the following statement: “We say a student is BEING BULLIED when another student, or a group of students, say or do nasty and unpleasant things to him or her. It is also bullying when a student is teased repeatedly in a way he or she doesn’t like.
But it is NOT BULLYING when two students of about the same strength quarrel or fight” (p. 2095). Failure to specify that bullying is necessarily a pattern of behaviors or a relationship may produce higher prevalence rates and fall short of recognizing the unique functions that bullying serves. Taking a peer-relationship approach to understanding bullying has implications for practice, assessment, and policy. Defining bullying as a specific type of peer aggression will aid in this pursuit.
As Limber and Small (2003) discuss, anti-bullying legislation is unfortunately intertwined with definitions and legislation addressing harassment. Harassment is defined as actions that are intended to target a member of a group of identifiable individuals who are protected by state and/or federal antidiscrimination legislation. This confusion and overlap of terms leads to political quarrels that could be avoided if bullying were more precisely defined.
For example, although a law requiring school districts to develop policies prohibiting harassment, intimidation, and bullying now exists in the state of Washington, some conservative groups in this state have expressed concerns that anti-bullying laws could infringe on students’ rights to speak freely about their opposition to homosexuality (Zehr, 2001). The question of whether anti-bullying legislation should specifically include a clause protecting identifiable groups (based on characteristics such as sexual orientation) remains a topic of public debate.
For example, antibullying legislation in the states of New Jersey and Washington currently incorporates a definition of bullying that includes a clause stating that bullying is motivated by a (real or perceived) distinguishing characteristic. It should be noted that many state antibullying laws do not pertain specifically to “bullying”; rather, they often address “harassment, intimidation, or bullying” or include the term “hazing. ” This combination of concepts and terms has repercussions for definitions, community responses, policies, and consequences.
A definition of “bullying” that takes a relational approach has implications for practice, assessment, and policy. Interventions designed for victims of chronic peer aggression will differ from those developed for youth experiencing single or unrelated aggressive acts. If bullying is a relationship, then responses to bullies focus on changing a pattern of behavior and relating. If most aggressive acts are called bullying, it will be more difficult to develop an accurate knowledge base about bullying in American schools.
In addition, none of the current definitions of bullying have formally operationalized the essential elements of the bullying definition: imbalance of power (one youth can and is using coercion) and intentionality (the bullying is done purposefully and with the intent to harm). Such information cannot be assessed merely through the self-report of either the bully or the victim because this assessment of necessity involves a reciprocal relationship. One strategy to explore power differences that have been attempted is the use of obvious size differences in stick drawings of possible bullying situations (Smith et al.
, 2002). Ultimately, only the bully knows his or her motivation (although they may have rationalized it in a self-supporting manner) and the victim only knows if she or he experienced harm (although even here there may be some forms of denial or self-protective reframing of the experience). On the other hand, bullies and victims may not be the best judges of the motivation of their behavior and the interpretation of their emotional reactions. Cornell and Brockenbrough (in press), for example, found that self-reported bullying and victimization was inconsistent with teacher and other peer ratings of bullying behavior.
The teacher and peer ratings were the most consistent and they were better predictors of future school discipline referrals. The findings of this study suggest that teachers and peers may be more objective judges of whether or not a power differential exists between students and if the impact of the bullying behavior was harmful. Even the most basic unanswered bullying research question: “How prevalent is bullying in American schools? ” depends completely on how the term bullying is defined.
I have suggested that the prevention of the negative consequences of bullying in American schools will be enhanced if researchers, practitioners, and policy makers develop a shared understanding of bullying as a type of school aggression that has unique effects on bullies, victims, and bystanders. It is also necessary to recognize that most youth do not engage in bullying behaviors. Many students are in a position in which they are more powerful than another student and yet they do not abuse this power. Research is needed to better understand what prevents a student from using this power to bully other peers.
For research to move forward in determining why many students do not chronically victimize their weaker peers, it is necessary to understand the specific aggressive behaviors of bullies and the functions that they serve. Implications for Bully Prevention Strategies Suggested by Special Issue Articles Community Level • Encourage the adoption of legislation that includes a precise definition of bullying derived from current research (Limber & Small) • Definitions of bullying, policy, and legislation should address bullying specifically, as a concept that is distinct from “harassment,” “hazing,” etc.
(Espelage & Swearer; Limber & Small) School-wide Level • Provide trainings for school personnel about bullying and preventing bullying (Limber & Small) • Extend training to include school personnel (including para-professionals and volunteers) who supervise students in the lunchroom and on the playground (Leff, Power, Costigan, & Manz) • Avoid zero tolerance or punitive consequences in favor of more individualized and guidance oriented responses to student bullies (Limber & Small) • Encourage schools to implement evidence-based bullying prevention and intervention programs (Limber & Small; Orpinas, Home, & Staniszewski)
• Include playground and lunchroom contexts as settings for actively assessing and intervening in bullying (Leff, Power, Costigan, & Manz) • Develop an awareness of the ways in which the school climate (in various school settings) promotes or discourages aggression and bullying (Left, Power, Costigan, & Manz) • Recognize varying forms of bullying including relational aggression (Espelage & Swearer) • Collaborate with all school personnel in developing programs, as their commitment will be integral to the program’s success (Orpinas, Home, & Staniszewski)
• Develop school-wide prevention programs that take into account the individual school’s climate and context (Orpinas, Home, & Staniszewski) Individual Student Level • Recognize the varied social contexts in which bullying may occur and the social status of bullies (Rodkin & Hodges) • View bullying from a social-ecological perspective to provide a more enriched and comprehensive understanding of behaviors (Espelage & Swearer) • Work to determine the function (social and personal) that bullying weaker students serves for the bully (Rodkin & Hodges)
• Be cognizant of possible bidirectional influences of family factors in promoting the victim role (Rodkin & Hodges) • Recognize that bullying is part of a dynamic developmental process that should not be taken out of the context of change over time (Long & Pelligrini) • Recognize that as students grow older the influence of opposite-sex peers and heterosexual relationships play an important role in social dominance, particularly for boys (Long & Pelligrini) • Recognize that bullies and victims are not dichotomous groups, rather there is a continuum of student involvement in bullying and victimization behaviors (Espelage & Swearer)
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