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From “Consequence” to “Prevention”

Redefining what we mean by bullying to better understand and prevent it
photo illustration of a young girl against a blue background, looking down, sadly

Despite the attention bullying has received over the past decade, there’s still too often a gap between what schools consider to be bullying — officially — and what children experience as bullying on a day-to-day basis. For many specialists, it’s time to reexamine what we mean by bullying, in order to better understand and prevent it.

Policymakers and educators often rely on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) definition of bullying to determine legal, preventative, and intervention efforts in schools. In that definition, bullying is “unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or current dating partners,” involving power imbalance and the likelihood of repetition. But this interpretation doesn’t fully capture the experiences of young people, according to a new article by Gretchen Brion-Meisels and Bernice Raveche Garnett.

Brion-Meisels and Garnett propose a broader definition, one that asks educators to think more holistically about the wide-ranging factors influencing students’ experiences of safety and harm at school. Their framework is founded on the idea of relational youth violence — “behaviors (physical, relational, sexual, verbal, or psychological) and policies (formal or informal) that are intentionally or unintentionally harmful . . . based on real or perceived power imbalances.” The shift reflects the complexity of students’ lived experiences and pushes back against simple categorization. It calls on researchers to better explore connections among acts of bullying, discrimination, and harassment, and it attempts to nudge schools to move beyond classification and consequences and toward the kind of understanding, communication, and support that can change a culture.

"In order to effectively prevent bullying and discrimination in schools, educators need to understand not just the moment of a harmful interaction, but what has led to it."

We asked Brion-Meisels to tell us more why we need to shift thinking about bullying:

Why do we need to better define and understand the word “bullying”?

When I talk with young people about their experience in school, they describe a number of factors that cause them to feel sad, scared, undervalued, and disrespected. Adults often lump these different types of behaviors into one category and call it “bullying.” Unfortunately, adults and institutions are perpetrating some of these behaviors; institutions are often set up in ways that privilege certain students over others, and this can both lead to (and stem from) adults who are using their power in ways that cause young folks harm. Schools are asked to measure and report bullying, and in many states, like Massachusetts, they are required to have a policy and plan on how to prevent it; but because certain types of relational harm are not included in our definition of “bullying,” young peoples’ experiences with these forms of discrimination and harassment are more likely to get overlooked. 

In addition, the current system puts pressure on schools to ensure that they are categorizing and recording instances of bullying. When we focus on categorizing harmful behaviors, we can create a punitive and reactive culture, which shifts the focus away from effective prevention and intervention efforts — typically whole-school efforts that support the development of a positive climate by strengthening relationships and fostering social-emotional learning. Effective bullying prevention efforts include the existence of antibullying policies, and the explicit protection of young people whose identities are marginalized; but they also use formative, restorative consequences when harm occurs. To do this requires that educators build community on multiple levels — across the school, in the classroom, and on an individual level — before a harmful interaction occurs.

What do you want educators to be thinking about, when it comes to relational harm?

In order to effectively prevent bullying and discrimination in schools, educators need to understand not just the moment of a harmful interaction, but what has led to it. Why might an individual feel as though the only way to have his/her/their needs met is to hurt someone else? When educators spend too much time worrying about how to classify or categorize harmful behaviors, there is a tendency to lose sight of the environment that fostered these behaviors. I want people to worry about what exists in the culture of a school or community that may be causing adults and youth to act in these ways, and to consider the needs of young people that aren’t being met.

"Too often, our focus is the bottom line — labeling the behavior in order to attach a consequence to it. I want educators to say, 'Why did this happen at our school?’"

Here is an example: Imagine a situation where a group of students are teasing an overweight, female peer who is walking down the hall wearing short-shorts. One educator might call this “sexual harassment,” because the students are talking about their peer’s body; this might be particularly true if the students were male. Another educator might call it bullying because the group is more powerful than the individual, and is using its power to tease her about her weight. If the young woman felt uncomfortable enough that she skipped class or left school, an educator might call the behavior harassment. So, there are at least three different ways to classify the same behavior. Then imagine if the young woman in question was a woman of color or identified as a lesbian; we might call the behavior racism or homophobia.

To some degree, what we call this harmful behavior matters — particularly in terms of the consequences that a school might enact. But regardless of what we call it, our response should be multi-tiered. We need to bolster the young woman’s self-esteem, helping her feel like she can be who she is and wear what she wants within the confines of school rules. We need to address issues of weight-based bias, and/or racism, and/or homophobia in our school community. And we need to make sure that students find better ways to express their frustration, anger, or needs.

Too often, our focus is the bottom line — labeling the behavior in order to attach a consequence to it. I want educators to say, “Why did this happen at our school?” The answer might be that it happened because we are not educating students enough about how to talk to people whose identities or ideas are different from their own. Or we might discover that the media is influencing what our students think about bodies and clothes. Or we might discover that our students are frustrated and stressed by something happening in our school or community, and they are taking this frustration out on each other. Those are the things I want educators to be having conversations about.

How can a school leader think more holistically about preventing and responding to bullying?

"It can’t just be about the bullying. It needs to be about the environment that is shaping our harmful interactions, or helping to prevent them."

A critical aspect of preventing bullying is building a positive school climate. It’s important to focus on building community and strengthening relationships, as well as helping students and adults build understanding across differences of identity and life experiences. One way to begin this work is to convene a team of stakeholders who represent different parts of your school community — families, community members, teachers, support staff, and youth. This team can begin by articulating a vision for what a positive climate will look like at their school, whether (and which) young people are feeling safe, and why or why not they are feeling this way. The team can define bullying, discrimination, and harassment together, can think about how to articulate a policy that protects students from relational harm, and can consider formative consequences when harm occurs.

Research suggests that prevention and intervention efforts are most effective when they respond to local needs. School-based teams can collect data around young peoples’ experiences at school and use it to drive their efforts. It’s important that the language schools use to talk about relational harm reflects the ways that students talk about their experiences. Data will help educators to understand young people’s experiences.

The key is to act on multiple levels at once — not just react. Have a plan about how to build positive culture schoolwide, how to support teachers in building a positive classroom climate, and how to provide targeted supports for students in need. Then, when an incident happens, educators can ask questions not just about the individual interaction, but about what is happening within the school that may be facilitating these types of issues, what exists in the school to support both parties, and how the discourse in the wider community is filtering into our schools.

We need to think carefully about what we are teaching, how the curriculum is supporting students’ understanding of difference, and how we are providing students will social and emotional skills. It can’t just be about the bullying. It needs to be about the environment that is shaping our harmful interactions, or helping to prevent them.

Additional Resources

  • Child Trends provides a rich summary of the data on bullying, looking at demographic incidence and research on prevention. Read the comprehensive report here.
  • Child Trends’ Deborah Temkin summarizes conclusions from the release of the 2015 School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey, which offers the most up-to-date look at the state of bullying in the United States. Read her overview here.
  • A bully-free culture: Three actions that make a difference.

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