“Stop picking on me!” What you need to know about bullying
Hi, guys,” says Robert, the after-school program specialist,
greeting his first graders. “Anybody hungry?”
The children take off their backpacks and help themselves to
granola bars, apples, and milk. Willie, the smallest boy, gets
pushed aside by bigger boys but manages to grab a granola bar
before they’re all gone.
“Willie is a weenie. Willie is a weenie,” chants Jake, a large
blond youngster with red cheeks. Two boys behind him chuckle, and most of the
other children settle down into eating their snack.
Willie, his chin quivering, turns to Robert in a silent plea
for help. Jake sees the gesture and smirks, “Willie is
a tattle tale.”
If you were Robert, what would you do in this situation?
a) Ignore the teasing. After all, “Kids will be kids.”
b) Say to Jake: “Cut it out. Words can hurt, and we don’t
c) Take Willie aside. “Hey, if someone is bothering you,
you need to learn to stand up for yourself.” Brainstorm
ways to respond to future taunts.
d) Plan a learning activity on how to stop hurtful behavior.
As a group, read and discuss books on teasing and bullying. Empower
all children to speak out against hurtful behavior when they
see it happen.
Many of us can remember being in situations like the one above
when we were children. Or perhaps we ourselves were the target
of such behavior. Experts say teasing and bullying are commonplace
in schools, not just in the United States but around the world.
Bullying in particular has gained increased attention in recent
years. Hundreds of books and research articles have been published
on the subject, and at least 30 states have passed anti-bullying
legislation (National Conference of School Legislatures 2008).
Why the attention? Research in the aftermath of school shootings,
including Columbine High School in Colorado, has found that the
shooters had been severely bullied by classmates. A study of
school violence by the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department
of Education found that “almost three-quarters of the attackers
felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked or injured by
others prior to the incident” (2002).
Research indicates that boys do most of the bullying, and they
target girls as well as other boys. Among girls, bullying is
more likely to take the form of emotional hurt, such as spreading
hurtful rumors about another girl or excluding her from a group.
Most bullying takes place at school, typically in places with
little or no adult supervision, such as the playground, cafeteria,
and restroom. According to research, when teachers and other
adults see or hear about bullying, they generally do nothing
to stop it.
Teasing and bullying begin in the early grades and peak in middle
school. The timing is linked to development. By fourth grade,
children are comparing themselves to each other and become self-conscious,
especially about appearance and ability. Consequently, a perceived
difference is sometimes—not always—a trigger for
teasing and bullying behavior.
Research findings like these have spurred the call for improved
disciplinary policies and prevention efforts in schools as well
as after-school programs, youth clubs, and summer camps. The
fact that teasing and bullying can show up in the primary grades
suggests that the precursors of this behavior may be found in
early childhood and that parents and child care professionals
also play a role in prevention.
A continuum of hurtful behavior
According to Barri Rosenbluth, director of school-based services
at SafePlace, a domestic violence and sexual assault center
in Austin, teasing and bullying can be viewed as part of a
continuum of intentionally hurtful behavior. At one end of
the continuum is hurtful teasing, which can include making
fun of someone, name-calling, put-downs, insults, and negative
gestures. At the other end is abuse and assault, which can
include the use of weapons.
Teasing becomes bullying when it is repeated over time. Like
teasing, bullying can take many forms—name-calling, threats,
hitting—but it usually involves an imbalance of power.
The bully is often bigger, older, smarter, or more popular than
the targeted child.
Sexual harassment may seem out of place in a discussion of preschool
and primary school behavior, but all educators need to be aware
of it. According to a study by the American Association of University
Women Educational Foundation, one-third of students who experienced
sexual harassment said it first occurred in sixth grade or earlier
Sexual harassment is teasing or bullying of a sexual nature using
words, gestures, pictures, or actions. Boys as well as girls
can be the targets, and the harassment can be about the body,
boy-girl friendships, or speculation about homosexuality. Sexual
harassment may occur once or many times.
In the public schools, sexual harassment is serious because it’s
a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX of the Education
Amendments of 1972. Under this law, school officials must take
reasonable steps to prevent and eliminate sexual harassment because
it “can interfere with a student’s academic performance
and emotional and physical well-being” (Office for Civil
Tune in to teasing
Because intent plays a part in defining whether a behavior is
hurtful, child development experts might argue that teasing
and bullying don’t occur until children can understand
the feelings of others.
“Preschoolers say funny and absurd things that are not necessarily targeted
at anyone,” says Judy Freedman, an elementary school social worker, in
her book (2002). “They are often experimenting with
words they have recently learned.”
Teasing becomes sharper as children expand their vocabulary and
improve their verbal skills. “They think it’s funny
to rhyme a word with someone’s name, as in the case of
a second-grader who was called ‘Fartin’ Martin,’” says
Freedman. But as children develop empathy, they are less likely
to ridicule someone for a name or other qualities beyond a person’s
Experienced teachers also recognize that much teasing is good-natured
and friendly. Best friends may josh each other for fun, and children
might tease another child as a sign of welcome into a group.
What’s harder to discern is teasing that’s iffy,
as though the teaser is testing for a reaction. If the targeted
child cringes or punches back, the teaser may continue, delighted
at finding a hot button. But if the targeted child tosses it
off, the two may continue joking around, or the teaser may look
for another target.
Experts say teasing becomes hurtful if the teaser intends to
be cruel or if the targeted child feels upset, angry, or afraid
as a result, regardless of the intent.
How’s a teacher to know? “Talk to the targeted child
privately,” advises Rosenbluth. “Don’t just
assume the child will come to you.” Ask: “What did
you feel after Marianne’s comment about your freckles?” or “How
did you feel when Aaron shoved you?”
Why it matters
For children targeted by teasers and bullies, school is miserable
and frightening. They may experience headaches, stomachaches,
bedwetting, and restless sleep. They can feel depressed, inadequate,
and lonely. Other children may avoid them, fearing they may
also become targets, leaving the targeted child with no friends.
Targeted children may resist going to school out of fear for
their safety. They may develop a dislike for school and fall
behind their peers in learning. In extreme cases, if the bullying
continues into the teen years, students can react by harming
themselves or seeking revenge.
Children who do the teasing and bullying are usually popular
and confident. But experts say they lack empathy and believe
that such behavior is OK, even desirable. They need positive
role models and help in learning social skills. Without that,
they become at risk for other problem behaviors.
Bullying also affects bystanders. Non-targeted children can feel
afraid and vulnerable at school. Their learning may falter as
Why it happens
Many authorities say teasing and bullying are part of the larger
issue of aggressive behavior in much of modern life. Studies
attribute aggression to media violence, poverty, poor child-rearing
practices, abusive home environments, and other factors.
Researchers Pamela Orpinas and Arthur Horne (2006) say the roots
of hurtful behavior are better described as , not
. Risk factors refer to personal or environmental characteristics
that indicate a greater likelihood of behaving a certain way.
For example, harsh parental punishment by itself does not make
a child tease and bully others. But several risk factors taken
together may indicate a greater tendency to hurt other children.
Orpinas and Horne argue that in addition to risk factors, educators
must also consider protective factors—that is, characteristics
that help diminish the likelihood of teasing and bullying. See
the table below for an abbreviated list of both factors.
Teachers and caregivers can do a great deal to prevent hurtful
behavior, but no one can do it alone. The most effective prevention,
says Rosenbluth, is a “caring community.”