Bullying has become a widespread problem in America’s schools and communities. While bullying takes on many forms, it commonly includes physical aggression, teasing, and harassment both in person and online. Regardless of its form, however, bullying threatens the quality of the school environment, can affect students’ academic and social lives, cause long lasting mental trauma, and, in extreme cases, lead to serious violence or self-harm.1
The Centers for Disease Control reports that at least 28 percent of students in grades 6-12 have been bullied, and an additional 30 percent admit they have been complicit in bullying others.
The effects of bullying can be severe and have impacts that reach into adulthood, including mental illness, decline in academic and social achievement, or in extreme cases, bullying can lead to suicide.2
It’s critical that counselors are prepared to recognize instances of bullying and harassment, and work together with teachers, administrators, and parents to create a school environment where these behaviors are not tolerated.
This is, of course, no easy task. Although bullying is by no means an inevitable part of the school experience, outside influences such as home life, the media, and social pressures can encourage negative behaviors.
In order to effectively combat bullying in schools, counselors must put forth the effort to inform parents and educators how to recognize the warning signs and lasting impacts of bullying, while simultaneously working with affected students to create a safe learning environment for everyone.
Recognizing the Risk Factors and Warning Signs
There are no set factors that put school children at risk of being bullied or for becoming bullies themselves. Bullying can happen in any environment, to any student, although in many cases LGBTQ, minority, and disabled students may be more likely to experience bullying than their peers.2
Although there are no set risk factors, the CDC notes that students who are perceived to be different from their peers, do not fit into the school’s social structure, or display symptoms of mental illness or behavioral problems are more likely to be bullied than their peers.2
Conversely, students who are more likely to bully others often show signs of aggression or lack of respect for authority, have problems at home, or view violence as a means for solving problems.2 Still, there are no stringent definitions for which students are more likely to be bullied than others. Therefore, it’s important that counselors are aware of the warning signs that might implicate that students are being negatively impacted by bullying. Some signs that indicate that students are the victim of bullying include:
- Unexplainable injuries or damage to personal items
- Faking illness, missing class more frequently, or truancy
- Sudden change in diet and sleep patterns
- Decline in classroom performance
- Noticeable decline in self-esteem3
Bullies, on the other hand might display qualities such as:
- Physical or verbal aggression
- Frequently fights with others
- Is disciplined at school more often
- Refuses to accept responsibility for their actions
- Are overly competitive or display anxieties about their reputation at school3
Studies indicate that students turn to a trusted adult in less than 40 percent of bullying incidents, which makes recognizing the warning signs even more crucial.4
How to Address Bullying as a School Counselor
As mental health professionals, counselors are keenly aware of how damaging bullying can be to the educational environment. School counselors play a unique role in the educational team, and their intervention is critical in preventing and responding to bullying, as well as helping affected students cope with the side effects. Though bullying prevention in schools must be a school-wide consideration, counselors provide the expertise necessary to plan school-wide bully prevention tactics. Those can include:
School counselors can inform their fellow educators, students, and parents about the nature of bullying, it’s prevalence and effect on the school environment, and inform potential strategies to both prevent and intervene when bullying occurs. These strategies can include establishing respectful standards of conduct for classroom interaction, deliberately outreaching students who are rejected by their peers, and modeling inclusive classroom environments.6
Bullying in adolescence is a warning sign that anti-social and inappropriate social behaviors may continue on into adulthood.5 To combat this, it’s important that students learn a core set of social and emotional skills, so they are later capable of handling challenges, as well as thrive in their social and learning environments. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) recommends that students learn five tiers of social and emotional skills which include: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. 6 Once learned, these skills will allow students to flourish socially and academically, calm themselves when provoked, initiate and maintain positive friendships, and resolve conflicts in a respectful manner.
School counselors can also work to develop new school policies that aide in creating a healthy and safe school environment for all students. These rules can provide a framework with clear guidance to inform students, staff, and family members what is and isn’t acceptable behavior, as well as defining clear remedial consequences for those who engage in inappropriate behaviors.
School counselors are often the first to notice and respond to bullying while children are at school. Many students who are victimized by bullies, or those who regularly bully others will need extended opportunities to practice appropriate social and emotional skills outside of the classroom. Those students may need additional therapeutic intervention outside school, which can include anger management or counseling. Counselors can help connect parents with relevant community based resources to further help students affected by bullying. Bullying has become a pervasive problem in America’s schools. As trained mental health professionals, school counselors are play an integral role in recognizing the risk factors that contribute to bullying, as well as organizing bullying prevention efforts at a school-wide level. For students who are interested in making a positive impact in America’s school system, helping students develop necessary social and emotional skills, and promote student health and safety, a Masters Degree in Counseling from Wake Forest University will empower tomorrow’s counselors to make a difference.