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The Roles we Play

What Role does the Family Play?

Children's behavior patterns are first established at home. It is important that parents create a home environment that discourages bullying behavior and supports children who are victimized.

- Bullies often come from homes that are neglectful, and hostile and use harsh punishment (Olweus, 1993). Bullying may be learned by observing high levels of conflict between parents. Care needs to be taken by parents so they do not model bullying for their children.

- Sibling interaction may also be a training ground for bullying (Patterson, 1986). Aggression between siblings is the most common form of family violence (Straus et al., 1981).

- Parents may inadvertently support bullying by accepting it as just a normal part of growing up and leaving children to solve their own problems.

- Victims often keep their problems a secret: They feel they should handle bullying themselves; they worry about the bully's revenge or other children's disapproval; and/or they think adults can do little to help them (Garfalo et al., 1987; Olweus, 1991).

- When they are courageous enough to tell, victims talk more often to parents than to teachers. As their children's most important advocates, parents must support their victimized children by working with the school to ensure their children's safety.

What Role does the School Play?

Schools are also important in shaping children's development. As in families, schools must strike a balance between clear, consistent discipline and warm, supportive relationships. There are many features of the school context that influence bullying.

- Principals. Principals set the tone for their schools. Bullying is reduced if the principal is committed to addressing bullying (Charach et al., 1995). Strategies used by principals include: consistent and formative consequences for bullies; an open-door policy for victims, with empathetic responses to their concerns working together with teachers on classroom management and strategies for troubled children; and reporting slips for playground problems to ensure follow through.

- Student-Staff Relations. Bullying is less prevalent in schools where there are supportive relations among school staff warm relations between staff and students, and-shared decision making among staff and students, and where the adults do not model bullying for the students (Olweus 1987).

- School Policy. The key to reducing bullying in schools is a clear policy regarding bullying with consistently applied consequences (Olweus, 1991).

- School Organization. Schools which emphasize academic success without respecting children's individual strengths and weaknesses tend to have more bullying (Tattum, 1982).

- Playground Supervision. Students report that the majority of bullying occurs on the school playground (Olweus, 1991; Pepler et al., 1997). Bullying occurs when there is little supervision or when large groups of children engage in rough-and-tumble play or competitive sports (Murphy et al., 1983).

Bullying is often hidden from teachers and bullies are well aware of their disapproval. Teachers' lack of awareness is evident in playground observations in which teachers intervened to stop only one in twenty-five (4%) of the bullying episodes (Craig and Pepler, 1997).

Conflict-mediation programs increase playground supervision by using trained peer mediators (Cunningham, 1997; Fine et al., 1995). With these programs, all children in a school are exposed to the important life skills of conflict resolution. For example, William King Elementary School in Herring Cove, Nova Scotia, fosters a nurturing, peaceful environment in the classroom. The Peer Mediator Program trains students to help resolve conflicts between peers. Within efforts to reduce bullying, these programs are necessary, but not sufficient. Although the peer conflict mediators can identify bullying problems and report them to teachers, the power differential between the bully and victim most often calls for adult intervention.

What Role does the Broader Social Context Play?

Bullying problems may reflect cultural and societal tolerance of aggression. Many of these attitudes are conveyed through the popular media, including television, movies, music, and videogames. The consistent message in media representations of violence is that aggression is an effective solution to social problems. Aggressive children are more likely than nonaggressive children to be drawn to and imitate media violence (Huesmann et al., 1984). Bullies, therefore, may be predisposed to act out the aggressive behaviours they view in the media.

In the culturally diverse Canadian context, children may be bullied because of their race or ethnic background. In Toronto, 14% of children report that they have been bullied because of their race (Pepler, et al., 1997). Within schools, anti-racism and anti-sexism initiatives are often considered together with anti-bullying programs under the umbrella of equity.

As children enter adolescence, bullying declines somewhat and sexual harassment, both between boys and girls and within same-gender groups, increases. Unwanted sexual harassment, including comments looks, gestures, and name-calling, is reported by 48% of 12-year-old children (McMaster et al., 1997). Although equal numbers of boys and girls report experiencing this form of bullying, more boys than girls acknowledge that they have sexually harassed other students.

What can we do to Reduce Bullying?

To be effective, bullying interventions must focus beyond the aggressive child and the victim to include peers, school staff, parents, and the broader community. Although there are substantial differences among schools, a comprehensive anti-bullying approach can reduce bullying (Olweus, 1991; Pepler et al., 1996). The central feature of the intervention is a clearly stated code of behaviour with consistent and supportive follow-through. It takes considerable time to bring about both attitudinal and behavioural changes among the staff, students, and parents in the school community. The following sections provide a brief overview of components of an antibullying program.

School Staff
Motivation and support from the school staff are essential. All school staff should be included in educational sessions. Staff, together with parent and student representatives, should be responsible for updating the code of behaviour and its consequences. Teachers' attitudes are reflected in their behaviour. When adults recognize the problem of bullying and their central role in reducing it, they supervise actively and intervene to stop bullying.

Parent meetings and newsletters should inform parents about the problems of bullying. Parents should talk to their children about bullying and be aware of signs of potential victimization. Communication between parents and the school is essential, as parents are often the first to know that their children are being victimized.

Peers play a critical role in bullying. Interventions must aim to change attitudes behaviours and norms around bullying for all children in a school. Under teachers' guidance, students can recognize the problem of bullying and their potential contributions. With teachers' support, they can develop strategies for intervening themselves or seeking adult assistance to stop bullying. Promoting attitudes in the peer group which support empathy for the victim and condemn aggression will reduce bullying.

Bullies and Victims
Children involved as bullies or victims require individual attention. Talks with bullies should emphasize that bullying is not acceptable and point out the consequences established in the code of behaviour. If a group of children is involved in bullying, the bully and bystanders are brought to task. Group interventions specific to bullying have been developed in England and Scandinavia (Maines and Robinson, 1992; Pikas, 1989). Talks with victims encourage them to speak up and confirm the school's intention to ensure that they are protected from further harassment. Talks with parents inform them of their children's difficulties and enlist their cooperation in disciplining bullying behaviour and/or monitoring for further occurrences of bullying or victimization.


This review is not a comprehensive description of all factors related to bullying and victimization, but it does attempt to capture those most frequently addressed in the literature. Children involved in bullying, whether as bullies or victims, may have negative attitudes, poor social skills and emotional difficulties which begin at home. These problems are transferred to the school and peer contexts, where they may be reinforced. The development of antisocial behavior problems depends on the interaction of individual characteristics and exposure to risk factors at critical developmental periods. Some factors within the child (e.g., leadership, intelligence resilience) or within the social system (e.g., a supportive and empathetic adult) can protect children from negative experiences. The problems of bullying and victimization are extremely complex. Consequently, interventions for these problems are also complex and should extend to all those involved: bullies, victims, peers, school staff, parents, and the broader community.

This fact sheet was developed by the National Crime Prevention Council in cooperation with Debra J. Pepler and Jennifer Connolly of the LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence and Conflict Resolution and Department of Psychology, York University, and Wendy M. Craig of the Department of Psychology, Queen's University.