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Bullying in School: Tools to prevent an age-old issue

October 1, 2021
Author: Lara Smith
In middle school, my bully called my house every day after school and pretended to be a friend saying she did not like me anymore. At school, she would threaten to tell everyone something awful and untrue if I did not give her my lunch. Teachers told me to ignore her. My mom got a phone with caller ID so we could screen the calls.

And that was that.

What is Bullying?

Now we know that bullying can be harmful to both physical and mental health. Now parents and teachers are taking bullying seriously.

Bullying can be overt and visible, like when an 8th grader purposefully shoves a 6th grader on his way through the locker room every day. It can be subtle, like when a group of 10th graders exclude someone who used to be their friend by ignoring her in the halls. And, it can go viral when embarrassing images are shared on social networks or via text.

The CDC defines bullying as “any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths, who are not siblings or current dating partners, that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance, and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.”

Common types of bullying include:

Physical – hitting, kicking, tripping
Verbal – name calling and teasing
Social – rumors, exclusion, negative comments
Cyberbullying – text, social media, online gaming, chat rooms, or other online platforms


In 2020, as more than 56 million US students moved to some form of distance learning, young people are now exposed to even more cyberbullying, which includes sharing negative, harmful, false, or private information about someone else.

In the remote learning realm, cyberbullies are doing things like taking screenshots of classmates without their knowledge and circulating them on social media, or filling private classroom chat boards with name-calling and rumors.

Ways to Prevent Bullying:


The reasons young people bully are vast and varied. Bullying incidences can be due to a power struggle, response to trauma, peer pressure, boredom, or more. While we cannot always understand or control the causes, there are steps teachers and youth workers can take to mitigate their impact on our students and prevent bullying at school and prevent cyberbullying:

1. Come to an Agreement:
Using tools like Codes of Conduct, Student Bills of Rights, Mission Statements, and Group Agreements helps all students know what is expected of them, and how they can seek help if needed. When agreements of some sort are in place, students and teachers are on the same page about expectations and can move freely within that understanding. These tools transfer from the brick and mortar classroom to the virtual one easily, and can move between the two.

Group Agreements is a simple tool that can be very powerful. One simple way to create group agreements is to give all your students one index card and ask them to write down something they want everyone to agree to in the classroom (such as “use appropriate language” or “assume best intentions”). Suggestions should be positive (“be respectful” rather than “don’t be rude”). At a break, compile all the suggestions on a poster. When the group reconvenes, ask if everyone agrees and if there is anything missing. Once the group is happy with the list, ask each student, teacher, and classroom aid to sign the poster and post it in the classroom. Refer back to it when agreements are broken.

Teachers can add to the list too! My favorite agreement has always been “Assume Best Intentions.” It is such a simple idea, but for young people, can be a new concept.

2. Focus on the Good:
Creating a culture that focuses on the positive rather than the negative goes a long way in making young people feel seen, heard, and valued.

Asset-Based Learning allows students to make mistakes and not be ‘punished,’ knowing that their learning community will support them.

One model of Asset-Based Learning that helps to reduce bullying culture is the Youth Development Framework. The YD Framework outlines a hierarchy of supports and opportunities needed for young people to be successful:

1. Safety
2. Relationship Building
3. Skill Building
4. Youth Participation
5. Community Engagement

Youth cannot achieve any of these without having the one before…No engagement will happen without youth participation and voice, and no relationships will be established if students do not feel safe. It sounds so simple, but it is also very powerful. When these needs are being met, bullying behavior takes a back seat because everyone feels safe and connected.

Using the YD Framework, you can map out activities from the start of the school year or semester through the end, building upon each support and creating a community of leaders that care for each other. Starting with small, safe activities and building up to large, long-term group projects.

3. Assume the Best
A trauma informed education environment is one that works to understand the physiological, social, emotional, and academic impacts of trauma and adversity on its students. It assumes a young person’s behavior is due to their experience, and that sometimes those have negative impacts on them.

A big part of a trauma informed approach is creating and maintaining positive relationships with students; every interaction is a potential intervention.

Here are five things teachers can do to create a trauma-informed learning environment (from The Mid-Atlantic Comprehensive Center at WestEd):

1. Creating trusting, caring, and responsive relationships with students
2. Creating safe and predictable environments
3. Using inquiry to identify patterns of behavior and possible triggers in the classroom
4. Using positive behavior supports and social-emotional learning strategies
5. Engaging in their own self-care

Trauma informed education assumes every student has experienced trauma in their life that may be impacting their behavior today, whether we know about it or not. With this approach, all discipline, agreements, and policies are restorative rather than punitive. Trauma informed care always asks why someone is doing something, which helps students who may act out with bullying behavior get the support they need.

Putting It All Together

My bully never did stop. She made fun of me throughout middle school and high school. When I returned to my hometown years later and ran into her, she found a way to make me feel like my nervous 12 year old self. Hopefully, using these tools, no student will have to put up with bullies like that. They are not fool-proof. One size does not fit all. However, all of these approaches create a culture that can limit the power of the bully, create channels to deal with bullying, and make all students feel safe and supported. And, when it does happen, the learning community will be resilient and be able to repair, while supporting not only the bullied, but also the bully.

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