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Bullying: The Problem and How to Deal With It
By Mary Drecktrah, Ph.D., and Lisa Blaskowski

Sarah attends a kindergarten program for four-year-olds. After school, she is bussed to Sunshine Place, an after school care program. Sarah is a small, quiet child and has no close friends. She tells her parents she doesn’t want to go to Sunshine Place but won’t explain why. Betty is also bussed to Sunshine Place from another school where she attends a kindergarten program for five-year-olds. Betty likes to sit next to Sarah and make fun of her. Betty calls Sarah “baby” or “wimpy” when Sarah starts to cry on the bus and at Sunshine Place. After seeing a quarter Sarah had in her pocket, Betty demanded Sarah give her money every day. Betty has threatened to hurt Sarah if she tells anyone. This is an example of verbal bullying.

Derek is a small second grader who has difficulty sitting still in the classroom. When Ms. Clark, the physical education instructor, said Derek was as quick as a rabbit, the other kids started calling him “Rabbit”. At recess time, Jason and two of his buddies like to chase Derek, yelling, “Run, Rabbit, run.” When they catch him, they either push him down or kick him. A few times the playground supervisor has intervened, but all four boys say they are just playing and the “game” continues. Derek doesn’t play with the other children so he likes the attention, but he is usually bruised and wishes they wouldn’t hurt him. Sometimes he hides in the bathroom to avoid going outside. This is an example of physical bullying.

Definition of Bullying
Bullying occurs when another child or children are deliberately mean to someone else several times, weeks, or months at a time. Bullying can be verbal—name calling, teasing, threats, or physical—hitting, pushing, kicking. It can also be indirect by excluding someone from social groups or by spreading stories about someone. Typically, the action is unprovoked and the bully is stronger than the victim. Bullies get a sense of power by picking on others who are emotional and will give in to them. (Barone, 1997; Olweus, 1996; Slaby & Bernstein, 1997).

Bullying is nothing new. Statistics from England, Scandinavia, Australia, and the U.S. indicate that bullying is a major social problem. Scandinavia has studied bullying extensively due to a number of suicides in the 1980s. These suicides were a direct result of students being victimized by bullies in their schools. If you read background information on students involved in recent violent incidents in schools, you will find many of these children were victims of bullying and it lead to tragic outcomes. Why don’t we do more about this pervasive problem?

Barone (1997) cites four reasons for continuation of bullying. First, many adults consider bullying to be a normal part of growing up. Boys, in particular, are encouraged to stand up to the bully, but unfortunately, the bully rarely backs down so the confrontation leads to more violence. Secondly, adults have become desensitized to bullying and do not even notice it. Movies, video games, and sports all contain violence. Thirdly, other issues and problems outside of education already overwhelm educators. Lastly, teachers and schools may be hesitant to identify bullying as a problem because they do not have the resources to deal with this issue.

Extent of the Problem
There is a big difference between perceiving a bullying problem by staff who could stop the bullying and children who are the victims of bullies. The authors surveyed two small mid-west elementary schools and a middle school and found that the staff’s perception of bullying was much different from the students’ perception of bullying. At the elementary level, the staff (principals, counselors, secretaries, teachers, etc.) estimated that 7.1 percent of students were bullied compared to 69.6 percent of the elementary students who reported they had been bullied. The definition on both surveys (staff and students) defines bullying as “when another student or group of students is mean to you several times (weeks or months). It can be verbal (name calling, gossiping, ignoring, threats) or physical (hitting, kicking, etc.).” At the middle school level, the staff estimated 8 percent of students had been bullied while 65.7 percent of students reported they had been bullied. This suggests that the staff does not recognize the extent of the bullying problem that students in their school face.

Other information from this survey includes that equal numbers of boys and girls (62 percent) report being bullied by others. Craig and Pepler (1996) also reported equal numbers of boys and girls reporting incidents of bullying every seven minutes; however, Remboldt (1994) feels many incidents of bullying are not reported so this may not be an accurate indication of the problem. Of the students who reported being bullied, nearly twice as many students report having been bullied by a boy than by a girl; however, only slightly more than half of the girls reported that a boy rather than a girl had been the aggressor. Past studies by Hazler, Hoover, and Oliver (1991) and Olweus (1993) suggest one in five children attending school are afraid through much of their school day.

Emotional Intelligence
In his book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman (1995) defines emotional intelligence as including self-awareness and impulsive control, persistence, zeal and self-motivation, empathy, and social deftness. In early childhood, there is a window of opportunity when parents and schools can nurture and strengthen children’s emotional development. Encouraging emotional development helps children be more successful academically and socially. Children who are able to do what Goleman calls “how to learn” will probably not be the target of bullies. Some of these learned behaviors are confidence in knowing how to solve problems, getting help from adults, self-control of actions, and capacity to communicate with others.

Children as Bystanders of Bullying
Along with emotional intelligence, a person needs to have empathy for others. It is difficult to treat a person poorly if one knows how his or her actions can affect others. When children see a bully, they should try to help without getting hurt themselves. Sometimes students can suggest something else to do, like playing a game or doing an activity to divert the attention away from the bullying situation. Students need to be taught not to cheer on or even quietly watch a conflict. They need to go to a trusted adult with a friend to tell about the bullying. It’s easier if a child isn’t alone in reporting the incident.

