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Changing our perception of — and response to — bullying

By October 14, 2011June 14th, 20167 Comments

Nelson Munz. His image may come to mind for many of us when we think about bullies.
(For those of you who don’t watch, or are too high-brow to admit to watching, The Simpsons, Nelson is the quintessential bully on the show, known for his mocking, doorbell-chime hah-hah laugh.)

That’s how many of us may think of bullies—as a social outcast waiting in the back hallway to extort lunch money from wimps. Sure, we’ve probably all known (and perhaps even handed over milk money to) a Nelson Munz or two, but the reality is that most bullies aren’t like him at all.

As I report in the September 2011 issue of Educational Leadership, most bullying is psychological, not physical. And it’s often popular kids who do the bullying—including girls.

Not only is the popular perception of bullying off the mark, so too, researchers note, are our common responses to it. Often, we tend to focus on the victims, encouraging them to stick up for themselves or find adults to help.

But that appears to be the exact wrong approach—and a key reason that so many anti-bullying programs are ineffective. Rather than seeing bullying as a psychological aberrance, we must see and treat it as a natural social phenomenon. To combat bullying, adults enlist the support of the entire school community, including teachers, parents, and student bystanders, who witness an estimated 85 percent of bullying cases, to create a school culture in which bullying is no longer socially beneficial, but rather socially unacceptable.

To learn more about current research on bullying, read the entire article here.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • I faced some Nelson Munzs’ at school, but one of the Nelsons’ I met was really special: he was the strongest kid of our school, had lots of familiar problems and still hated when the weaker boys were beaten by the olders.
    I think I will remember that boy for the rest of my life: he was older and stronger that anyone, lived in a slum with his mother and his father had died in the Angolan Civil War, but was probably the most honest and fair guy I ever met.
    And he’s the reason why I hate bullying so much, as he’s the proof that having social problems isn’t an excuse for beating a weaker kids.

  • D says:

    Bullying is a national issue whether it is being done face to face or over the World Wide Web it affects everyone involved. I found your blog very interesting. The statistics are overwhelming. I have students in my class that have been bullied or ones that initiate the bullying. I find it a challenge to communicate the effects of bullying to elementary students. My school does have a zero tolerance for bullying but I have learned through this blog and the article that this is not enough. Topics related to bullying needs to be added into the curriculum as well as involving the entire school. I have found your blog very insightful and will take the information learned and apply to my classroom and school district.

  • Jasmin says:

    I found your blog very interesting. Bullying is a huge problem in society today and is continually taking new forms such as cyber-bullying. This is very dangerous because it is not as visible to parents and teachers and can be easily hidden. I am a teacher and was aware that we do not see all bullying that happens but I was shocked at the statistic that you provided. It is so sad that children have to live through this sort of torture.
    I agree that bullying seems to be done more often by the popular students as opposed to the outcasts. I have seen many bullying presentations in which those exact procedures named were recommended and they have all been ineffective. Bullying is such a major concern thank you for the advice and insights!

  • Erin says:

    I was interested to read your blog regarding bullying. I think that there are many schools that definitely feel bullying is no longer a problem, when in reality it seems that these schools have the most of it As bullying happens in so many forms, it is hard for the act to always be proven. I agree with enlisting the help of the whole community. By involving more individuals, we can hopefully prevent the emotional damage that has followed so many of our students.

  • Kristy says:

    I see bullying as a huge problem in our society. Usually in the elementary school setting the bullying only involves name calling and minor threats but it escalates quite a bit by junior high. I am fortunate enough to be a substitute teacher and one of the schools I sub in is a K-8 school so I observed the progression of bullying throughout the grades. By the time the students reach fifth, sixth, seventh grade the bullying is out of control. The school has come together, teachers, administrators, parents, and students to try to combat the problem. One day I was subbing at the school and I was to lead a small breakout session with about fifteen middle school students discussing what should be done when you see someone being bullied. I was waiting for the answers of standing up for the victim or telling an adult, but I did not hear those responses. When I suggested those options I was shot down. The students said that they cannot tell an adult or help the victim(s) because of fear of repercussions from the bully. They said they felt safer joining the bully even though it was the wrong choice. Besides just the victims suffering so are other students who want to do the right thing and do not or do the right thing and then are punished. Time needs to be devoted to this problem but time for student learning will be sacrificed. I believe the time needs to be spent now instead of later when even more student learning will be sacrificed when the victims of bullying decide to stop coming to school.

  • What most upsets me about bullying is that most students want to be friends with the bully.  The classroom bully seems to have some sort of control over the other students.  I feel in order to thwart bullies is to bring in the bully, the guidance counselor, the principal, parents,  and  teachers.  This will show the bully that this is serious and a big deal.  I have seen the difference in schools where bullying was not taken seriously and the behavior got worse.  This is no joke and is a problem in today’s schools.  Bullies needs understand the consequences of their actions. When bullies see the amount of people meeting with them to discuss the way they treat people, they seem to change their ways.  It doesn’t happen overnight, it takes weeks, possibly months of discussions groups lead by the guidance counselor, that the bully participates in.  The thought process needs to be changed.  Students need to know, they cannot bully their peers.  Is this a fix all?  I don’t think so, but it is a start.

  • Jessica says:

    This is an issue that I find the most difficult to deal with, but also something that I am quite passionate about. I, like I am sure most people have, experienced bullying during my high school years. I look back on that time and I do feel disappointed that I don’t think teachers responded to the issue properly. They were in the end able to get this bullying to stop I don’t think they were able to make those who bully understand how their actions were affecting others. I think that could be a powerful action in finding a solution to this problem – making those who bully more aware of the long term effects of their actions.

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