The American Educational Research Association recently released a task force bullying research paper that has been making some waves in the educational community. The paper was intended to combine practical experience with theory and update educational thinking with how to deal with the problem of bullying in school at all grade levels.
There is no surprise at bullying being present in school. Just about everyone can remember some experience in grade school or high school when they were picked on or saw someone get picked on. Today, with modern Internet tools, the problem has entered the social and extreme mental harassment arena, especially with teenagers who are particularly susceptible to what others think of them as they are developing their own adult identity.
However, today’s bullying seems to be a world of difference from what was experienced 20 or 30 years ago. It seems to be more vicious, adult-like, and damaging. We also know more about the long-term effects of bullying because it is being studied far more. Bullying is also multi-faceted; it can affect a child physically with injuries and fights, it can create emotional stress, it causes social integration problems, and it can affect children academically by distracting the learning process. When all of these elements are compounded, as is often the case with chronic bullying cases, the effects can be long-term and remembered years after the events occurred.
The Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, has been treating school bullying as a classified condition affecting human health, triggering government resources to start monitoring the issue. So it is no longer a school issue buried in written-off children’s behavior. The CDC defines bullying as an action or series of actions that are unwanted and involve aggressive behavior by unrelated youths on another youth. A key component is that there is a clear imbalance of power to everyone involved in the event or series of events, and that it will continue or likely continue.
Taking Steps With Research
One of the simple but seemingly hard steps to implement in the educational system is getting everyone involved to agree on a definition of bullying. The activity is ongoing and continues to remain and be present in schools decade after decade. However, it also seems to be getting worse over the years in the most extreme cases. Each year brings a new surprise at how mean kids can be on other kids. It’s also the case that bullying is far more prevalent in schools with a large majority of lower income and economically challenged neighborhoods, as if the children involved are acting out the frustration of their parents inability to afford better.
Most will agree that bullying is a form of violence at worse and harassment in common. Yet the developmental side of the picture seems to be the hardest to get a grip on, to figure out when it starts and how to stop the activity before it manifests into ongoing harm, i.e. what are the early warning signs? Grade schools, high schools and even colleges are all primary sources of bullying, but many will agree similar behavior can carry over to the work world as well, particularly the mental harassment component.
Identifying the Current Issues with Prevention Challenges
The AERA looked at the bullying problem from the perspective of what makes it so hard to stop bullying despite the awareness campaigns, rules, administration action and training being applied towards it. As much as is being done, the AERA research paper on bullying concludes that far more training is needed. The task force group also present 11 presentations on the issue, ranging from conceptual understanding to administrative responsibilities that need to be updated. Below are the major points:
- The lack of agreed-upon definition of bullying is causing confusion. Many schools use some form of the idea that bullying involves aggressive, unwanted behavior between youths, similar to the CDC definition above, and involving an imbalance of power. However, that definition is full of buzzwords and hard to implement on a day to day basis when trying to transfer it to a procedure manual or response kit for teachers and administrators. What is aggressive behavior? What is an imbalance of power? When is the action joking versus real? The component of intent and malicious harm have to be used, and many jurisdictions avoid those terms out of fear of “criminalizing” children prematurely.
- Bullying really does affect almost everyone. Even children who are not involved as the bully or as the victim are affected by the activity. The witnesses are shocked by the behavior and then worry about their own safety or wellbeing. This creates avoidance or not wanting to be involved. Alternatively, others watch to be part of the bullying group and feel accepted. They become desensitized to the wrongness of the behavior and allow more of the bullying to continue when seen again. That in turn allows bullying to get worse in the general environment.
- Many jurisdictions are failing, avoiding or doing a poor job of collecting bullying data for specific populations. There’s no question that specific groups realize bullying as victims more than others. These can includes those with different sexual preferences, those with disabilities, and children of color. Instead of examining how these groups are being treated as a demographic, they are thrown into a general population of statistics, making it hard to determine where specific group problems exists in different jurisdictions.
- There is a sharp increase in gender-based bullying. Female and alternative lifestyle students are seeing far more bullying as demographics than before. This targeted level of activity is a shift from what used to be mainly male on male bullying to large victims specifically targeting smaller victims with targeted gender characteristics. Because of the alternative lifestyle issue, many teachers are not getting involved to stop the activity when it occurs, allowing it to grow.
- Harassment is not understood well. Many teachers and administrators don’t have a real good idea of when bullying graduates to harassment. It all blurs together until a serious event occurs and finally major action has to take place. By then a serious amount of damage has been done.
- Anti-bullying efforts are no good if they are not supported by the entire school system. Bullying can’t be relegated to the counselor to be the sheriff in the hallways. Every school employee has to be watching, be trained, and be willing to engage immediately to stop bullying as well as education children to be effective.
- Bullying isn’t just a grade school or high school issue. It carries through to the college level and even the workplace. People need to understand that the issue doesn’t stop when primary school is over and people become adults. It can continue and be worse with adults.
- Too much emphasis on “evidence-based” programs and not enough action. Schools are extremely hesitant to do anything without having an evidence basis for the program, often because of litigation fears. However, the most effective anti-bullying programs are well-planned actions that improve over time and incorporate changes and feedback versus an ambiguous principle from a theory journal.
- Teacher training needs to include a component for bullying prevention tactics and tools. Too many teachers are learning the hard way how to deal with the issue by trial and error.
- Government research needs to be more focused instead of general. Agencies tracking bullying need to work more with schools to understand what kind of data is needed and then refine reports to include those aspects so they can be used.
Lastly, and most important, the report also noted that bullying may be the wrong term. It can cover up far more serious activity that is actually criminal in nature and needs to be described as that. Calling an assault or sexual battery bullying can hide the real crime, allowing a perpetrator off the hook. Again, the resistance to this is the fear of criminalizing students. Yet if the activity is truly described for what it is, people may actually take it far more seriously.