What Parents Can Do
Research has shown that aggressive behavior is often learned early in life. Parents and family members and others who care for children can help them learn to deal with emotions without using violence. Some of the following suggestions are from A Guide to Safe Schools (1998).

As a child’s first teacher, children will imitate what they see their parents do. Set an example for children by treating others with respect and non-violent behavior. Praise children when they solve problems constructively without violence. Teach children that it is better to settle arguments with calm words, not fists or weapons. Avoid physical punishment and violent verbal outbursts as child-rearing methods.

With small children, parents need to nurture three important skills: l) empathy, how to understand how someone else feels; 2) control, how to express strong negative feelings like anger and fear; and 3) problem-solving, how to think of consequences and not act impulsively. Make sure your children are supervised so they receive the guidance they need. Know their friends and encourage supervised programs and recreation run by adults you respect. Accompany your children and watch how they get along with others. Teach your child how to respond appropriately when others use insults or threats to deal with anger by hitting. Encourage them to avoid children who behave that way.

In addition, help your child develop friendship-making skills. Sarah didn’t know how to make friends, and thus she was vulnerable to a bully like Betty. Once her mother caught Sarah taking money out of her purse, Sarah talked about how Betty teased and threatened her at Sunshine Place and on the bus. Her mother hadn’t realized Sarah didn’t have any friends, and after a conference with Sarah’s teacher, she found out a new girl, Nancy, had moved into Sarah’s class that lived a few houses away. The teacher agreed to seat them close to encourage the friendship, and Sarah’s mother encouraged Sarah to ask Nancy over to play on the weekends. Sarah and Nancy now sit on the bus together. Although Betty was reprimanded, she would occasionally demand money from Sarah. Finally, Sarah stood up to Betty by telling her she wasn’t going to give her any more money.

Take time to listen to your child and keep communication lines open. When tucking your child into bed, ask him or her to tell you two good things that happened today and two not-so-good things that happened. Children always seem to have the not-so-good things to tell, which can give parents insight into what is really happening in their child’s life. Parents have to avoid the tendency to solve the problem for their child. Think of ways to help the child use problem-solving skills.

It was at bedtime that Derek finally shared his bullying experience with his parents. They were shocked to see how many bruises Derek had on his legs. Derek said he thought the boys chasing him were his friends. After conferencing with his classroom teacher and physical education teacher, Derek’s parents found out Derek’s class was playing soccer in gym class. Ms. Clark said Derek had much potential and would encourage him to play on a team. Some neighborhood friends of Derek’s parents had a fifth-grader, John, who was on a soccer team. They hired him as a sitter on a weekend afternoon, mentioning Derek was interested in soccer. Soon John was teaching Derek how to be a goalie and at noon recess at school John sought Derek out to play with the older boys. Derek’s confidence soared. He was too busy playing soccer at recess time to be bothered by the bullies.

Parents need to be consistent about rules and discipline. Involve your children in setting rules and consequences whenever possible. They will then learn to behave in ways that are good for them and others around them. Playing games with the family can teach social skills such as taking turns, winning, and losing. It’s important to set clear limits to aggressive behavior. Get help for your child if you notice disturbing behavior like frequent angry outbursts, excessive fighting and bullying of other children, cruelty to animals, fire setting, and lack of friends. Talk to a trusted professional in your child’s school or your physician.

Keep violence out of your home, not only by your behavior but also through the media. Make sure you know what TV shows, movies and video games your children are watching and using. Discuss the violence they see and what serious consequences exist for violent behavior.

What Educators Can Do
Students should know bullying is unacceptable behavior and will not be tolerated. School should be a safe place for everyone. Help the silent majority stand up to bullies and help victims. Victims need to know they don't need to accommodate a bully with candy or money. Adults in the school have the main responsibility for dealing with bullies in school.

A good place to start is with a survey of the school staff and students to determine the extent of the bullying problem. This will give a realistic picture of the bullying situation. Then involve parents, teachers, and students to develop a policy for the school. It could include a recording system for incidents of bullying, a chance for students to discuss bullying, a contact system for parents of both the victims and the bullies when a problem occurs, parent participation, training for staff, intervention programs, and support and protection for victims (Greenbaum, 1987). Many school systems have had great success using a peer mediation system.

School staff need to monitor and carefully supervise areas where bullying could take place, like hallways, restrooms, playgrounds, and bus stops. Our survey indicated students and staff agreed that the most common locations for bullying to take place were outside by the school, hallways, and on the bus. What may look like accidental pushing or hitting may be very deliberate. The staff may need training to know what to look for while supervising. School staff need to teach social skills associated with bullying, particularly for victims in knowing what to do. Some points to include would be:

  • acknowledge students’ fear
  • role-play in class with victims sharing situations and then picking a person to play the bully (many times the actual bully)
  • victims should use self-talk to acknowledge the bully's behavior but not accept the message. For example, a student teased because of his or her size can learn to say, “They think I’m a shrimp, but I know I’m okay. Everyone in my family is small.”

