Bullying, Relational Aggression and Cyberbullying: What is Known and What Can Be Done

At Lawrence School, we understand the importance of a thoughtfully designed, carefully implemented ‘affective curriculum.’ A child’s emotional state is a key factor in readiness to learn and in academic achievement. If a student is anxious or fearful, the amygdala – the brain’s sentry for dangerous stimuli – will sound an alarm that will drown out even the most interesting lesson.

So, what is an ‘affective curriculum’? It is an integrated counseling and behavior management program that establishes school-wide expectations for behavior that are shared by the entire school.  All teachers respond in similar ways to redirect off-task behavior without scolding or embarrassing students.

One aspect of affective curriculum at Lawrence is the selection and implementation of the Olweus system – a carefully researched bullying prevention program. This week Jason Culp, our Upper School Associate Director, talks about the incidence and prevalence of bullying behavior in our nation’s schools – and how this remarkable program addresses it.

-Lou Salza

Bullying, Relational Aggression and Cyberbullying: What is Known and What Can Be Done

By  Jason M. Culp

On Friday night, Katie, age 13, receives a text message from Ellen, one of her classmates.  Assuming the message is an update on the social scene at school, Katie opens it.   Immediately, Katie feels her face get hot and tears well in her eyes as she reads, “Don’t send me any more messages, everyone hates you now because of what you said.”

With a growing sense of isolation and panic, Katie closes her phone, pulls her covers up over her head, and cries herself to sleep.  Katie never tells her parents or anyone at school what happened.  She carries the stress and worry of the situation alone, becoming increasingly withdrawn.

An event like this, though fictionalized here, is something that happens among school-age children every day.  The effects of this behavior on every person involved are only now beginning to be fully understood as relational aggression – or bullying.

Let’s take a look at some sobering statistics.

  • The website of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program indicates that its first nationally representative United States study of bullying, which involved more than 15,000 students in grades 6-10, revealed that 17% of students reported being bullied “sometimes” and 8% reported being bullied at least “once per week.”
  • In addition, the study revealed that 19% of respondents reported bullying others at least “sometimes” and that 9% of students reported bullying others at least “once per week.”
  • According to the 2007 U.S. Census Bureau, there were 55 million children expected to enroll in K-12 schools at the start of the 2006-2007 school year.  If, according to the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, 17% of students report being bullied “sometimes,” this equates to more than 935,000 students being subjected to bullying behavior in their schools.

The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program asserts that “a person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself.”

This type of behavior can have serious consequences for children – psychologically, socially and academically.  And bullying does not necessarily happen face-to-face; cyber-bullying is a particularly insidious form of bullying because it often happens “under the radar” or through covert channels.

In their 2007 article, Cyberbullying: What School Administrators (and Parents) Can Do, authors and school counseling experts Andrew Beale and Kimberly Hall explain that while “variously referred to as electronic bullying, online bullying, or cyber-bullying, this new method of bullying involves the use of e-mail, instant messaging, Web sites, voting booths, and chat or bash rooms to deliberately antagonize and intimidate others.”

The authors go on to state that cyber-bullying results in a form of disinhibition wherein “technology provides a screen behind which young people may hide, they do not have to be accountable for their actions, and if a person cannot be identified with an action, fear of being caught and punished is diminished.”

Beale and Hall also assert that cyber-bullying reverses the typical gender balance found in traditional forms of bullying:  “On playgrounds, on school buses, and in school hallways, boys tend to be the primary perpetrators and victims of bullying behavior; online, girls are the major players.” Since cyber-bullying does not occur in face-to-face settings, perpetrators are often empowered to continue the behavior while victims are made increasingly fearful and rendered impotent in their ability to respond effectively.  As related to cyber-bullying, it is clear that all students are potential victims.

Let’s look at some other critical points:

  • Research clearly demonstrates that traditional bullying and cyber-bullying each have unique, defining characteristics, as well as elements that are shared between the types.  Research also shows that the definitions of cyber-bullying used by students may differ substantially from those used in research or assumed by concerned adults.
  • While research on whether or not cyber-bullying results in different or more serious psychological effects than traditional bullying is still developing, early research is indicating increased negative effects from cyber-bullying.  Such effects appear to be due to the fact that cyber-bullying invades an individual’s privacy, is anonymous, creates excessive fear and often prevents the victim from identifying the perpetrator.
  • The primary impediment to successful adult intervention on cyber-bullying is the secretive and insidious nature of the act itself.  Since cyber-bullying often occurs anonymously, and usually at home, the ability of adults to quickly identify the occurrence and source of the bullying is severely impaired.  Further complicating the issue is the fact that parents often underestimate their children’s involvement in the perpetration of cyber-bullying.
  • Interestingly, children and adolescents may not define cyber-bullying in the same way as their adult counterparts.  Such disparity may prevent young people from assessing their behavior accurately and, therefore, lead them to grossly underestimate the impact that their engagement in cyber-bullying may have on their peers.

Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics endorsed the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program as an effective method of combating the epidemic of bullying behavior in school and social settings.  The Olweus program is the best-researched and most effective bullying prevention program currently available, and consistently shows reductions in bullying behavior between 20% and 70% in the first year of implementation.

The Olweus Program is not a curriculum, or a one-time presentation about the dangers of bullying behavior.  Instead, it is a long-term systems approach that emphasizes the need for clear expectations related to peer interactions, the need for a concerted, continuous adult supervision system in the school, and regular surveying of students to gain perspective on bullying behavior.

Most importantly, it seeks to empower the bystanders –those students who witness bullying behavior, but are often silent due to their lack of understanding of when and how to intervene on such behavior.  Olweus teaches these students how to recognize bullying behavior, assists them in learning how to stop it, and places them in partnership with school personnel who will support and assist them in creating and maintaining a safe school environment for all.

Bullying behavior is not simply a phase, a rite of passage, or something that kids “grow out of.”  Research has shown us that children who are bullied often suffer serious physical and psychological wounds.  With the help of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, Lawrence School protects the safety of the children who walk through our doors.  It is worth the all the time, effort and resources that can be marshaled in this most important battle for the hearts and minds of children who might not otherwise speak for themselves.

While there is still some distance to travel in ensuring that every child is safe at school, important strides are being made every day and, at least in our school, I believe that there will come a day when not a single child leaves our campus feeling sad or wounded by the behavior of another child.  It is a child’s right to feel safe at home, in school and in the community.   It is our responsibility as adults to support a community of learners in school where that right is guaranteed.

Email the author at jculp@lawrenceschool.org

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About lsalza

Headmaster of Lawrence School serving children with learning differences in grades K-12; "Where differences are not disabilities and where great minds don't think alike."
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3 Responses to Bullying, Relational Aggression and Cyberbullying: What is Known and What Can Be Done

  1. Diane Moser says:

    Very interesting! This information makes me even more eager for Nov 7th’s Parents Pride event educating us all on the issues of Bullying and the anti-bulling program Lawrence uses. I know bullying is a big problem in many schools and among kids my son’s age. I’ve never thought much about it in relation to my son….maybe it’s time I do.

  2. Thanks for the info. I had no idea this was such
    an issue. I am glad to be informed especially
    because I have a daughter who is 10 and I can
    see how girls particularly can be very nasty at
    times.

  3. angel perham says:

    My son has suffered a lot from bullying in the public school system,and it greatly affected his self esteem and education. He is finally healing thanks to Lawrence school! thank you for this great information. It is sad that the public school system does not take this as seriously as they should.

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