In K-12 districts across the U.S., where empowering student success is paramount, the prevalence of bullying continues to be a significant concern. Approximately one in five 12- to 18-year-olds experience bullying. In 2021, The Journal of Research on Adolescence published an article stating, “Bullying is a pervasive global problem that has attracted researchers’ attention for five decades,” and it remains a challenge today.
Defined by the American Psychological Association as aggressive behavior where someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another injury or discomfort, bullying has evolved and expanded to include cyberbullying (threats via technology like social media or texting). And, as the use of digital communications devices has increased, cyberbullying among high schoolers has doubled over the past decade.
A social phenomenon, research has shown that bullying often takes place in front of several witnesses, and is associated with negative outcomes for everyone involved.
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Avoidance of the situation is the most common response to bullying, which often amplifies the negative repercussions of the behavior. The impact on students is profound, as those who experienced both in-person and virtual harassment were nearly 6 times more likely to miss school due to safety concerns compared to non-bullied students. On average, 15% of bullied students skip school for safety.
The most effective response to bullying
Children selected assertiveness as the most effective response in a study of their perceptions of bullying strategies in a 2005 study. Despite their selection, children still reported a desire for witness retaliation on their behalf, but research reveals that bystander intervention is unlikely and even rare.
Many reasons explain avoidant behavior, including a lack of self-efficacy. Proponents of resilience and self-efficacy programs argue for the need for “skills-based approaches to teach students to solve problems” they’ll encounter throughout their lifetime.
While self-efficacy is an intrapersonal construct, evidence suggests that school and classroom norms play a crucial role in shaping perceptions of self-efficacy and the likelihood of bystander intervention. Adolescents may be particularly responsive to highly influential peers’ norm-setting behavior due to neural activation at this developmental stage. Recent research on social influence and bullying found classroom characteristics were less influential on cyber- versus traditional bullying.
Self-efficacy impacts educators, too. Anti-bullying policies alone fail to spur educator intervention in response to bullying. However, staff are more likely to intervene when they receive training and resources to diffuse conflict.
Effective training may serve as a teacher retention strategy. As many as 20% to 75% of teachers experience bullying in a two-year period. Teacher victimization is associated with burnout and exhaustion. Repeated victimization predicts turnover, including leaving the profession completely. Among teachers who exited the profession, half reported the indifference of administrators and the lack of effective interventions influenced their decisions.
We also need long-term interventions
Beyond immediate interventions, the long-term impact of bullying is a critical consideration. Multiple, long-term strategies are more impactful than single, short-term interventions. Researchers observed that effect sizes were larger for programs the longer they were in place.
Scholars caution against one-size-fits-all interventions and recommend tailored approaches for elementary, middle and high schoolers. They argue the most effective strategy for reducing bullying and victimization includes providing information to guardians and informal peer involvement (e.g., group discussion about bullying attitudes).
The collaborative efforts of students, educators and guardians are essential to combat detrimental effects, such as absenteeism and turnover. On the district and school level, analyzing absenteeism alongside discipline can help uncover bullying trends and tailor interventions accordingly.
Simultaneously, an ongoing commitment to training on bullying policies plays a pivotal role in creating safer environments and promoting retention. Policies implemented at the district and school levels should take a direct stance against cyberbullying, acknowledging its evolving nature in the digital age, and should be shared with guardians, keeping them informed and involved in the collective effort to address and prevent bullying.
Another key component of addressing bullying is the implementation of long-term intervention programs. These programs should not only focus on immediate responses but also emphasize cultivating resilience, self-efficacy, and prosocial norms among students. By instilling these values, educational institutions can work towards mitigating the long-lasting impact of bullying on the well-being of students and the overall school community.