For the very young child, learning to recognize and identify different feelings in themselves and others is very important. A technique that some preschool teachers found very effective is having children make faces in a mirror to see how they look when they show different emotions.Aliki’s (1984) book calledFeelingsis very useful in showing how the facial features look for different feelings.This helps children understand what facial expressions on other people represent. “Reading” other people’s expressions is an important social skill that often is not taught.

Schools should be safe places for everyone.Bullying should not be part of a student’s school experience like it was for Sarah and Derek. When parents and educators work together, it will benefit everyone and students will grow up to be caring and productive citizens.

Mary Drecktrah, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the special education department at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

Lisa Blaskowski is a student in the special education department at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

Characteristics of the Bully
Some of the following characteristics are typical of bullies:
  1. Aggression toward peers and adults (parents and teachers) is typical of a bully.
  2. They have little empathy for their victims and usually won't admit their victims are weaker, but will insist the victim provoked them.
  3. Impulsivity and strong need to dominate others with a more positive attitude toward violence than other students is typical of bullies.
  4. 4In primary school, bullies have average popularity but as they progress through grades, their popularity decreases (Olweus, 1994).
  5. Studies show aggression is stable over time. Bullies tend to become more aggressive as they grow up (Batsche & Knoff, 1994; Olweus 1994). They found approximately 60 percent of boys identified as bullies in grades six through nine had at least one officially registered crime by the age of 24.
Characteristics of Victims
Students may have one or several of the following characteristics that makes them vulnerable to victimization. Two types are passive/submissive victims and provocative victims. (Garrity & Jens, 1997, Olweus, 1996)
Characteristics typical of the passive/submissive victim are:
  • They lack social skills necessary to initiate and maintain friendships. Most passive/submissive victims do not have one good friend in their class.
  • The students are isolated, anxious, insecure, or cry easily.
  • They exhibit fragile self-esteem (have a negative view of themselves).
  • Many victims are physically weak or small in size (especially boys).
  • Many of these students use money, toys, or bribes to protect themselves.
  • Some may have emotional, behavioral, or attentional difficulties.
Characteristics typical of the provocative victims are:
  • They exhibit a combination of anxiety and aggression reaction patterns.
  • Many have problems with concentration and irritate others around them.
  • These students may be hyperactive.
  • Some of these students provoke other children.

Recommended Children’s Book on Bullying:
Berenstain, S. & J. (1993).The Berenstain Bears and the Bully. New York: Random House.
Brother Bear teaches Sister Bear to defend herself against a bully and discovers why the bully acts that way.

Cole, J.(1989). Bully Trouble. New York: Random House. Arlo and Robby get back at the bully, Eddie, by giving him a hot chili sandwich.

Dadey, D. (1993). King of Kooties. Louisa bullies Donald who just moved to town by saying he has kooties, but Donald solves his problem by asking Louisa to be a Kootie Princess and to be her friend.

Howe, J. (1996). Pinky and Rex and the Bully. New York: Alladin. A neighbor lady helps a boy who is bullied because he likes pink and has a friend called Pinky.

Mayer, M. (1989). Just a Daydream. New York: Golden Book. Little Critter shows what he would do if he were a Super Critter to handle a bully in the neighborhood.

Petty, K. & Firmin, C. (1991). Being Bullied. New York: Barrons. Rita learns to handle Bella, a bully, and eventually is a friend to her.


Aliki. (1984). Feelings.New York: Greenwillow Books.

Barone, F.J. (1997). Bullying in school: It doesn’t have to happen. Phi Delta Kappa, 80-82.

Batsche, G.M. & Knoff, H.M. (1994). Bullies and their victims: Understanding a pervasive problem in the schools.School Psychology Review, 23, 165-174.

Craig, W. & Pepler, D.J. (1996). Understanding bullying at school:What can be done about it? Seattle, WA: Safe by Design, Committee on Children.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence.NY: Bantam Books.

Greenbaum, S. (1987). What can be done about schoolyard bullying?Principal,21-24.

Hazler, R.D., Hoover, J.H. & Oliver, R. (1991). Student perceptions of victimization by bullies in schools. Journal of Humanistic Education and Development, 29, 143-150.

Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.

Olweus, D. (1994). Bullying at school: Long-term outcomes for victims and an effective school-based intervention program.In L.R. Huesman (Ed.), Aggressive behavior: Current perspectives (pp. 97-130).New York: Wiley.

Olweus, D. (1996). Bully/victim problems at school: Facts and effective intervention. National Education Service, 5 (1), 15-22.

Remboldt, C. (1994). Violence in schools: The enabling factor. Minneapolis, MN: Johnson Institute.

Slaby, R.G. & Bernstein, J.Y. (1997), Bullying: It’s not O.K. Boston, MA: Massachusetts Medical Society.

U.S. Department of Education.(1998), A guide to safe schools: Early warning timely response. Washington, DC: Author.