School Bullying is Nothing New, But Psychologists Identify New Ways to Prevent It

BullySystematic international research has shown school bullying to be a frequent and serious public health problem. But psychologists are using this research to develop bullying prevention programs that are being implemented in schools around the world.


Bullying at school is an age-old problem and until recently, many took the "children will be children" attitude toward the problem. However, school violence cases - including the Columbine school shooting tragedy - highlight the serious and sometime deadly consequences of bullying behavior. In response, educators and politicians are turning to psychologists such as Dan Olweus, PhD, of Norway, recognized as a pioneer and "founding father" of research on bullying and victimization.

Olweus defines school bullying in a general way as "repeated negative, ill-intentioned behavior by one or more students directed against a student who has difficulty defending himself or herself. Most bullying occurs without any apparent provocation on the part of the student who is exposed."

In his 1993 book, Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do, Dr. Olweus identifies characteristics of students who are most likely to be bullies and those that are most likely to be victims of bullying. Bullies tend to exhibit the following characteristics:

  • They have a strong need to dominate and subdue other students and to get their own way

  • Are impulsive and are easily angered

  • Are often defiant and aggressive toward adults, including parents and teachers

  • Show little empathy toward students who are victimized

  • If they are boys, they are physically stronger than boys in general

The typical passive or submissive victims, according to Olweus' research, generally have some of the following characteristics:

  • Are cautious, sensitive, quiet, withdrawn and shy

  • Are often anxious, insecure, unhappy and have low self-esteem

  • Are depressed and engage in suicidal ideation much more often than their peers

  • Often do not have a single good friend and relate better to adults than to peers

  • If they are boys, they may be physically weaker than their peers

These characteristics are likely to be both a partial cause and a consequence of the bullying. There is also another, much smaller group of victims, called provocative victims or bully-victims, with partly different characteristics, including frequent reading and writing problems and ADHD characteristics. The behavior of the bully-victims tends to elicit negative reactions from many students in the classroom, and the teacher often dislikes them also.

Bullies and victims naturally occupy key positions in the configuration of bully/victim problems in a classroom, but other students also play important roles. The "Bullying Circle" shows the various ways in which most students in a classroom with bully/victim problems are involved in or affected by them. Certain group mechanisms such as social contagion and diffusion of responsibility have also been identified as facilitating factors when several students take part in the bullying.

Psychological research has debunked several myths associated with bullying, including one that states bullies are usually the most unpopular students in school. A 2000 study by psychologist Philip Rodkin, PhD, and colleagues involving fourth-through-sixth-grade boys found that highly aggressive boys may be among the most popular and socially connected children in elementary classrooms, as viewed by their fellow students and even their teachers. Another myth is that the tough and aggressive bullies are basically anxious and insecure individuals who use bullying as a means of compensating for poor self-esteem. Using a number of different methods including projective tests and stress hormones, Olweus concludes that there is no support for such a view. Most bullies had average or better than average self-esteem.

How common is bullying? A 2001 study by psychologist Tonja Nansel, PhD, and colleagues involving more than 15,000 U.S. students in grades six through 10 found that 17 percent of students reported having been bullied "sometimes" or more often during the school year. Approximately 19 percent said they bullied others "sometimes" or more often and six percent reported both bullying others and being a victim of bullying.

There are clearly more boys than girls who bully others, and a relatively large percentage of girls - some 50 % - report that they are mainly bullied by boys. Although bullying is a greater problem among boys, there occurs a good deal of bullying among girls as well. Bullying with physical means is less common among girls who typically use more subtle and indirect ways of harassment such as excluding someone from the group, spreading of rumors, and manipulation of friendship relations. Such forms of bullying can certainly be as harmful and distressing as more direct and open forms of attacks.


Research by the Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education involving 37 school shootings, including Columbine, finds that about two-thirds of student shooters felt bullied, harassed, threatened or injured by others. Most school bullying cases do not lead to school shootings, but bullying is a serious and more common problem than previously recognized that can leave emotional wounds long after the physical wounds have healed.

