For Educators: Understanding Bullying

Bullying is a common topic discussed by teachers, coaches, and other professionals who work or volunteer with kids. Most everyone, including children and teens, agree that bullying should be prevented, as there are tragic, even fatal, consequences to bullying. Yet despite the seeming agreement that bullying is morally opposed by most everyone, we continue to see it happen all too often.

From my perspective, one of the problems we have is looking for “bullies” instead of being aware of bullying relationship dynamics. The reality is that we can all bully others: adults, parents, kids, coaches and teachers. Attempting to identify the “bad person(s)” or “bad kid(s)” who are then labeled as a “bully” does little to address the underlying problems associated with this behavior.

The dynamics that underlie bullying on both sides are often related to our human needs to feel in control, have some degree of power, experience external validation, be accepted by others, and feel good about ourselves. Bullying takes place when these needs drive people to behave in ways that impinge upon someone else’s needs and personal freedom.

The first step in dealing with this is to learn how to identify bullying dynamics when they occur. Here’s what to look for:

Is there an imbalance in power? Bullying behavior relies upon real or perceived power in order to influence others. For example, is there another person, or group of people, who has physical strength, social status or information they use to intimidate other children? Do they use this strength or status to exercise control over others?

Does the child seem scared or feel threatened? Does the child seem afraid that they will be hurt emotionally, physically or in some other way if they don’t do what this person or group wants?

Can the child freely make choices? Do others make the child do things that they do not want to do, or keep them from doing things they do want to do? Do they use their real or perceived power to coerce them? Does the child seem to feel that they do not have choices or freedom because they think something bad will happen if they do not follow their lead?

Does the child seem to keep secrets or stay quiet? Does the child stay quiet about what’s happening because they fear it will only make things worse? Have they been threatened to keep quiet or risk injury, shame or humiliation?

If you witness these dynamics in the children under your care, it’s important to act to stop the behaviors from contributing to further harm. While all situations may require different solutions, consider these general guidelines for responding to bullying:

Make conversations about bullying safe. It can be difficult for kids to talk about bullying. They may feel embarrassed, ashamed and afraid to tell an adult about what is happening to them. Some kids may fear that their teacher, coach or other adult will over-react or bring them further embarrassment if they disclose that they are being bullied. Talking openly about cyber bullying is a first step in shining a light on this serious problem. Sometimes a child might not even be aware that they are being “bullied.” And, believe it or not, some children might not realize they are bullying others. They might think this is normal behavior that all kids go through. Help them understand what cyber bullying looks like, and that it is not okay. Also let the child know that being bullied is not their fault.

Tell those in authority positions. Bullying dynamics are maintained and given power through isolation and secrecy. If the behaviors are not discussed with others there is very little hope they will end. It’s important that you report all suspected cyber bullying to administration officials and the child’s parents immediately. Because each state has its own anti-bullying mandates, including reporting requirements, get familiar with your state’s requirements. maintains an information website that lists state-by-state anti-bullying laws and practices. No matter how grave the threats or how big the fear, it is important to help the child gain power by involving others.

Ensure there is supervision. When bullying dynamics occur, it’s up to us as the adults in their lives to ensure that their environment is safe. Make it known that bullying behaviors will not be tolerated. This will help the child feel empowered and safe to communicate if there are ongoing problems.

Hold others accountable. Once bullying dynamics are identified, individuals involved must be held accountable for any continued behavior. In addition, they should be offered help in addressing the underlying reasons for their bullying; as youth workers we can play a big role in getting these children the help they need. The reality is that people bully for many reasons. Often those who are bullying are struggling to cope with their own feelings, or experiencing psychological conflicts within themselves. Finding support for the person who is bullying, while appropriately responding to their bullying behavior, is crucial.

Encourage the family to utilize a social network to garner support. Suggest they reach out to peers and friends and talk to other parents. Encourage them to ask for help from others, in both responding to the bullying behaviors directly and by ensuring others know if it happens. Encourage them to build a committed group of peers and friends who agree that if they see or hear something, they will say something — both to the bully and those in authority who can provide help.

Model confidence and resilience. Bullying dynamics can be scary and tend to make those who are victims want to comply, retreat and hide. In reality, the opposite is often what is needed. While ensuring that the child is safe, recommend non-aggressive ways for the child to respond to the person who is bullying them, directly if possible. Empower all the children under your supervision to say no when it is relevant. Teach them how to not be controlled by fear and intimidation. Provide help with strengthening confidence and assertiveness by recommending counseling, or other means if necessary. Be firm and direct with bullying dynamics to help the child regain their sense of self-worth, confidence and independence.

If a child in your care is involved in bullying dynamics, either as the bully or victim, please reach out for help. For further resources related to bullying visit StopBullying or Pacer's National Bullying Prevention Center.