Updated: Mar 9, 2020
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” -Margaret Mead
School Social Workers play a vital role in bullying prevention and intervention. Among the myriad of tasks we perform on a daily basis, we, as School Social Workers, provide support to the targets of bullying behaviors, teach pro-social skills to students who engage in misbehavior, field phone calls from parents of students who are the targets of bullying behaviors and parents of students who engage in bullying behaviors, and offer support and guidance to students and staff who witness bullying and want to “do something” about it. We are also called upon to provide leadership to teams of colleagues who are charged with addressing the overall culture and climate of our schools.
Interventions directly with students involved in bullying situations may take priority within the school day. It is within our work with the leadership teams comprised of teacher, administrator, school counselor, para-educator, and school social worker colleagues, however, that the work of bullying prevention and intervention has the greatest impact as we work to improve the culture and climate of our buildings and make bullying behavior unacceptable.
What is bullying?
The range of behaviors that get called bullying in conversations and the popular press range from mild teasing to physical and sexual assault. Thus, the first step in addressing bullying prevention and intervention is having a common definition.
Dan Olweus, one of the original scholars to conduct research in the bullying prevention field, says, “A student is being bullied or victimized when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time to negative actions on the part of one or more other students” (Olweus, 1993). Dan goes on to describe negative actions as, “when someone intentionally inflicts, or attempts to inflict, injury or discomfort upon another” (Olweus, 1993) and operationalizes those actions to include, verbal (name-calling, teasing, threatening, taunting, etc.), physical (hitting, kicking, pinching, restraining, etc.), and other (making faces, dirty gestures, purposefully excluding) aggressive acts. He stresses the term bullying should not be used to describe quarrels or fights between two students of approximately the same psychological or physical strength. Bullying occurs when there is, “an asymmetric power relationship” (Olweus, 1993), commonly referred to as an imbalance in strength or power. Dan also notes in a bullying situation the target of the negative actions is somewhat helpless and/or has a hard time defending himself/herself.
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control 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. Bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted youth including physical, psychological, social, or educational harm” (CDC, 2018). Other scholars and authors provide similar definitions. Most definitions contain three key elements: an intentional action, an imbalance of power, and an intent to create discomfort or harm. All 50 states within the United States, the District of Columbia, and U.S. Territories have different methods of addressing bullying within school settings. More information about specific laws and sample policies is available on the stopbullying.org website https://www.stopbullying.gov/sites/default/files/StopBullying-Law-Policies-Regulations.pdf.
Distinguishing between “Bullying” and “Bully”
Bullying is a behavior or action. When engaged in bullying prevention, School Social Workers play a vital role in maintaining this focus. We, as school social workers must educate our colleagues and students about the difference between bullying (a verb) behaviors and the person, often called bully (a noun) who engages in the behavior. Our prevention and intervention actions must target bullying behaviors (the verb). If we lose the focus, that is, if we engage in “bully prevention” wherein we fixate on punishing students who engage in bullying behaviors, we risk modeling bullying behaviors (exclusion, name calling, etc.) by ostracizing a student.
Well-meaning helping professionals sometimes engage in actions that are not best practices in bullying prevention. School Social Workers advocate for best practices and help educate the general public in those practices. Catherine Bradshaw, Professor and the Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and adjunct faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, identifies five “misdirections in bullying prevention.” These misdirections include, zero tolerance policies, interventions using peer mediation and/or conflict resolution, group treatment for students who engage in bullying behaviors, simplifying the relationship between students who are the targets of bullying and suicide, and relying on simple, short solutions to bullying. Peer mediation and conflict resolution are essential tools and can and should be a part of the broad range of strategies used in school, however, because bullying includes a power imbalance, peer mediation should not be used in bullying situations. Conflict resolution implies both parties involved share responsibility for the problem, again, this is not an appropriate response to bullying because the target of bullying behaviors has NO responsibility for the bullying behavior. Additional insight and descriptions of the misdirections are available on this Catherine Bradshaw video.
If it’s mean, intervene
The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, designed by Dan Olweus, teaches an on-the-spot sequence for intervening when bullying behaviors are observed. The steps include: stopping the bullying behavior, supporting the student who was bullied, addressing the student who engaged in bullying behavior, involving bystanders and ensuring the student who was bullied is protected in the future. What is a School Social Worker supposed to do when they hear someone being verbally put down and they don’t know if it a one-time occurrence or a repeated behavior? Is it bullying? Is there an imbalance of power? As Emily Bazelon notes in her book Sticks and Stones, “If it’s mean, intervene” (Bazelon, page 214).
When stopping the bullying behavior, stand between the person engaged in bullying behavior and the person targeted by the bullying behavior if it is safe to do so. Breaking any eye contact between the people involved is helpful, however this is not the time to discuss or sort out any incidents that occurred prior to the bullying. Discussions and fact-finding occur during the investigation, not as part of the on-the-spot intervention.
