No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.                                                    Eleanor Roosevelt

“Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people.”             Socrates 

During my years as a teacher/researcher the topic and concerns relating to bullying has increased immensely, such that it is now a massive issue not only in schools but seemingly many parts of society. The following quote by Richard Donegan seems to aptly illustrate this concern.

“Bullying has been engrained in American society since the country’s founding. Bred from a capitalistic economy and competitive social hierarchy, bullying has remained a relevant issue through the years.”

            Although the east end of London, where I was born in the fifties was not as deprived and violent as Charles Dickens described it in his novels, it had been bombed (blitzed) heavily during the war and still had a reputation for physical violence. My memories of childhood involves lots of ‘physical interaction’, especially fighting, possibly because of this background, when I became a teacher I was appalled by bullying and keen to research why it happens and how to prevent it. Bullying was clearly a common symptom (behaviour) reflecting that young people are struggling or vulnerable, one that I could research first hand and in depth as a teacher/researcher.

            I outlined earlier in this section that when I researched the various symptoms (behaviours or outcomes) of vulnerable young people I tried integrate them and look for common factors, with bullying it became clear that ‘motivation’, ‘peer pressure’ and ‘self-esteem’ was central to it. I was also fortunate that in the early eighties I was doing an in-service training course, a Diploma in Education in Personal, Social, Health Education, which involved attending college one evening per week with discussion groups that could focus on topics such as bullying and teaching PSHE provided lots of opportunities for questionnaires and discussions on it.

            Maslow’s hierarchy of needs became an invaluable research tool for me and my students, since it helped these adolescents to appreciate that they were probably being motivated by:

Safety and Security

Feeling insecure and unsafe was an emotion that they could all relate to and understood how it seemed to ‘over-power’ all other thoughts and feelings, causing the victims of bullying to become unable to cope, function and feel suicidal.

Social (Love and Belonging)

As adolescents they felt the need for belonging, love, and affection to be extremely powerful, with relationships such as friendships and romantic attachments dominating many of their thoughts and feelings. Bullying that involved rejection or exclusion from groups was extremely powerful in pushing victims into deep depression and fear of this was equally powerful  in pushing them to succumb  to peer pressure and becoming bullies themselves.

The need to feel respected, accepted and valued by their peers was fully understood by these teenagers and most felt it underpinned why so many of them had previously bullied others in others.

            These questionnaires and discussions raised many important points, probably the first of which was the definition of bullying. There was a huge variation in what the students, parents and staff interpreted as bullying. It soon became clear that on numerous occasions the term ‘bullying’ was being used when others completely disagreed with them. In the eighties there appeared no clear accepted definition of bullying and relatively little media coverage on it so this confusion was easy to explain. I actually struggled to find any research or statistics on bullying and relied on the learning from these surveys, discussions and interviews.

            In 1987, when I started a new role in in school (job title: Head of Year) with the responsibility for welfare of 250 students in my year group, I had a lots of opportunity to research ‘bullying’ as it seemed to me at the time this was the most common concern for these 14/15 year olds. I was surprised at the number of incidents that involved girls ‘spreading gossip or rumours’, they called it ‘bitching  and slagging off’ other girls, the movie, ‘Mean Girls’, did not appear until 2004, seventeen years later!

            There has been a huge growth in media coverage, publications, reports, research etc. relating to bullying and the definition of bullying is now generally accepted to be: 

‘Bullying is behaviour by an individual or group, repeated over time, that intentionally hurts another individual or group either physically or emotionally’

            At the time, I found trying to unravel and resolve the problems with these girls very frustrating and time-consuming; it did provide me with some very useful research evidence. Eventually we arrived at some conclusions which seemed to help explain why some people bullied, but others did not, and why some seemed to become victims of bullying but others did not.

People (teenagers) who bully often seem to:

  • Compare themselves with others a great deal.
  • Value superficial (appearances) things highly.
  • Value winning (at all costs) very highly
  • Struggle to cope with any criticism
  • Have poor self-control,
  • Lack perseverance or determination,
  • Resent rules, organisation, and discipline.
  • Lack empathy

People (teenagers) who become victims of bullying often seem to:

  • Compare themselves with others a great deal.
  • Lack confidence
  • Have poor verbal communication skills
  • Have poor non-verbal (body language, facial expressions) skills
  • Struggle to cope with any criticism (easily upset)
  • Have poor self-control (easily upset)
  • Lack perseverance or determination,
  • Lack empathy
  • Have weak social skills

­            At the time, trying to understand and support vulnerable young people, I found this feedback very helpful, and I tried to incorporate it into the analysis (profile) we were doing on children who were coming to our school at the age of 11. Unfortunately, it was difficult to attain any information on children in these skills (or characteristics). Consequently, when my cohort (256students), came to my school in 1994, I immediately tried to begin profiling them on as many of these skills (characteristics) as I could.

