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Research on Bullying Prevention and Intervention

Prevalence of Bullying Behaviors in Schools 

  • The National School Safety Center (NSSC) called bullying the most enduring and underrated problem in U.S. schools (Beale, 2001).
  • Nearly 30 percent of students have reported being involved in bullying as either a perpetrator or victim (Cook, Williams, Guerra, & Kim, 2010; Nansel, et al., 2001; Swearer & Espelage, 2004). 
  • The percentage of students who witness bullying (i.e., bystanders) on a regular basis (60-90%) is far greater than the percentage of students reporting being directly involved. Moreover, these bystanders also experience the negative effects of bullying (Hoover, Oliver, & Hazier, 1992; National Crime Prevention Council, 2003; Stueve et al., 2006).
  • Unfortunately, many instances of bullying are NOT reported by students or recorded in discipline data.
  • Bullying is NOT perpetrated by a small number of students who are socially and emotionally isolated. Bullying is common across socio-economic status, gender, grade, and classroom (Bradshaw, et al., 2010).
     

Predictive Factors of Bullying Behaviors in Schools

Student Risk Factors

  • Students who are in middle school (Nansel et al., 2001) or in a transition year (e.g.,, first year of middle or high school) when new peer groups may be more likely to use bullying to establish social hierarchies (Pellegrini et al., 2011) are more likely to experience bullying.
  • Other individual factors that increase the likelihood of being involved in bullying include students who are in the ethnic minority (Graham, 2006), demonstrate gaps in social skills (Cook et al., 2010), perceived as popular (Rodkin, Farmer, Pearl, & VanAcker, 2006), and diagnosed with an externalizing behavioral disorder (Cook et al., 2010; Kokkinos & Panayiotou, 2004).

School Risk and Protective Factors

  • When schools have a climate that is described as not supportive, there is an increased risk for students being involved in bullying (Kasen, Johnson, Chen, Crawford, & Cohen, 2011)
  • Teachers' anti-bullying attitudes have been shown to affect student involvement in bullying. When teachers are viewed by students as making an effort to decrease bullying, there is a reduction in bullying over time (Veenstra, Lindenberg, Huitsing, Sainio, & Salmivalli, 2014).
  • Research by Doll, Song, Champion, and Jones (2011) found four characteristics associated with higher levels of bullying and victimization including (a) negative peer friendships, (b) poor teacher-student relationships, (c) lack of self-control, and (d) poor problem-solving among students.
  • When students in a school display greater engagement, they are less likely to be involved in bullying as both a perpetrator and a victim (Espalage & Swearer, 2010).

Family Risk and Protective Factors

  • Students who perpetrate bullying have been found to report greater conflict and lower trust with their parents (Pepler, Jiang, Craig & Connolly, 2008). Additionally, these students report that their parents frequently do not monitor their behavior.
  • Students involved in bullying may be more likely to have parents who are not involved in their school and report poor communication with their parents (Spriggs, Iannotti, Nansel, & Hanie, 2007).
  • When students perceive their home life as negative (e.g., experiencing violence, feelings of wanting to run away), research suggests they are significantly more likely to experience bullying as either a perpetrator or victim (Espelage & Swearer, 2010; Holt, Kaufman, & Finkelhor, 2009).
  • Students who report experiencing positive parenting (e.g., setting of clear rules, parents show love and support) have been shown to be significantly less likely to be a victim or perpetrator of bullying (Espelage & Swearer, 2010).

Community Risk and Protective Factors

  • Students who perceive themselves as living in a safe neighborhood may be less likely to experience bullying as a perpetrator or victim (Espelage & Swearer, 2010).
  • When the neighborhood in which students live experiences economic and social difficulties, there may be an increased likelihood of bullying (Holt, Turner, & Exum, 2014).
  • Students who live in unsafe neighborhoods have shown a greater likelihood to be involved in bullying as a victim (Khoury-Kassabri, Benbensishty, Astor, & Zeira, 2004).

Outcomes of Bullying Behaviors in Schools

  • Victims and perpetrators of bullying are more likely to skip and/or drop out of school (Berthold & Hoover, 2000; Neary & Joseph, 1994).
  • Victims and perpetrators of bullying are more likely to suffer from underachievement and sub-potential performance in employment settings (Carney & Merrell, 2001; NSSC, 1995). 
  • Victims and perpetrators of bullying are more likely to experience depression, suicidality, and externalizing symptoms (Cook, Williams, Guerra, Kim, & Sadek, 2010; Kumpulainen, Rasanen, & Puura, 2001; Swearer, et al., 2012).

Function of Bullying Behavior

Research indicates that incidents of bullying are fundamentally and overwhelmingly reinforced by peer attention.

Craig, Pepler, and Atlas (2000) conducted a study in which elementary school students were video- and audio-taped for episodes of bullying and harassment throughout the school. They found that students other than the bully and victim (i.e., bystanders) were present in 79% of incidents that took place on the playground and 85% of those that took place in the classroom. In addition, O’Connell, Pepler, and Craig (1999) coded 185 individual instances of bullying behavior with 120 elementary school students and found that 53.5% (= 99) of segments involved at least two bystander peers. In a study by Ross & Horner (2009), both victim and bystander responses to bullying incidents were measured. Prior to intervention, victim attention (e.g., crying, whining, or fighting back) followed 53% of bullying incidents, and bystander reinforcement (e.g., verbal encouragement and affirmation) followed 57% of incidents (victim and bystander responses were not exclusive).  Finally, in O’Connell and colleagues’ (1999) study, the number of peers present was positively related to the duration of bullying episodes. The more peers around, the longer the incident lasted. Having more peers present provides more peer attention, resulting in more potent reinforcement.

Common Mistakes when Preventing Bullying within Schools  

Many times school personnel mean well when attempting to prevent bullying, but inadvertently reinforce bullying (Merrell, Gueldner, Ross, & Isava, 2008). Some common mistakes include:

  • Blaming bullies and excluding them from the social context
  • Forcing victims to interact with perpetrators who may be further reinforced by the interaction
  • A lack of focus on involving bystanders

Research Articles on Bully Prevention and Intervention:

  • The following research articles present a review of effective school-based programs to reduce bullying:
  • This white paper (PDF) was developed by the US Department of Education to disseminate bullying prevention and intervention research
  • This article (PDF) by Blake, Lund, Zhou, Kwok and Benz (2012) presents the prevalence of bullying for students with disabilities

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