Bullying is a topic we hear about frequently, and rightfully so. There are tragic stories in the news, posts on social media, community groups targeting prevention, and parents having conversations during school drop-off. Bullying is a topic that needs our attention.
Unfortunately, there are also claims of bullying that are unfounded. Sometimes this stems from misinformation about what bullying is. Let’s take a look at the definition:
The American Psychological Association defines bullying as “a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort.” The World Health Organization describes bullying as “the repeated exposure of one person to physical and/or emotional aggression including teasing, name calling, mockery, threats, harassment, taunting, hazing, social exclusion, or rumors.”
What do both of these definitions have in common? Bullying is repeated acts of aggressive behavior towards someone. Without this definition, sometimes the lines become blurry and we hear both children and parents incorrectly labelling isolated acts as “bullying.” At school, a single occurrence of someone cutting in front of you in line is not bullying. One unkind statement like, “I don’t like your haircut” is not bullying. One time when a friend doesn’t want to play with you at recess is not bullying. Don’t get me wrong, none of these situations are demonstrating kindness and they are certainly not enjoyable to be on the receiving end of. They are also acts that a teacher can help mediate so children learn that they’re not okay. But they are not bullying.
On the flip side, if the same child keeps bothering you by butting in front of you, saying mean things to you, and encouraging others not to play with you, that’s bullying. The child’s behavior is repeated, targeting a specific victim. It’s aggressive, taking the form of physical contact, insults, and attempts to exclude the victim.
Educators can run into two problems when trying to determine who a bully is. First, sometimes the victim will not tell anyone who is bullying him. This often occurs when the victim is afraid of the bully and of what he may do when he finds out he’s been “told on.” Second, sometimes the victim doesn’t know the bully and provides educators with extremely limited descriptive information. This can happen particularly with young children. Without knowing the bully’s name, grade, classroom, or having him pointed out, and without witnesses, it becomes very difficult for educators to determine who is bullying the victim. Sometimes young children give physical descriptions like “brown hair” that don’t narrow the field much.
Another problem we run into at school is bullying that is not reported when it occurs. It’s not uncommon for a child to come home and tell her parents about what’s happening at school, without having told any staff members, including her teacher, what happened. This doesn’t mean it can’t be dealt with. But I always encourage children to tell an adult at school as soon as something happens so it can be dealt with immediately. For example, it’s much easier for a teacher supervising the playground to resolve a situation that’s happening here and now then it is to find out days or even weeks or months later that there have been occurrences of bullying. Children begin to forget details such as what happened, what was said, who was involved, who saw it happen, and when it occurred. If the aggressor is denying any wrongdoing, which unfortunately happens, having these details helps immensely. Having these details is also helpful when discussing the incidences with the bullying child’s parents, particularly if they too are not accepting that it happened. Lastly, educators need to be told immediately when bullying occurs so that it can be stopped right away. We don’t want children enduring these situations any longer than they have to.
If your child confides in you that he’s being bullied, it’s best not to assume that the school knows. As “Bullying. No Way!” explains, “Covert bullying can be almost impossible for people outside the interpersonal interactions to identify.” They give examples such as hand gestures, threatening looks, whispering, and exclusion, which can be done more subtly than physical acts. Bullying typically doesn’t occur when an adult is watching. It can be done on the crowded bus, out on the large playground, or in a busy hallway filled with students.
School should be a place where all students feel safe, cared for, and accepted. We know there is still a lot of work to be done. Have conversations with your children about what bullying is. Provide them with guidance about what to do if it happens to them or to a friend or classmate. Partner with the school so you can work together towards the common goal of putting a stop to bullying.
Written by: Erin Agnello, BA/BEd/OCT
Edited & Designed by: Christina Denham
My name is John Haber. I’m a Pediatric Occupational Therapist and the founder of Nogginsland. I became a COTA in 2003, and then went back to school much later, receiving my Master’s Degree in OT from Mercy College in New York in 2016.
Over the years, I’ve worked with a variety of populations in different settings, from school districts, to developmental disability centers, to children’s hospitals.