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Why Kids Bully and What To Do About It

We’ve all heard by now that bullying is an epidemic in schools due to its pervasiveness and catastrophic impact on students. We can see signs of aggressiveness towards peers starting as early as preschool. These signs can predict later issues with bullying behaviors. Many curriculums and programs have been created to address this concern- but do they work? Have we stopped to consider why children bully? And what are the most effective ways to intervene?

First, let’s define bullying. You’ve probably heard students say, “a classmate is bullying me,” when you know what most likely happened was one student just said or did something that another student didn’t like. Not all disagreements between students are bullying- obviously. Bullying is not just two students getting into an argument, and it’s not just a child getting angry and being unkind to another. Bullying has to do with an imbalance of power- where the bully has more power or influence than the person they are bullying. This imbalance could be due to size, ability, popularity, socioeconomic status, race, and the intersection of any of these factors. Bullying often is repeated (but doesn’t have to be,) and it typically is intentional harm (but again-doesn’t have to be to have an impact). Young children sometimes have difficulty defining bullying, but they know it when they feel it. The pain of getting bullied can stick with someone for a lifetime.

So, why is the bullying happening? In previous generations, bullying was seen as a character flaw on behalf of the bully. Some kids were simply considered bad seeds, or it was perceived that their parents were to blame for not disciplining them better. Nowadays, we hear phrases like “hurt people hurt people”- as we, as a society, try to grasp a more humane way of understanding children’s complex behaviors. But is it that simple? Is it only children who have emotional pain who hurt others? Has this phrase ever failed to explain the type of bullying you are seeing and hearing about in your communities, playgrounds, or classrooms? Multiple factors can contribute to bullying behaviors, and understanding these factors is key to intervening in a way that actually helps the bullying stop.

Reason #1: Lack of Skills

Students who bully others often lack key social or communication skills to meet their needs. These skills might include asking to play, problem solving, setting boundaries, and emotion regulation skills, to name a few. Children will sometimes resort to aggression when they become overwhelmed or unable to effectively communicate what they want or need.
Group Intervention Strategies:
Take time to observe the skills that students are struggling with during the school day. Often when conflict arises, multiple students are struggling with social skills, especially in the area of conflict resolution for kids. After identifying the lacking social skills, introduce lessons into the whole classroom to support the needs of the students. Our Slumberkins’ Curriculum Hub has lesson plans that fit into whole-class learning for K-2 that specifically focus on building these essential skills using playful and creative lessons and activities.
Small Group Interventions:
Helping students practice social skills in smaller groups is always an amazing opportunity for growth (if you can find the opportunity to do so!). Using targeted interventions can build skills while providing opportunities to build positive relationships. Friendship groups, in particular, can be beneficial, and help students learn to communicate their needs, take turns and problem solve when conflicts arise. Don’t shy away from moments of conflict or jump in too quickly to resolve conflict. Small groups offer an excellent chance for students to practice these skills with adult supervision and support if needed.
Individual Intervention Strategies:
Many times with bullying behaviors, students need individual support. Interventionists like school counselors, school psychologists, or special education teachers can be good supports for helping to identify areas where students may be struggling socially and emotionally. Develop a team plan to support the student individually in learning new targeted skills. New skills aren’t learned overnight. Have patience as you help the student learn new ways to interact with their peers.

