Bullying Prevention in Schools Starts with Social-Emotional Learning
Bullying has been acknowledged as a problem in schools for several decades. Recent media attention to the issue has thrust bullying into the forefront of many legislators’, educators’, and parents’ minds. In response to media attention and heightened concern on the part of lawmakers, educators, and families, research in this field has been burgeoning as well. Results from studies have taught us not only about the rates of bullying, but a great deal about the characteristics of both children who bully and those who are targeted.
Although many approaches have been developed to curb bullying, only a few programs have been shown to be effective in rigorous evaluations. Faced with increasing pressure from parents, community members, and district and state mandates, schools are struggling to figure out how best to address the issue of bullying and provide safe and respectful learning environments for all students.
Effective bullying prevention requires a multi-pronged effort. School staff need to have appropriate policies and procedures in place and need to know the right way to work with students involved in bullying. But another critically important part of tackling the problem is focusing on developing the social-emotional skills of children. These skills enable children to be socially competent citizens within the school environment and help build an overall positive climate within the school. Attention to these skills will support the development of healthier, happier children who are ready to learn and contribute to a safer environment.
Serious Problem with Serious Consequences
Bullying is intentional negative behavior that is repeated and involves an imbalance of social or physical power.
Because bullying inherently involves social relationships it affects all participants involved: the child being bullied, the child doing the bullying, and the bystanders. No one would question that bullying is harmful to those that are victimized. Recent reports estimate that about 20% of children are victims of bullying at school.
Paying attention to victims of bullying is important, because students who are bullied report having more physical health complaints and engage in higher levels of problem behavior, such as smoking and drinking. In addition, students who are bullied can suffer negative effects that last into adulthood, including depression, anxiety, sadness, and loneliness. What may be more surprising is that those who are doing the bullying also suffer. Students who bully others are at higher risk for a wide range of problems including abusing alcohol and other drugs, getting into fights, and doing poorly academically. And like victims of bullying, children who bully are at higher risk of having problems into adulthood, such as criminal convictions and substance use.These are disturbing consequences, given that recent reports estimate that about 13% of children in schools are directly engaging in bullying.
Another group of students affected by bullying is bystanders (students who witness bullying). Bullying rarely happens in isolated corners of the school where no one is watching. It often happens in very open places in front of other students. And with greater use of technology, bullying can happen in very public forums. In fact, bystanders make up the largest group of students affected by bullying in school, with 71% of students saying they have witnessed bullying within the last month. 6 out of 10 children witness at least one bullying incident in school a day. The high number of children who witness bullying is disturbing, given that bystanders are also found to exhibit negative consequences. Research shows that students who witness bullying as bystanders also suffer increased use of tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs, have increased mental health problems, and are more likely to miss or skip school.
Why Do Schools Need to Act?
Although bullying can occur anywhere, most reported bullying happens in school. Bullying can greatly affect the school environment and hinder students’ academic success. Bullying can lower academic achievement, influence school attendance, and even contribute to higher dropout rates. And remember, academic achievement is lower for all students involved in bullying: those who are victimized, those who bully, and those who witness bullying.
Many schools recognize the need to address bullying. They have developed and put into place policies and procedures that outline actions to take against it and have trained their staff in how to respond effectively to reports of bullying. These efforts at the adult level are important and necessary in setting the groundwork for promoting a safe and positive climate for students. However, more needs to be done to effect change in students’ behaviors. Focusing on student behavior not only affects healthy development of the individual, it will also contribute to an overall positive school environment.
What Can Schools Do?
Several bullying prevention programs exist. However, schools need to be careful about which program they adopt. Some programs are not supported by research evidence that they are effective in dealing with bullying. Research is clear that the best approach to bullying prevention is a comprehensive effort that addresses factors at the school, staff, and child level. We know a lot about how student social dynamics and social-emotional skills predict behavior of those who bully and their targets. We understand that bullying is typically a group phenomenon that involves multiple aspects of social relationships. Many students bully for social reasons and use bullying effectively to gain status. Victims of bullying tend to be socially withdrawn and lack positive self-concepts.8 Bystanders often report feeling guilt and Students who are bullied can suffer negative effects that last into adulthood, including depression, anxiety, sadness, and loneliness.