Is It Bullying or Not? How to Make Sure Your School Community Understands the Difference

Stop bullying in its tracks.

student with head down on desk and other students laughing in background - difference between meanness and bullying

Conflict between students is inevitable, but it’s not always easy for teachers to identify when kids are crossing the line. Is it just meanness or rudeness? Or is it bullying? Certainly, we need to teach students to be kind to each other, no matter the situation. But it’s still important for everyone at your school to have a clear understanding of the difference between meanness and bullying. This knowledge helps staff members stop bullying in its tracks and guides students to find appropriate solutions to conflict. 

What’s the difference between meanness and bullying?

Sometimes kids say or do things that inadvertently hurt one another, like saying, “It’s not fun to play tag with you. You’re too slow!” But if it’s not a recurring issue, then this is often just rude behavior that results from thoughtlessness or bad manners. Other times (we hate to say it), kids can really be mean on purpose. Their behavior very much intends to hurt or belittle someone, such as saying, “I don’t want to be in the same group as Kylie. She’s so obnoxious!” 

Bullying is when someone repeatedly and purposefully says or does mean or hurtful things to a person who has a hard time defending themselves. Different than ordinary conflict, bullying has three distinguishing characteristics:

  1. Bullying is an intentional, negative act.
  2. Usually bullying involves a pattern of behavior repeated over time.
  3. Bullying involves an imbalance of power or strength.

How often does bullying happen in American schools?

One study, conducted by the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (OBPP) on behalf of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, presents sobering statistics about bullying at the upper elementary level. Out of 6,500 fourth through sixth graders in rural South Carolina, OBPP researchers found that 23 percent had been bullied “several times” or more within a school term. A nationwide study of 15,000 sixth through tenth graders, presented in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showed that 17 percent of students reported having been bullied “sometimes” or more often during the school term, and 8 percent had been bullied at least once a week. 

The bottom line: Bullying is a significant problem that affects large numbers of students and takes a tremendous toll, emotionally and sometimes physically, on the students who are bullied.

How can school staff members identify the many faces of bullying?

Many of us are familiar with the classic playground bully who pushes kids around, hogs the ball, and keeps other kids off the playground equipment. Or the bully who talks behind others’ backs, excludes people, and plays emotional ping-pong with their classmates’ feelings. But according to OBPP, bullying can have many faces. In fact, they have identified nine distinct types of bullying:

  • Verbal bullying
  • Physical bullying 
  • Being socially excluded or isolated 
  • Being bullied through lies and false rumors 
  • Having money or other things taken or damaged 
  • Being threatened or forced to do things 
  • Racial bullying
  • Sexual bullying 
  • Cyberbullying

How can you create a strong anti-bullying culture in your school?

OBPP recommends establishing these four anti-bullying rules as part of your school’s culture: 

  1. At our school, we will not bully others. 
  2. We will try to help students who are bullied. 
  3. And we will try to include students who are left out. 
  4. If we know that somebody is being bullied, we will tell an adult at school and an adult at home.

What should school staff members do when bullying happens? 

Step 1: Stop the bullying. First and foremost, intervene directly and separate the students. 

Step 2: Support the student who has been bullied. Focus first on the student who has been bullied. Make sure they are okay and get them to a safe place. 

Step 3: Address the student who was bullying. Name the bullying behavior: “Joe, this is the third time I’ve seen you push Andy out of the way.” Refer to the anti-bullying rules and remind the student of the expectations. 

Step 4: Empower bystanders. Show appreciation for students who intervened or spoke up for the student who was bullied. 

Step 5: Impose consequences for the student who bullied. Whenever possible, immediate and appropriate consequences are the best way to deal with bullying behavior. Put the student in a time out, send them to the office, or ask them to follow your community’s conflict resolution process. Make sure to document the incident, inform school leaders, and, if advised, parents. 

Step 6: Check back in with the bullied student. Take steps to make sure the bullied student is protected from future bullying. Affirm the positive steps they took (told a teacher, moved to a different location) and talk through strategies for preventing the situation in the future. If the student who was bullied played a role in provoking the bully, talk about ways they can prevent that in the future. 

What’s the difference between meanness and bullying? Test your knowledge. 

Conflict may be an inevitable part of group dynamics, but bullying does not have to be. Knowing what to look for and learning strategies to handle bullying are crucial for every staff member to master in order to create a positive school culture. Read these scenarios and see if you can determine the difference between meanness and bullying.  

Scenario 1

James tells Ricardo he can’t play four square because he is the worst player in the whole third grade.

Meanness. James’ words are definitely intended to hurt Ricardo, but it is a one-off situation, and nobody else is pulled into the conflict. 

Scenario 2

Janie is walking down the hall when a kid she has never met shoves her into a locker. As he walks on, he turns back to shake his fist at her and give her a dirty look. Janie finds out from friends that this kid has been doing the same thing to lots of other kids since school started.  

Bullying. The kid is acting like a bully. He is intentionally trying to intimidate Janie with his power, and even though he doesn’t pick on the same kid each time, his behavior is part of a pattern. 

Scenario 3

Rena looks up to her big brother and wants to be just like him. She wears his hand-me-downs to school and even cuts her hair short just like him. Jenny convinces the other kids in the class to repeatedly ask Rena “are you a boy or girl?” throughout the day. 

Bullying. Jenny is making fun of Rena with the intention to cause her harm. In addition, she is encouraging others to join in. Taunting based on gender identity is particularly harmful to children and should be taken seriously.

Scenario 4

Morgan and Cory have been best friends since grade school, but for the past week they’ve been in an argument. Morgan has been sitting with a new group at lunch instead of at their regular table. Cory is hurt.

Meanness. Morgan knows that excluding Cory will hurt her feelings. However, she doesn’t get anyone else involved in their conflict, and there is no imbalance of power between them.  

Scenario 5

John finds out that Dan has joined the video game club. John tells Dan that everyone will think Dan’s a total geek and no one will want to hang out with him anymore. After school, John convinces the other boys in their group to leave without Dan. As they walk away, the boys laugh and call him a “gamer geek.” 

Bullying. John has created an unfair balance of power by getting the other boys to gang up on Dan. He uses the words “everyone” and “no one” to threaten Dan about being excluded.   

Safety is, and should be, the number-one priority for every school. Every school staff member, both inside and outside of the classroom, can play a critical role in creating a school environment that does not tolerate bullying. The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (OBPP) effectively reduces all forms of bullying. Find out more about this whole-school program to help make your school a safer, more positive place for students to learn and develop.

I Want to Stop Bullying at My School

Posted by Elizabeth Mulvahill

Elizabeth Mulvahill is a passionate teacher, writer and mom who loves learning new things, traveling the globe and everything Zen.

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