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September 1, 2011
Vol. 69
No. 1

What Students Say About Bullying

Young people who have been bullied tell how educators and peers can help.

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What advice should we give to students who are bullied? What should adults and concerned peers do to help? To get answers to these questions, we turned to the experts—students themselves.
We began the Youth Voice research project in response to a common problem we have both observed as we've worked in bullying prevention for the last 15 years: As teachers, counselors, and administrators strive to create emotionally safe and respectful school environments, they are often confronted with conflicting ideas about what to do. Many experts tell us that adults should intervene to stop mean behavior. Others say that we should coach young people to solve the problem themselves—tell the bully to stop, pretend that the mean behavior doesn't bother them, or make jokes about it. Some books tell us to encourage bystanders to speak up and confront the bullies; others advise us to encourage quiet acts of support instead. For every resource that advocates one approach, another advises the opposite.
To help schools choose from among the many options available, we searched for research that had asked large groups of bullied youth what actually worked best for them. When we did not find such research, we decided to do it ourselves.
The Youth Voice project surveyed more than 13,000 students in grades 5–12 during the 2009–10 academic year. Thirty-one schools around the United States worked with us to administer our online survey in classrooms. Almost all the students in the cooperating schools agreed to participate. Slightly fewer than 3,000 of these students said they had been hit, threatened, hurt emotionally, or stopped from having friends at least twice or more in the past month. We asked these frequently bullied students what helped them—and what didn't.

What I Tried, and How Well It Worked

  • Pretended it didn't bother me (73 percent).
  • Told a friend(s) (67 percent).
  • Told the person or people to stop (66 percent).
  • Walked away (66 percent).
  • Reminded myself that what they are doing is not my fault and that they are the ones who are doing something wrong (58 percent).
  • Told an adult at home (49 percent).
  • Did nothing (47 percent).
  • Made a joke about it (42 percent).
  • Told the person or people how I felt about what they were doing (38 percent).
  • Told an adult at school (32 percent).
  • Made plans to get back at them or fight them (27 percent).
  • Hit or fought them (20 percent).
We then asked the respondents who had used each of these strategies what happened next. Did things get better? Did things get worse? Did nothing change? The responses yielded several patterns that can guide educators as they advise victims of peer mistreatment.

Less Effective: Trying to Handle It Yourself

Young people told us that they were often unable to stop others' mean behavior toward them through their own actions. For example, telling the bully or bullies to stop only made things better for 22 percent of the respondents who tried it, and it actually made things worse for 32 percent. Telling the other person how they felt made things better for only 25 percent, and it made things worse for 32 percent. Pretending the bullying didn't bother them made things better for only 28 percent, and it made things worse for 22 percent.

Somewhat More Effective: Putting Responsibility Where It Belongs

One self-initiated action that was more likely to make things better, according to our survey respondents, was reminding themselves that the mistreatment was not their own fault. There were differences, however, by grade level. Generally speaking, this strategy was the most effective for high school students (making things better for 37 percent of those who tried it), followed by middle school students (making things better for 35 percent). It was least effective for 5th graders, making things better for only 25 percent of those who tried it. These data suggest that as their brains develop and mature, students are increasingly able to offset the pain of being mistreated with their reflective knowledge that they are not responsible for what others choose to do to them.

Most Effective: Seeking Help from Others

What tended to work best for mistreated youth was seeking support from friends and adults. Across all three grade levels (elementary, middle, and high school), students told us that reaching out for encouragement, advice, and protection were among the most successful strategies.
Only one-third of mistreated youth said that they had told an adult at school about what was happening to them. But among those who did, 38 percent said that this action had made things better, while 27 percent said things got worse. Telling an adult at home made things better for 37 percent of students and made things worse for 16 percent. Telling a friend (or friends) was helpful for 36 percent of victimized students and made things worse for 15 percent.
We also asked students an open-ended question about which strategy worked best for them. See "What Did You Do That Helped the Most?" for a sampling of their comments.

What Did You Do That Helped the Most?

"I either talked to a reliable friend about it or talked to a reliable adult."

"I told them to stop, but when they did not stop, I told my dad and he went to the school and talked to someone."

"I just forgot about it and told myself that I have great friends who do respect me, and I didn't listen to what other people thought of me."

"I ignored the person and laughed with my friends."

"I told a teacher. That teacher helped me a lot because I knew that the people that were bullying me did not care about me, but when I told my teacher I felt like she cared about me and that made me feel really good."

"When I told my mom and my teacher, it helped because they comforted me and I didn't listen to the bully."

How Can Adults Help?

