What do the latest bullying rates tell us?

Bullying in schools is often considered an unfortunate, but somewhat unavoidable, part of childhood. As parents, we may look back at our time as students and recall when a friend, classmate, or we ourselves were bullied. Perhaps you have even supported your child as they have gone through their own experiences with bullying. News stories on traditional and social media platforms seem to suggest that bullying is getting worse in our schools.

The good news is that research released last month by my Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia colleague Tracy Waasdorp, PhD, MEd and her co-authors confirms that this is not the case. A 10 year study fourth through twelfth  grade students in Maryland schools revealed that rates of all forms of bullying (physical, relational, and cyber) decreased. This is incredibly encouraging, and is a true testament to the work of school administrations, bullying prevention experts, and most importantly you, as parents and caregivers, to create a culture in homes, schools, and communities where peer bullying is not acceptable.

While there is a lot to be proud of, it is also important to acknowledge that our work is not done. In the current study, 48 percent of students report that bullying is a problem and nearly 40 percent indicate they witness bullying behaviors.

So where do we go from here? Here are a few simple, but important steps you can take to ensure your child is protected from bullying:

  • Establish an open dialogue around bullying. We know that almost all kids (approximately 80 percent) witness bullying while at school. Their voices can make a difference. Tell your child to not passively watch if a classmate is being mistreated, but instead to find a trusted adult, comfort the victim, or if safe to try and stop the bullying behavior.
  • Look for warning signs of bullying. If your child starts demonstrating physical symptoms, like stomach aches, or expresses a desire to avoid school, it could be that he or she is having challenges with their peer relationships. If so, it is important to stay calm, be a good listener, and enlist support from the school.
  • Know the bullying prevention programming in your child’s school. After the tragic events at Columbine High School in 1999, many schools prioritized policies and programming to address bullying. Unfortunately, many programs were “one size fits all” and therefore did not demonstrate success. Now, schools have a better recognition for what makes a school bullying prevention program effective. Ask what type of bullying prevention programming is in place, how long it has been utilized by the school, whether it has evidence that it works, and what the impact on school climate has been.

Let your child know that directly participating in or witnessing bullying behaviors without helping is never ok, and ensure that messages of tolerance and empathy are reinforced at home. When students, school staff, administrators, and families work together, we can create a culture where peer bullying is not “the norm” and positive relationships and respect are prioritized.