            As the research continued It became clear that people were only bullied in certain environments and the shift to a new large school at age 11 was an environment that caused many to become vulnerable and victims of bullying. In fact, I specifically began my first book at this point in time, to emphasise how many young people suddenly became vulnerable and bullied with this transition and the character, “Skilful Stacey”, I introduced in it attempts to illustrate the skills needed to be developed by that age to avoid becoming vulnerable and reduce the likelihood of being bullied. By the end of the nineties the research evidence provided an explanation of the skills needed to reduce the chances of becoming a victim of bullying.

The skills needed to reduce the chances of becoming a victim of bullying.   
Effective Learning
When placed in different (new) situations they will need to learn to adapt and become comfortable quickly, otherwise they will be ‘not fit in’ and expose their naivety and vulnerability to others, providing opportunities for them to become ‘targets’.
Good  verbal skills  (speaking, listening,) and non-verbal skills (visual gestures, body language, ) will mean they will be able to communicate with others, helping them to integrate, socialise and avoid being antagonising or angering people, e.g. ‘talk their way out of it’.
Being able to ‘read and understand’ situations or scenarios, and work out the ‘pros and cons’ accurately is crucial in making good long term decisions, otherwise they may discover that they are in a very vulnerable circumstances, exposed to ‘potential attack’ by others.
It is essential to be able to assess their strengths and weaknesses accurately in terms of their skill development, to avoid putting too much emphasis on the superficial (appearances) and comparing themselves with others a great deal. Otherwise they will be susceptible (vulnerable) to comments and criticism of others.
Self- Management
It is important to understand that how they express their feelings may have a big effect on others and how they will be treated, adapting their behaviour according to where they are and who they are with. They need to learn to avoid being too impulsive, getting upset easily or ‘losing control’ which will upset others.
Learning to take responsibility for their lives, avoiding blaming others and viewing will mean they are resilient, bounce back from setbacks will prevent them from becoming vulnerable and easily upset.
Learning to see the world from other people’s emotions, beliefs and points of view is central to  showing respect (care and consideration) for people from all cultures, backgrounds, interests, attainments, attitudes, and values, reducing the chances of antagonising others.
Learning how to cooperate with others  in a variety of  groups and teams is clearly important to ‘getting on with others’ and avoid being ‘controlled by’ or upsetting others

             For many people (especially staff and parents) the bullies are not always seen as being vulnerable or struggling, but the feedback from most of my students indicated that the bullies had major problems and their bullying was a symptom of it.

The establishment of emotional intelligence in the nineties supported this research evidence with bullies being viewed as being emotionally unhealthy. Weakness in some of the 8 skills seems to explain why (young) people are likely to bully.

Weakness in these skills increases the chances of becoming a bully.     
Effective Learning
Being unable to learn to adapt to new situations can lead to frustration and anger which may result in ‘picking on others’ .
Being un able to communicate effectively with others, often results in misunderstanding and frustrations, which they ‘may take it out on others’.
Misunderstanding situations or scenarios, can cause poor decisions, resulting in attacks on others.
Poor assessment of their strengths and weaknesses may result in putting too much emphasis on the superficial (appearances) and comparing themselves with others a great deal, instead of their skill development. This can result in negative attitudes and behaviours such as ‘put downs’, ‘slagging off’, ‘bitching’ and persistent criticism of others.
Self- Management
Poor development of this skill means being too impulsive, getting upset easily or ‘losing control’ which will often be targeted at others.
Weak in this skill means a reluctance to take responsibility for their lives, unable to recover from setbacks, getting upset and blaming others.
They cannot see the world from other people’s viewpoint, showing disrespect for anyone different from themselves, resenting rules, organisation and ‘taking it out on others’
Being poor at relating, ‘getting on with’ , and struggling to resolve problems with others,   is particularly frustrating for young people as they value this so much,  likely to result in antagonising and bullying them.

             Since the start of the century there has been a huge increase internationally in research, publications, reports, books, organisations and websites focusing on bullying. Because they tend to concentrate on ‘bullying’ rather than integrating it with the various other symptoms of vulnerable young people these skills are only rarely referred to. The following extracts provide some good examples of how the 8 skills do provide an explanation for people being victims of bullying and bullying others.

 “Predictors of Bullying and Victimization in Childhood and Adolescence: A Meta-analytic Investigation,” Cook, William, Guerra, Kim and Sadek.

School Psychology Quarterly Vol. 25, No.2.

Children and adolescents who lack social problem-solving skills are more at risk of becoming bullies, victims or both than those who don’t have these difficulties, says new research published by the American Psychological Association. But those who are also having academic troubles are even likelier to become bullies.

