COLUMBIA, Mo. — The stereotypical bully usually threatens smaller classmates with physical violence, but researchers from the University of Missouri-Columbia find the most common variety of bullying is actually much more subtle. Their study finds “relational aggression” bullying is a much more common issue.
This variety of bullying usually involves socially excluding peers from group activities and or spreading harmful rumors. As one can imagine, this type of bullying can wreak havoc on a young psyche, both emotionally and socially.
“Previous studies suggest when a kid is excluded from social activities by their peers at school, the outcomes for that kid both short-term and long-term will be just as detrimental as if they got kicked, punched or slapped every day. So this study sheds light on the social exclusion youth often face,” says Chad Rose, an associate professor in the MU College of Education and Human Development and director of the Mizzou Ed Bully Prevention Lab, in a university release.
Examining social dominance in schools
Researchers analyzed the results of a survey that had been part of a larger school climate assessment project encompassing 26 middle and high schools across five school districts in the southeastern United States. In all, over 14,000 students either agreed or disagreed with various statements connected to pro-bullying attitudes, perceived popularity, and relational aggression.
The statements included, “A little teasing does not hurt anyone,” “I don’t care what mean things kids say as long as it’s not about me,” “In my group of friends, I am usually the one who makes decisions,” and “When I am mad at someone, I get back at them by not letting them be in my group anymore.”
“What we found is kids that perceive themselves as socially dominant or popular endorse pro-bullying attitudes, yet they don’t perceive themselves as engaging in relational aggression,” Prof. Rose explains.
“There was another group that did not perceive themselves as socially dominant or popular, but they endorsed pro-bullying attitudes and engaged in relational aggression. So, the first group thought bullying was OK but did not see themselves as engaging in it even if they actually were excluding others. While the second group that admitted to engaging in relational aggression may have been excluding others as an attempt to jockey for the position of being more socially dominant and climb the social hierarchy.”
Study authors add there was a third group of students who reported simultaneously low levels of pro-bullying attitudes and low levels of relational aggression. They named this group “non-aggressors” or “bystanders.”
“What’s interesting about bystanders is that they often perpetuate bullying, meaning they serve as social reinforcers and are around when it’s happening,” Prof. Rose adds. “We teach the famous tagline, ‘See something, say something,’ but in practice, it is hard for kids to intervene and assess conflicts quickly – it’s hard even for adults. If we see two kids in a physical fight, we feel an obligation to break it up. But when we see kids being excluded by their peers, adults don’t always seem to view it as equally damaging, and that’s the scary part.”
How can adults help youths at risk from bullies?
Celebrate their individuality, Prof. Rose suggests.
“When kids are in school, sameness often gets celebrated, but when kids grow up to become adults, individuality is what makes us stand out and excel in our jobs and in life,” the researcher notes. “Individuality should be interwoven in some of the messages we as adults send in our schools, in our families and in our neighborhoods.”
The research team also suggests teachers begin incorporating social communication skills into their daily teaching plans.
“In addition to establishing academic objectives for group projects, teachers can monitor how well the students are inviting the input of others’ ideas through positive, encouraging conversations,” Prof. Rose comments. “Teachers should give specific praise when they see respectful and inclusive behavior in action, because teaching and reinforcing these skills are just as important as the math, science and history lessons.”
Prof. Rose has been researching bullying for 17 years. He first became interested in the topic during his first post-college job as a high school special education teacher. At the time, he was working with at-risk youth who engaged in violent or aggressive behavior.
“I had kids coming back to school from juvenile detention facilities and realized I didn’t just want to only work with the most academically gifted and well-behaved kids, I wanted to help every kid that comes through the door, especially those who have been traditionally marginalized,” Rose recalls. “Rather than simply suspending or expelling kids from school, I focused on helping them build skills and develop interventions that emphasize social communication, respect and empathy.”
Prof. Rose explains that if children don’t learn how to effectively convey their thoughts, wants, and needs, they’ll be that much more likely to end up lashing out in an aggressive way. While it’s unlikely all students in a classroom will be best friends, showing respect to all of one’s classmates is essential.
“Bullying does not begin or end with the school bells, it is a community issue,” the study author concludes. “I think, as adults, we have to be more aware of what we’re teaching our kids in terms of how we interact socially, as schools are a reflection of our communities.”
The study is published in Preventing School Failure Alternative Education for Children and Youth.