The Bully Among Us

Bullying is rampant in schools, and it creates a toxic environment that hurts bystanders, bullies and victims.

It can be hard to recognize how prevalent bullying is. That’s because many people think that bullying is simply physical aggression. But the aggression can also be verbal or relational.

“The technical definition of bullying is a unidirectional, unprovoked abuse of power,” says Roberta Heydenberk, an adjunct professor in the College of Education’s teaching, learning and technology program. Roberta and her husband, Warren Heydenberk, an emeritus/adjunct professor at the college, have been studying bullying and conflict resolution for nearly 20 years.

They have found that bullying is astonishingly common: Nearly 30 percent of children have been bullied, and three-quarters have experienced attempted bullying. All this aggression takes a toll. Bullying decreases the subjective well-being, or happiness, of victims. These students have difficulty focusing and don’t feel a strong sense of attachment to school.

But the impact of bullying goes beyond the victims.

“Bullies don’t have a good future,” says Warren Heydenberk. “They have all the correlates of delinquency, alcohol abuse, suicide, a whole gamut of problems you don’t want to see.”

The Heydenberks’ most recent research shows that the people who benefit the most by reduced bullying are the people who witness the activity—the bystanders. This means that while roughly 30 percent of children are bullied, nearly everybody in the school suffers from its side effects.

“Bullying erodes the whole school-based community,” says Warren Heydenberk. “Kids get shut down; they don’t want to go to school. But bullying is like air pollution. If you can open the windows and clear it out, all the kids are better.”

The Heydenberks’ goal is to clear out that pollution. Roberta Heydenberk is the research director at the Peace Center, an organization in Langhorne, Pa., that promotes community peace and social justice through programs that help reduce violence and conflict in our schools.

The Peace Center runs a bullying prevention that uses interactive exercises to raise awareness of bullying, increase communication, build empathy and teach children to think before acting. The program is integrated into the school curriculum and facilitated by trained peace educators.

“We try to get children to step into the shoes of the other person,” says Barbara Simmons, the executive director of the Peace Center. “This work shows them how their words can hurt or lift other people.”

The Heydenberks’ research shows that comprehensive conflict resolution programs, like those run by the Peace Center, boost students’ academic achievement and moral reasoning.

These programs teach students skills like listening and stopping to think before acting. When these strategies are embedded in the curriculum and practiced throughout the day, students learn how to recognize, express and manage their emotions, and how to solve conflicts.

All of this creates a better learning environment and increases school attachment. And if students feel like they’re part of something enjoyable, they are more willing to go to school, and they perform better academically.

—By Emily Groff. Excerpted from the 2012 issue of Theory to Practice.