Talking bullying in schools with U of M

Clayton Cook

According to the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey, 19% of students who said they were bullied also reported being bullied or harassed at least once a week in the last 30 days. Students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and LGBTQ+ students reported the highest rates of bullying. 

Clayton Cook, professor of educational psychology in the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development, answers questions about how schools and communities can work together to ensure all students experience healthy environments free of bullying, discrimination and harassment.

Q: What is bullying?
Prof. Cook: I had the privilege of serving on the CDC’s Expert Panel to develop a uniform definition of bullying. We defined bullying as “any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or current dating partners that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated. Bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted youth including physical, psychological, social or educational harm.”

First, bullying involves a power imbalance. The power is in favor of the youth who exhibits the bullying behavior because they are physically stronger, more popular, in a position of authority and/or have access to embarrassing information. The youth who is being bullied feels like they have no recourse and cannot make it stop, which causes harm and distress.

Second, bullying is a subset of aggressive behaviors — those that are intended to harm someone psychologically, emotionally and/or physically. Although there is no uniform agreement among researchers, it is helpful to think about the different types of bullying: physical bullying, verbal bullying, relational bullying (e.g., exclusion, gossiping to hurt someone’s relationships with others), cyberbullying, sexual bullying and prejudicial bullying (i.e., based on a person’s race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation).

Q: Where does bullying happen?
Prof. Cook: Unfortunately, bullying is found in virtually every setting where people regularly interact with one another — workplaces, community centers, religious organizations and schools. Power differences emerge between individuals due to positions of authority, social status, resources (e.g., money and information) or physicality, and those in more powerful positions act aggressively towards those with less power. Many people with varying levels of power due to physical stature, social capital, resources and positions of authority work and learn in schools. If schools and child-serving organizations, such as after school programs or sports teams, are not intentional about creating norms and teaching, modeling and recognizing prosocial behaviors, higher rates of bullying rates are likely to emerge. For this reason, policies and practices that prevent and address bullying, as well as other forms of aggressive behavior, are essential.

Q: What are the effects of bullying?
Prof. Cook: Bullying can negatively impact all parties involved — individuals who are bullied, bullies and bystanders to the bullying. Children who are bullied may experience problems at school and with their mental and physical health. Victims of bullying are at an increased risk for depression and anxiety, sleep problems and school absences. These risks may continue into adulthood. When people feel they are not wanted, valued and respected their flight or fight response can be activated, resulting in withdrawal, avoidance or acting out behaviors.

Children who bully are at-risk for other negative long-term outcomes, including substance abuse issues, relationship problems and risky behaviors. Although the behavior of bullies is unacceptable and must be addressed, it is critical to view them through a lens of compassion. These young people have not learned critical relationships skills and are unaware that their behavior puts them at-risk for longer-term negative outcomes when they are an adult.

Lastly, even bystanders to repeated instances of bullying or situations involving bullying are at increased risk of substance abuse problems, mental health issues (including anxiety and depression) and school truancy.

Q: What can schools and other organizations do to prevent bullying? 
Prof. Cook: On average, research indicates bullying prevention programs result in a 20% to 23% decrease in perpetration of bullying and a 17% to 20% decrease in victimization.

The first thing schools can do to prevent bullying is to establish norms for positive and prosocial interactions that encourage social acceptance and friendship. Adults should model behaviors they wish to see students learn and exhibit. Examples of positive and prosocial interactions include: intentionally greeting others to establish positive connections; treating one another with respect and kindness; and paying attention to and reflecting on what others are doing right rather than emphasizing what others are doing wrong.

Another effective way schools can prevent bullying is to support parents through the delivery of training activities — hosting information meetings, sharing information about bullying and how to talk to their child about it. 

Schools can also prevent and address bullying through developing social-emotional learning (SEL) programs — which help children learn and apply specific skills aimed at establishing and maintaining healthy relationships. These skills enable children to better regulate their emotions and behavior during certain situations and, ultimately, be a positive contributing member of any setting in which they function.

Q: What work is the U of M doing surrounding bullying prevention?
Prof. Cook: At the University of Minnesota, we are working to reduce bullying in our state and across the country by translating research on bullying prevention into practice. I’ve had the pleasure of working with many schools across Minnesota to help build sustainable SEL programs and know many more are hard at work.

Finally, there is a statewide shortage of mental health professionals in schools. In the Department of Educational Psychology, we train school psychologists, special educators and school counselors to help prevent bullying and make healthy learning environments a reality. 

Clayton Cook is the John W. and Nancy E. Peyton Faculty Fellow in Child and Adolescent Wellbeing and a professor in the College of Education and Human Development. Cook works in the Department of Educational Psychology where he trains and conducts research with future school psychologists.


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