Reason #2: Learned Behaviors

Sometimes students pick up behaviors from others. Whether that be parents, siblings, peers, or media, kids are impressionable. It could be something they overheard and are just repeating, or it could be more in-depth. If a student has been on the receiving end of teasing at home, acting out these experiences with others can be a way they attempt to make sense of what happened to them, or it could be an attempt to gain power or influence in response to feeling powerless. In general, children may either be unaware of the harm it causes to others, or they may be aware but acting out of a place of hurt. In a sense-this is the example where “hurt people hurt people,” but students don’t fully understand the impact of these behaviors on others.
Group Intervention Strategies:
Set clear expectations early and often about the culture of your classroom community and help children learn to recognize the impact of their actions (without shaming them). Children are capable of learning different sets of rules about different places. Even if specific language or behaviors are allowed at home, they can learn (with practice and reminders) that those behaviors are not acceptable at school. Reading stories or playing games where students learn about hurting feelings and the impact of those can be a great non-shaming way for students to learn about cause and effect. Remember to practice patience with this strategy, though-it can take a while to unlearn a habit.
Small Group Interventions:
Students can benefit from slowing down and learning about the impact of their actions on others. If the behavior is something that’s been normalized at home, they may not fully understand why it’s not appropriate. Smaller groups can be an excellent opportunity to help students explore positive interactions with one another. When conflict arises, help the students check in with their peers and learn more about how those actions make the other person feel.
Individual Intervention Strategies:
Communication with the student’s family is essential, but try to approach the family with curiosity and openness. It’s hard to know exactly what is happening at home, and families are often willing to partner with teachers to help work on pro-social skills if they feel the school is on their side. Once in a while, there are families who struggle with engagement- but not all hope is not lost. These students can benefit from individualized support at school to develop positive relationships with others.

Reason #3: Social Capital

Social capital is the influence someone holds in a social group. Essentially it’s the power someone holds as a social status. Many factors (age, socioeconomic status, ability, social skills, etc.) contribute to social capital and many reasons why humans want to have it. Having power in a social group can help people maintain a sense of control and prevent rejection. Unfortunately, making fun of other kids or engaging in bullying can be a way of gaining social control. Do we think it’s a positive way of gaining influence- of course not-but sadly, it works sometimes. The control these students seek is often from a place of fear. Children who bully to gain social capital are sometimes aware that they are hurting other people (not always)- but they don’t always understand their own motivations for harming others. These students often need intervention and fast! It is essential for them to learn there are other ways to get their needs met, and they need to feel an underlying sense of safety and belonging without bullying.
Group Intervention Strategies:
This reason for bullying is sometimes the toughest one to interrupt because it's hard for these students to give up a strategy that feels like it is working for them. Whole group intervention can be helpful in this case because teaching the whole class to recognize bullying and not participate in it- can help take some of the power out of the bullying behaviors. This type of bullying typically doesn’t work without an “audience.” Teaching students to stand-up for injustice as well as showing kindness to those who have been bullied can also help lessen the impact of the bullying and remove the reason for the bullying to occur.
Small Group Interventions:
The students engaging in this type of bullying are not bad kids-try to think of it like a protective shield they have learned to use. As soon as they no longer feel like they need that tough shield, they can set it down. Fostering positive connections in small groups with adult oversight can help these students connect on a deeper level to those around them. Just be mindful not to encourage too much vulnerability in a group setting- this could just end up being fuel for more bullying to occur later- but finding positive and fun activities that highlight everyone’s strengths can go a long way, even outside of the classroom.
Individual Intervention Strategies:
Involving parents and caregivers can be another useful strategy here. Again, try to partner with families to find solutions to help their child gain new skills. Parents can reinforce positive interactions with peers by reading books, modeling positive interactions, and talking to their child when there has been a conflict and problem solving new approaches. Interventionists can help these students identify their feelings underneath their behaviors and explore new ways of building connections with others. These kids need our help. They aren’t bad seeds-they’ve just learned a maladaptive way to cope that can do major harm to themselves and others.
Finally, we must admit that it’s not always cut and dry. Sometimes students are struggling with all of these reasons for bullying behaviors. Before jumping to conclusions, school administrators, parents, and teachers alike can approach bullying behaviors with curiosity and a willingness to look beneath the behaviors and into the motivations or reasons behind them. Only then can we find the interventions and approaches that help us cope with the bullying epidemic in a truly helpful way. Have you seen any of these reasons play out in your classrooms? Are there any reasons you feel we’ve missed? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Sarah Block, LPC

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