Practical Application

Dr. Olweus's research has led to the development of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, a comprehensive, multilevel, school-wide program designed to reduce and prevent bullying among students in elementary, middle, and junior high schools. As part of a governmental initiative, the program is offered to all of Norway's public schools. A growing number of schools in the U.S. now use the program, which was identified by the University of Colorado's Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence as one of eleven Blueprint or Model Programs for Violence Prevention. Six large-scale evaluations of the program over a period of more than 20 years have yielded quite positive results, including the following:

  • Substantial reductions - typically in the 30-50 percent range - in the frequency with which students report being bullied and bullying others; similar reductions have been obtained with peer ratings

  • Significant reductions in students' reports of general antisocial behavior such as vandalism, theft, drunkenness, and truancy

  • Significant improvements in the "social climate" of the class, as reflected in students' reports of improved order and discipline, more positive social relationships, and a more positive attitude toward schoolwork and school

  • Improvements in students' satisfaction with school life.

Partial replications of the program in England and the United States have also yielded positive, though somewhat weaker results.

The intervention program is built on four key principles. These principles involve creating a school - and ideally, also a home - environment characterized by: (1) warmth, positive interest, and involvement from adults; (2) firm limits on unacceptable behavior; (3) consistent application of non-punitive, non-physical sanctions for unacceptable behavior and violation of rules, and, (4), adults who act as authorities and positive role models. The program works both at the school, the classroom and the individual levels, and important goals are to change the "opportunity and reward structures" for bullying behavior, resulting in fewer opportunities and rewards for bullying.

The research of Olweus, along with that of other psychologists such as Susan Limber, Ph.D., of Clemson University, is also being used as part of a bullying prevention campaign launched in 2004 by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, "Take A Stand. Lend A Hand. Stop Bullying Now!". The campaign also features television and radio public service announcements.

Various other bullying prevention efforts are described in a book edited by three important contributors to the field, psychologists Peter Smith, PhD (UK), Debra Pepler, PhD (Canada), and Kenneth Rigby, PhD (Australia): School Bullying: How successful can interventions be? (2004).

Cited Research

Olweus, D. (1978). Aggression in the schools: Bullies and whipping boys. Washington, D.C.: Hemisphere (Wiley).

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

Olweus, D. (2001). Olweus' core program against bullying and antisocial behavior: A teacher handbook. HEMIL-senteret, Universitetet i Bergen, N-5015 Bergen, Norway.

Olweus, D. (2002) A profile of bullying at school. Educational Leadership, Vol.60, pp. 12-17.

Olweus, D. (2004). Bullying at school: Prevalence estimation, a useful evaluation design, and a new national initiative in Norway. Association for Child Psychology and Psychiatry Occasional Papers. No. 23, pp. 5-17.

Olweus, D., & Limber, S. (1999). Blueprints for violence prevention: Bullying Prevention Program. Institute of Behavioral Science, University of Colorado, Boulder.

Solberg, M. & Olweus, D. (2003) Prevalence estimation of school bullying with the Olweus Bully/Victim Questionnaire. Aggressive Behavior. Vol 29. pp. 239-268.

Juvonen, J. & Graham, S. (Eds.) (2001). Peer harassment in school. New York: Guilford Publications.

Nansel, T. R., Overpeck, M., Pilla, R. S., Ruan, W. J., Simons-Morton, B., & Scheidt, P. (2001). Bullying behaviors among U.S. youth: Prevalence and association with psychosocial adjustment. Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 285, pp. 2094-2100.

Rodkin, P. C., Farmer, T. W., Pearl, R. & Van Acker, R. (2000). Heterogeneity of popular boys: Antisocial and prosocial configurations. Developmental Psychology, Vol. 36, No. 1., pp. 14-24.

Smith, P.K., Pepler, D., & Rigby, K. (Eds.) (2004). Bullying in schools: How successful can interventions be? Cambridge University Press.

APA Monitor on Psychology article: New ways to stop bullying

Olweus Bullying Prevention Program Web site 
E-mail Olweus Bullying Prevention Program

American Psychological Association, October 29, 2004