“This is the first time we’ve overviewed the research to see what individual and environmental characteristics predict the likelihood of becoming a bully, victim or both,” said lead author Clayton R. Cook, PhD, of Louisiana State University. “These groups share certain characteristics, but they also have unique traits. We hope this knowledge will help us better understand the conditions under which bullying occurs and the consequences it may have for individuals and the other people in the same settings. Ultimately, we want to develop better prevention and intervention strategies to stop the cycle before it begins.”

 “A typical victim is likely to be aggressive, lack social skills, think negative thoughts, experience difficulties in solving social problems, come from negative family, school and community environments and be noticeably rejected and isolated by peers,” said Cook.

The typical bully-victim (someone who bullies and is bullied) also has negative attitudes and beliefs about himself or herself and others, the study found. He or she has trouble with social interaction, does not have good social problem-solving skills, performs poorly academically and is not only rejected and isolated by peers but is also negatively influenced by the peers with whom he or she interacts, according to the study.

               The typical victim is one who is likely to

  • demonstrate internalizing symptoms;
  • engage in externalizing behavior;
  • lack adequate social skills;
  • possess negative self-related cognitions;
  • experience difficulties in solving social problems;
  • come from negative community, family, and school environments;
  • and be noticeably rejected and isolated by peers.

                        The typical bully is one who

  • exhibits significant externalizing behavior,
  • has internalizing symptoms,
  • has both social competence and academic challenges,
  • possesses negative attitudes and beliefs about others,
  • has negative self-related cognitions,
  • has trouble resolving problems with others,
  • comes from a family environment characterized by conflict and poor parental monitoring,
  • is more likely to perceive his or her school as having a negative atmosphere,
  • is influenced by negative community factors,
  • and tends to be negatively influenced by his or her peers.  

Psychologist’s studies make sense of bullying

 UCLA Today Judy Lin | May 03, 2012

Jaana Juvonen is a sought-after authority on bullying, a professor of developmental psychology whose decade of ground breaking research on mean kids and their hapless victims is changing the way parents and schools think about bullying.

 “Clearly, there’s something about the school environment that makes bullies more valued among their peers in sixth grade,” said Juvonen. That “something,” she speculated, has to do with the turbulence of transition. “Think about all the changes that kids go through when they transfer from elementary school to middle school. The school not only becomes an average seven times larger than their elementary school, but now they go from one [class] period to the next, having a different teacher in each and also different classmates.”

 Floundering and frightened, not knowing where they fit in “probably calls forth a primal tendency to rely on dominance behaviors,” Juvonen suggested. The bigger, stronger kids create a social hierarchy and appoint themselves the leaders. The bullies are clearly in charge, gaining power and status that translate to a bigtime ego boost.

Juvonen and her colleagues have also taken a close look at the victims of bullies: Friendless and lonely, they don’t know how to say ‘Stop it!’ when a bully attacks. Worse still, many victims blame themselves, imagining that there must be something inherently wrong with them for this to be happening. .

“But bullying is not a problem of specific individuals. Bullying is a collective problem. We need to address the social dynamics. Bullies can stop being bullies, and victims can stop being victims,” Juvonen said. “What we’ve learned is that these are temporary social roles, not permanent personality characteristics.”

 School Bullying is Nothing New, But Psychologists Identify New Ways to Prevent It                                         American Psychological Association, October 29, 2004

Dan Olweus, PhD, of Norway, recognized as a pioneer and “founding father” of research on bullying and victimization, defines school bullying in a general way as “repeated negative, ill-intentioned behavior by one or more students directed against a student who has difficulty defending himself or herself. Most bullying occurs without any apparent provocation on the part of the student who is exposed.”

In his 1993 book, Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do, Dr. Olweus identifies characteristics of students who are most likely to be bullies and those that are most likely to be victims of bullying.

               The typical passive or submissive victims, according to Olweus’ research, generally have some of the following characteristics:

  • Are cautious, sensitive, quiet, withdrawn and shy
  • Are often anxious, insecure, unhappy and have low self-esteem
  • Are depressed and engage in suicidal ideation much more often than their peers
  • Often do not have a single good friend and relate better to adults than to peers
  • If they are boys, they may be physically weaker than their peers

                        Bullies tend to exhibit the following characteristics:

  • They have a strong need to dominate and subdue other students and to get their own way
  • Are impulsive and are easily angered
  • Are often defiant and aggressive toward adults, including parents and teachers
  • Show little empathy toward students who are victimized
  • If they are boys, they are physically stronger than boys in general.

            I am very confident that if the 8 skills were developed and measured throughout children’s lives the bullies and potential victims of bullying would be identified and supported as early as possible, and that bullying could be reduced a great deal.