Dissecting Bullying and Attacking It at the Root

Thomas Ray, MA, NBCT – Senior Director of Educational Programming


Like any pressing social concern, there is no quick fix to eliminating bullying in our schools and communities.  However, understanding the structure of what bullying is may be helpful as we individually seek to undermine bullying behavior and pull it out by its roots.

So what exactly is bullying?  The answer comes in a three-part definition:

  • Purposefully mean and hurtful behavior
  • Repeated behavior (or has the potential to be repeated, such as cyberbullying)
  • An existing or perceived power imbalance (one person has a hard time defending himself or herself)

At the root of bullying behavior is the imbalance of power which may manifest itself in a number of ways.  Common power imbalances lie in physical size or strength and social prowess.  Undermining the power imbalance is one effective way to prevent bullying from occurring.  Following are three approaches that can help put bullying off balance:

Voice – Research indicates that as many as nine out of ten young people disapprove of bullying.  However, many do not voice their disapproval for fear of retribution, hurting their reputation, or gaining no positive results.  Unfortunately, silence communicates approval of the bullying behavior to the perpetrator and unintentionally perpetuates the bullying. 

For many young people, exercising their voices does not come naturally (though parents may think otherwise).  Adults can help by creating opportunities for young people to practice voicing their disapproval of bullying.  Repeated practice and role play develops the confidence and word choice that allows young people to skillfully voice their position on bullying.

Numbers – There is power in numbers, and that power can tip the power imbalance in the other direction.  Encouraging young people to stand together with their peers and with adults to use their voices against bullying can quickly change the power dynamic in a bullying situation.  Potentially, a group of friends could agree that when they see bullying occurring they will all give voice to their disapproval with something as simple as, “Bullying is not ok.  You cannot treat him/her like that.”  If nine out of the ten who disapprove all use their voices, the bullying would end.

Norming – Creating a culture that clearly communicates that bullying is unacceptable is important.  The prevalence of mean and hurtful behavior on many popular shows among young people sets the norm that bullying behavior is expected to be a regular occurrence.  That acceptance leads to the false narratives of “kids will be kids” or “rite of passage.”  Families, schools, and communities can re-norm through conversations about bullying and identifying that it is unacceptable. 

Training young people to use their voices and develop positive coping skills coupled with campaigns and events that promote acceptance of differences will help develop a norm of treating one another with respect.

Interested in bringing this topic to your classroom?  The Poe Center offers Bullying Prevention programs for pre-school – 8th grades.  Schedule a program on line or call 919-231-4006.

Featured Program: Friend Power

45 minutes – 2nd – 3rd grade

Seymour Poe visits 2nd and 3rd graders as they build a friend and identify behaviors that are helpful or hurtful to a friendship.  Participants will use their emotion detectors and write a story to help Seymour deal with being bullied.
Photo of a girl holdiong a sign saying "I am a buddhy, not a bully."
Kids attending PoeFest 2016 committed to being a buddy, not a bully.