Bullying - to tackle it, you need to define it

Most teachers have different perspectives on what exactly constitutes bullying, so how can schools address it successfully, asks Ian Rivers

Ian Rivers

When it comes to bullying, one of the greatest challenges facing schools is defining what it is exactly. The chances are that each person reading this will have a slightly different perception of the term and will attribute it to situations that arise according to that perception alone. Hence, the term bullying can be inconsistently used, which ultimately undermines anti-bullying strategies within schools.

The problem of definition is not restricted to the classroom: on a greater scale, governments also have difficulty defining the term, even with the most knowledgeable experts on the subject at hand. And governments, like schools, can disagree, perpetuating the problem of definition.

For example, in 2011 I was invited to join a panel of experts seeking to formulate a definition of bullying to be used by the US federal government in its Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System. Our aim was not only to develop a definition that captured the various ways in which bullying (including cyber-bullying) manifests itself, but also to ensure that the definition we came up with was measurable.

Through our deliberations, two key issues arose. First, can a single incident be called bullying? Second, is it possible to identify and quantify the purported imbalance of power between perpetrator and victim that appears in so many other definitions?

Power balance

On the first point, there is a fine line between tackling bullying early on and blowing a one-off incident out of proportion. On the second point, where there is no imbalance of power, then in principle any antisocial or aggressive behaviour perpetrated by one student against another, even repeatedly, should not be labelled "bullying". And yet sometimes an imbalance of power is not readily evidenced by the physicality of the perpetrator; it can be more subtle and subjective, and fully understood only by the student being bullied.

Our final definition has yet to be published, but a short definition based upon our deliberations has appeared on US website www.stopbullying.gov. Here, bullying is described as: "Unwanted, aggressive behaviour among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behaviour is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumours, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose."

Compare this with the five-point definition employed by the UK Department for Education (DfE), first used by children's charity the NSPCC in 2002:

- "Intention to harm: bullying is deliberate, with the intention to cause harm. For example, friends teasing each other in a 'good-natured' way is not bullying, but a person teasing another with the intention to deliberately upset them is bullying."

- "Harmful outcome: one or more persons are hurt physically or emotionally."

- "Direct or indirect acts: bullying can involve direct aggression as well as indirect acts, such as spreading rumours."

- "Repetition: bullying involves repeated acts of aggression. An isolated aggressive act, such as a fight, is not bullying."

- "Unequal power: bullying involves the abuse of power by one or several persons who are (perceived as) more powerful, often due to their age, physical strength or psychological resilience."

Alternatively, the DfE has described bullying more succinctly as: "Behaviour by an individual or group, repeated over time, that intentionally hurts another individual or group either physically or emotionally."

Some subtle differences between these definitions and the US definition are worthy of consideration. For example, the US definition is from the perspective of the victim - "unwanted, aggressive behaviour" - whereas those used in the UK are from the perspective of the perpetrator - "intention to harm". And whereas the US definition includes isolated incidents that have the potential to be repeated, UK definitions infer that single incidents are not bullying.

Look to other countries and you will find further differences. Take, for example, the definition used by Professor Dan Olweus in his national study of Norwegian schoolchildren: "We say a young person is being bullied, or picked on, when another young person, or a group of young people, say nasty and unpleasant things to him or her. It is also bullying when a young person is hit, kicked or threatened, locked inside a room, sent nasty notes, when no one ever talks to them and things like that.

"These things can happen frequently and it is difficult for the young person being bullied to defend himself or herself. It is also bullying when a child or young person is teased repeatedly in a nasty way. But it is not bullying when two young people of about the same strength have the odd fight or quarrel."

Here, Olweus attempts to separate occasional incidents from more concerted campaigns of abuse.

So, how should we define bullying practically in a school if, even on a government level, with experts at hand, universal agreement cannot be reached? Schools have to work through the three key issues and agree for themselves the definition they will work to.

First, whose perspective do we take? In UK law, the perspective of the victim is often taken. For example, in the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, if an individual believes that they have been harassed and a reasonable person furnished with the same information also believes that the behaviour constitutes harassment, then, to all intents and purposes, it is harassment, regardless of the perpetrator's intentions. Thus, it seems appropriate to take the perspective of the victim for bullying.

However, a caveat should be added here. US educators acknowledge that in some cases, where a perpetrator has special educational needs, it is important to establish whether or not they understand that their behaviour was wrong. If they do not, any sanction should be revised accordingly and should include an element of social skills training.

Second, how do we classify and record single incidents? If we take a preventative approach, rather than waiting for a pattern of abuse to emerge, then addressing a single incident becomes an index of best practice. That does not mean, however, that a teacher may wish to describe single incidents as bullying.

Finally, how do we assess an imbalance of power? It is perhaps easier when there are clear differences in size or physical strength between perpetrator and victim. But much of the bullying that takes place occurs within classes and year groups and, as I noted earlier, imbalances of power may not be observable. Taking the perspective of the victim may be helpful here. Asking whether they felt able to stand up to the aggressor seems a useful marker of that imbalance.

Ultimately, a clear definition of bullying and a statement about how that definition is interpreted when judging students' behaviour are pivotal to any anti-bullying policy or intervention. It may be difficult, but if agreement can be reached on the three key areas noted here, then a workable definition can be formulated. It is just up to teachers to enforce it.

Ian Rivers is professor of human development at Brunel University, England, and a visiting professor in the Faculty of Health, Social Care and Education at Anglia Ruskin University


Olweus, D. (1993) Bullying at School: what we know and what we can do (Blackwell Publishing).

Smith, P.K. and Sharp, S. (1994) School Bullying: insights and perspectives (Routledge).

Protection from Harassment Act 1997. bit.ly

Harassment Act 1997

www.stop bullying.gov


Anti-bullying policy advice, bit.lyFiveTopTips


- A clear definition of bullying is needed for any anti-bullying strategy to be successful.

- However, on a micro-level in schools and on a macro-level in governments, agreement can be very difficult to reach.

- Remember three key areas when working on a definition: perspective, incidence rate and balance of power.

- Once they have reached an agreement, you must ensure that the definition is adhered to.

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Ian Rivers

Latest stories