When supporting the student(s) who has/have been bullied, do so in a way that allows for “saving face.” Resist the temptation to ask a questions such as “Are you ok?” Instead, make a statement about your school rules or expectations and how students should treat one another. If it is culturally appropriate, make at least minimal eye contact – enough to gauge emotions. Do not ask the bullied students to tell what happened, save those questions for a follow-up meeting when one on one conversations can occur. Always offer support to the student targeted by the misbehavior prior to speaking with the student who said or did the misbehavior.
When addressing the student(s) who engaged in bullying behavior, name the behavior witnessed (“I saw you ___” or “I heard you say ___”) and refer to the school rules and/or expectations for how students treat one another. Use a matter of fact tone to let students know the behaviors are not okay and why. Don’t accuse; simply state the facts. Do not engage in a discussion or argue about the facts. Remember that students will have time to tell what happened during the investigation.
Any additional students in the area are bystanders. Empower them with appreciation for their actions or information about how to act in the future, using specific comments about what they did that was helpful. Do not ask for an explanation of what happened or reprimand if the bystanders did not get involved. Any intervention on the spot is risky and not all students know how to act in a helpful manner or are comfortable speaking up in the heat of the moment.
Finally, take steps to make sure the student who was bullied will be protected from future bullying. Plan a follow-up meeting with the student who was bullied and make sure they know how and where to report any future bullying.
Investigation will determine if a behavior is a single act or a repeated behavior and whether an imbalance of power exits between the students involved. When students are engaged with one another and mean/aggressive behaviors are involved, stopping the behavior is paramount. School Social Workers need to know and follow the school’s policy regarding bullying intervention and reporting. Reports of bullying must be taken seriously and supervision increased in areas of the school where bullying behaviors happen.
School Social Workers are often called on to work individually with students who are the targets of bullying and with students who engage in bullying behaviors. We help to build resiliency skills with students who are the targets of bullying and empathy skills with students who engage in bullying behaviors. Stan Davis, author of “Schools Where Everyone Belongs” reminds us, “While attention is most often directed at the experiences and traits of aggressors and victims, the majority of students (75 - 80%) are bystanders” (Davis, p195).
Dan Olweus identifies 8 roles in the Bullying Circle. Along with the student who is bullied, and the student who bullies, Dr. Olweus describes the Follower, Supporter, Passive Supporter, Disengaged On-looker, Possible Defender, and Defender. These bystander roles can be thought of as falling on a continuum.
Students who are followers do not start the bullying but do take an active part. They may engage in the same behavior as the student who starts the bullying (name calling, excluding, tripping, etc.) and likely encourage and/or empower the student who bullies to continue their negative behavior. Students who are supporters of the student who bullies do not take an active part in the bullying. They encourage the student who bullies to continue the negative behavior, letting him or her know they like what is happening. Passive supporters, on the other hand, do not take an active role in the bullying, but do support the bullying behavior. They may laugh along at the expense of the targeted student, pass on rumors and/or let other people know what happened sharing the gossip. They are less likely to openly support the student who starts the bullying behavior or the followers.
A disengaged on-looker may see or hear the bullying behavior, but they do not participate. They are likely to think or say, “This is none of my business” and may even walk away without saying anything. Students in the possible defender role believe they should do something to help, but either don’t act or don’t know what to do. They dislike the bullying behavior and want it to stop. Students who are defenders help or try to help the target of the bullying. They may say something to the targeted student when the bullying is happening or may seek the targeted student out at a later time to offer support.
School Social Workers can take a lead role in reminding everyone within the school about the wide spectrum of bystander actions available to people who witness or hear about someone being bullied. Speaking up in the midst of a bullying situation takes a significant amount of courage and skill. Students who invite the target of bullying behaviors to sit with them at lunch or hang out with them help to create a positive culture in schools and remind targets they are not alone. Students who refuse to pass on gossip or like or share a mean post on social media are being active, positive bystanders.
School Social Workers can teach positive bystander actions. We may start with a mini-lesson or small group session, then model positive bystander behaviors. We need to offer students opportunities for guided practice of newly introduced bystander actions and provide feedback when we see those new skills being implemented in classrooms, hallways and lunchrooms.
Effective bullying prevention and intervention takes a team approach. School Social Workers are vital members of that team. Working together with students and school staff, they are among the groups of thoughtful, committed citizens who change the world.
Prepared by Dawn M. Jaeger for School Social Worker Association of America, November 2019.
Bazelon, Emily, “Sticks and Stones Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy,” New York: Random House, 2013
Davis, Stan, “Schools Where Everyone Belongs,”
Center for Disease Control, 2018 CDC Bullying Fact Sheet
Olweus, Dan, “Bullying At School,” Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1993.