Psychologist offers insight on bullying and how to prevent it

October is National Bullying Prevention Month, an annual campaign launched in 2006 by the Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights to raise awareness of and prevent bullying.

Date created: 2014

Psychologist Offers Insight on Bullying and How to Prevent It

Child development expert Dorothy Espelage, PhD, discusses recent research

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October is National Bullying Prevention Month, an annual campaign launched in 2006 by the Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights to raise awareness of and prevent bullying. Bullying is aggressive, repeated and intentional behavior designed to show an imbalance of power. One out of three students is bullied during the school year, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. The September issue of APA’s journal

School Psychology Quarterly

focused exclusively on bullying. (For full text of articles, please contact

APA Public Affairs


Dorothy Espelage, PhD

, is a professor of child development in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She focuses her research on bullying prevention and intervention and she is currently conducting two randomized clinical trials of a bullying prevention program in 38 elementary and middle schools. Espelage has published over 125 peer-reviewed articles, 25 chapters and is co-editor of five books, including “Bullying in North American Schools: A Social-Ecological Perspective on Prevention and Intervention” and “Youth Suicide and Bullying: Challenges and Strategies for Prevention and Intervention.” Espelage is associate editor of APA’s

Journal of Counseling Psychology



APA recently asked Espelage the following questions:

APA: What causes some children to be bullies? Are there risk factors (e.g., home environment, violent media or personality)? If so, what can parents and educators do to address them?


Not all children engage in bullying for the same reason. It is complex and depends on the age of the child. In elementary school, children who bully others often have difficulty regulating their emotions and do so in reaction to peer rejection or peer exclusion. As kids move into middle school, some engage in bullying behaviors in order to look cool, to make friends or because they think it will make them more popular. Youth might also engage in bullying if they are exposed to aggression in their homes, including among siblings or adults who manage conflict through aggression. Schools play a role as well. When youth attend middle schools where there are concerted, authentic efforts to prevent bullying, they report bullying others less. Students in middle schools where sexual harassment is not tolerated by teachers or other staff also report less bullying. It’s important to consider how bullying looks different in elementary school than in middle school. Youth exposed to community violence also show increases in bullying over the course of middle school. To prevent youth bullying, prevention efforts must teach children and adolescents individual emotion regulation skills, how to foster peer acceptance and ways to counter any detrimental effects of exposure to violence in their homes and communities. We must recognize that schools play a critical role in reducing these behaviors.

APA: In your recent research, you found that the school environment plays an important role in understanding bullying behaviors. What does this research tell us?


If you spend any time in middle schools, you know that each school has its own unique school climate. Thus, we wanted to identify how school environment could be related to bullying, fighting, victimization and students’ willingness to intervene. So, we surveyed staff and students in 36 middle schools in the Midwest. As predicted, we found that as teachers and other staff perceived aggression as a problem in their school, students reported more bullying, fighting, peer victimization and less willingness to intervene. Further, as teachers and staff report greater commitment to prevent bullying and viewed positive teacher/student relationships, there was less bullying, fighting and peer victimization and greater willingness to intervene. In a model school environment with the all right factors, a school commitment to prevent bullying was associated with less bullying, fighting and peer victimization. Research published in the September issue of APA’s

School Psychology Quarterly

found that bullying and peer victimization can be reduced through programs and approaches that focus on improving school climate.

APA: What is the difference between child or adolescent aggression and bullying?


A debate has emerged about how best to define bullying and how to distinguish it from other forms of aggression and/or peer victimization. One of the first, predominant definitions is: “A student is being bullied or victimized when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more students.” More recent definitions emphasize observable or non-observable aggressive behaviors, the repetitive nature of these behaviors, and the imbalance of power between the individual or group perpetrator and the victim. An imbalance of power exists when the perpetrator or group of perpetrators has more physical, social or intellectual power than the victim. In a recent examination of a nationally representative study, early and late adolescents who perceived their perpetrator as having more power reported greater adverse mental health issues, such as depression and suicidal ideation, than victims who did not perceive a difference in power. In 2010, the Department of Education and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collaborated to develop this uniform research definition: “Bullying is any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.”

Bullying may inflict physical, psychological, social or educational harm on a victim. Behaviors include verbal and physical aggression that ranges in severity from making threats, spreading rumors and social exclusion, to physical attacks causing injury. Bullying can occur face-to-face or through technology such as cellphones and computers. Finally, some bullying behaviors may overlap with aggression that meets the legal definition of harassment, but not all incidents of harassment constitute bullying. Given that bullying co-occurs with other forms of aggression and school violence, educators and scholars should not limit themselves to collecting data only on bullying, but should include all forms of aggression and victimization. Educators and scholars should also comply with clear and accepted distinctions of “bullying,” “aggression” and “harassment.”

APA: What are the most effective ways to deal with bullies in order to change their behavior?


Prevention of bullying in schools requires a number of components. Simply focusing on individual youth without attention to the larger social environment that is contributing to these behaviors is short-sighted and is simply a Band-Aid approach. Indeed, the most rigorous review of bully prevention programs across the world identified the types of things that have to happen to reduce bully perpetration among children and adolescents. These include parent training/meetings, improved playground supervision, non-punitive disciplinary methods, classroom management, teacher training, classroom rules, whole-school anti-bullying policy, school conferences, information for parents and cooperative group work among students. The more of these components that a school adopts, the greater the reduction in bullying. So, it is not surprising that schools in the U.S. are not seeing the level of reductions in bullying that some other countries are enjoying. Approaches need to target individual student skills, peer interactions, classroom- and school-level factors. Only when we create safe spaces for youth who engage in these behaviors to learn more prosocial ways of managing conflicts among peers and at the same time create school environments that are not tolerant of mean and cruel behavior will we witness reductions in bullying. This problem is bigger than an individual child or adolescent who engages in bullying.


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The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States. APA’s membership includes nearly 130,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives.

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