We asked the youth in our survey what actions adults in their school had taken to help them deal with peer mistreatment and how well these actions had worked. Students told us that support, encouragement, and vigilance were most likely to lead to positive outcomes. When adults listened to them, maintained supervision, gave them advice and support, and checked in with them over time to make sure that they were safe, things more often got better. (See "What Did Adults at School Do That Helped You Most?" for selected comments.)
As expected, students reported that things often got worse when adults ignored what was going on, told them to stop tattling, told them to solve the problem themselves, or told them that if they acted differently this would not be happening to them. Bringing in a speaker or talking with the whole class or school about the misbehavior was also more likely to do harm than good.
  • Solicit student and staff input in developing rules, expectations, and consequences for specific misbehaviors. When students participate in developing a school's discipline system, they are more likely to follow it.
  • Build a schoolwide framework of nurturing, warm relationships. Imposing fair consequences within this positive context makes cooperation and learning more likely.
  • With student input, develop procedures for staff to follow when witnessing or hearing about specific negative student behaviors—which behaviors teachers should deal with themselves, which behaviors they should track so that they can refer students who do them habitually to administrators, and which behaviors they should refer to administrators immediately.
  • When possible, use smaller, consistent consequences instead of large consequences. The latter tend to lead to resentment and retaliation rather than acceptance of responsibility and behavior change.
  • Develop a process for dealing with more serious actions that includes progressive discipline steps, parent notification, and interventions to help the offending student learn more positive behaviors.
  • To make it easier for students to report bullying incidents to adults, make retaliation or threat of retaliation for "telling" a serious offense against the school community, just as witness tampering by adults is a felony in some states.
A useful parallel to schools' efforts to stop peer mistreatment is the public's effort to reduce the deaths and injuries caused by drinking and driving. A series of steps have worked. When manufacturers began installing air bags in cars, people whose cars were hit by drunk drivers were less likely to die or suffer serious injury. When young people have strong connections with adults at school and at home, they are more resilient and less likely to be hurt emotionally if someone calls them names, excludes them, or hits them. Hobbies, involvement in service to others, and strong connections with peers are all factors that make youth less likely to be hurt by bullying.
Well-distributed sobriety checkpoints and consistent consequences for drinking and driving reduce the number of people who drink and drive. Similarly, when we maintain and enforce clear schoolwide expectations about peer-to-peer behavior and support those expectations with small, consistent, fair consequences, we reduce negative actions. In both drinking and driving and peer mistreatment, actions can cause harm even if harm is not intended. Thus, it makes sense to base consequences on what the person did rather than on our subjective judgment of why the person did it.
Some adults who drink and drive (although not all) need help staying sober to be able to drive safely. Similarly, some young people who mistreat their peers need help developing social skills like empathy, self-control, and anger management.
In addition to these steps, we reduce the rate of drinking and driving when we find positive roles for other people who are concerned about safety. For example, the idea of being a designated driver empowers concerned friends to save lives without putting themselves at risk. This last point is relevant to the third question we explored in the Youth Voice survey: What actions by concerned peers are likely to be most helpful?

What Did Adults at School Do That Helped You Most?

"Just the fact that they were willing to listen and give their advice helped even though my issues were small."

"They told me that what the other person did was wrong. That helped my self-esteem."

"She checked in with me afterwards. It gave me a sense that 'this person's got my back'."

"They watched me…. The other people didn't go near me."

"He listened. I was able to come to my own conclusion by talking about it."

How Can Peers Help?

We asked frequently bullied young people about a wide range of peer actions. Respondents told us that peers who offered support and made themselves allies (spending time with the bullied students, listening to them, helping them get away from the bullies, giving them advice, and helping them tell an adult) were of more help than were peers who directly confronted the bullies. (See "What Did Your Peers Do That Helped You Most?" for a sampling of comments.)
Our survey responses indicate that when young people feel included by their peers, they are less likely to be hurt by bullying. This finding suggests that bystanders do not have to "stand up" to bullies to help; instead, small, quiet actions of support, such as calling the bullied student at home to encourage him or her, can also be effective. Thus, we should teach young people that when they become aware of peer mistreatment, there are many ways to initiate positive action.
About 9,000 quiet heroes in our survey group told us about ways they had helped their mistreated or excluded peers. We asked them what they did and what happened next. It's clear from their answers that they saw that their actions made a difference. Here are a few examples:When I was in class with someone who didn't have a lot of friends, I was partners with her even though I would rather have been partners with someone else. She looked happy that someone asked her to be partners.A friend was being picked on and I am not the bravest person in the world, so after the bully left I came up to my friend and said, "Are you OK? Is there anything I can do?" She said "Oh, it's OK. I don't let people being jerks put my life to a stop." We grabbed our bags and went to the buses, and we were just talking like nothing ever happened.Once there was this girl, and no one really liked her, and I felt really bad for her because she was sitting all alone. So I went over there and sat down with her, and we talked. When my friends saw me they came over and asked me what I was doing, and I told them I was hanging out with my new friend. After a few days of hanging out with her, I came out one day and there were a lot of new kids with her, so I was pretty pleased to see that. I guess knowing that I helped her get a lot of really cool friends made me feel good about myself.

What Did Your Peers Do That Helped You Most?

"They were there for me and helped me instead of ignoring me."

"They distracted me with talking about other things or going out to keep my mind off it."

"They listened to what I had to say and encouraged me that the people who were treating me that way were being immature."

"My best friends told me to keep my head up and be myself and not listen to what others said, and soon the situation would die down."

"They were always at my side to make sure I was OK."

"Having many students around at all times was the most helpful thing that happened."

"I felt safer when I wasn't alone."

Students Show Us the Way

We know that peer mistreatment can harm young peoples' sense of belonging, safety, and connection to school. We know that students who feel unsafe or alienated are less likely to learn.
Schools across the United States are responding to this knowledge by strengthening student-staff and student-student connections, developing students' social and emotional skills, supporting students who have been mistreated, and helping students who mistreat their peers change their behavior. All these approaches can be beneficial, but they will be most effective if carried out within the context of listening to students themselves. Young people who have experienced peer mistreatment firsthand can show us the way as we work to create safer, more respectful schools.
End Notes

1 More detailed results from the Youth Voice survey are available at www.youthvoiceproject.com.

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