Bullying and School Climate

What is bullying?

Bullying is aggressive behavior that is intended to cause distress or harm, involves an imbalance of power or strength between the aggressor and the victim, and occurs repeatedly over time.1,2,3 Bullying may take many forms, including physical, verbal, relational and cyber.4

What is school climate?

School climate is the overall quality and character of school life, including teaching and learning practices, organizational structures, norms and values, and relationships.5

How are bullying and school climate related to children’s learning and development?

Research shows that bullying and school climate are linked to children’s academic achievement, learning and development. For example:

Children who are bullied:
  • Are more likely to avoid school6,7 and more likely to drop out of school.8
  • Have lower academic achievement, including lower achievement in math and reading.9
  • Have lower self-esteem and higher levels of anxiety, depression and loneliness.10,11
  • Are more likely to attempt suicide, both during childhood12,13 and later in life.14,15
Children who bully others:
  • Show higher levels of aggression and impulsivity.11,16
  • Have higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse.17
  • Engage in more delinquent and criminal behavior.3,16,18
Students in schools with positive climates:
  • Have better school attendance and study habits.19,20
  • Are more motivated and committed to succeed academically.20,21
  • Engage in more cooperative learning.22
  • Achieve higher grades, test scores, and subject mastery.20,22

Are some children targeted?

Bullying can occur for many reasons. Some children are more likely to be targeted, for example, based on disability,23 sexual orientation,24 gender identity,24 weight,25,26 race or religion. For instance:

  • A recent national survey of school climate found that more than 80 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth reported some form of bullying or harassment at school. Over 92 percent of LGBT youth surveyed reported hearing homophobic remarks from other students at school; more than half reported hearing homophobic comments from teachers or other school staff.24
  • Students with disabilities are subjected to more bullying, physical abuse, verbal abuse and social rejection than other students.23,27,28,29

What can be done to prevent bullying?

Research shows that bullying can be significantly reduced through comprehensive, school-wide programs designed to change group norms and improve school climate.2,4,16,30,31,32,33 Specifically, effective antibullying programs incorporate:

  • A schoolwide focus on increased supervision and the promotion of prosocial behavior.
  • Intensive, sustained training for students, teachers, school staff and community members.
  • Individualized intervention for students at heightened risk.16,33,34
  • The promotion of respect for individual differences and an overall norm of tolerance.5

APA recommendations

  • Include the following bills in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act:
  • The Academic Social and Emotional Learning Act (H.R. 2437) would allow flexible use of federal funds to train teachers and principals in practices with demonstrated effectiveness in improving student achievement and behavior through addressing the social and emotional development needs of students.
  • The Achievement through Prevention Act (S. 541) would expand the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports and early intervening services in schools to improve student academic achievement and reduce disciplinary problems in schools.
  • The Student Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 998/S. 555) prohibits discrimination against or exclusion of students in public schools based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • Reauthorize the Juvenile Accountability Block Grant Program, including support for research-based bullying prevention and intervention programs, at an annual level of at least $55 million.
  • Continue collaborative efforts across agencies (such as the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention) to help inform federal practice and encourage public engagement to prevent bullying and promote safe school environments.
  • Include questions on sexual orientation and gender identity in the core demographic set in the Youth Risk Behavioral Survey and other appropriate population-based studies and health surveys.
  • Improve coordination among federal research agencies that support research on the effects of school bullying on children, as well as developing school-side prevention programs and targeted interventions for ethnic minority and other underrepresented populations at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute of Mental Health and the Institute of Education Sciences.


1 Limber, S. (2002). Addressing Youth Bullying Behaviors. Paper presented at the American Medical Association’s Educational Forum on Adolescent Health, Washington, D.C.

2 Olweus, D. (1993a). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell.

3 Nansel, T.R., Overpeck, M., Pilla, R.S., Ruan, W.J., Simons-Morton, B.G., & Scheidt, P. (2001). Bullying behaviors among U.S. youth: Prevalence and association with psychosocial adjustment. Journal of the American Medical Association, 285, 2094-2100. doi:10.1001/jama.285.16.2094

4 Espelage, D.L., & Holt, M.K. (2012). Understanding and preventing bullying and sexual harassment in school. In K.R. Harris, S. Graham, & T. Urden (Eds.), APA Educational Psychology Handbook: Vol. 2. Individual Differences and Cultural and Contextual Factors (pp. 391-416). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

5 National School Climate Council. (2012). School climate. Retrieved from http://www.schoolclimate.org/climate/

6 Kochenderfer, B.J., & Ladd, G.W. (1996). Peer victimization: Cause or consequence of school maladjustment? Child Development, 67, 1305-1317. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.1996.tb01797.x

7 Olweus, D. (1992). Bullying among schoolchildren: Intervention and prevention. In R.D. Meters, R.J. McMahon, & V.L. Quinsey (Eds.), Aggression and violence throughout the life span (pp. 100-125). London: Sage.

8 Fried, S., & Fried, P. (1996). Bullies and victims: Helping your child through the schoolyard battlefield. New York: M. Evans.

9 Glew, G.M., Fan, M., Katon, W., Rivara, F.P., & Kernic, M.A. (2005). Bullying, psychosocial adjustment, and academic performance in elementary school. Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine, 159, 1026-1031.

10 Hawker, D.S.J., & Boulton, M.J. (2000). Twenty years’ research on peer victimization and psychosocial maladjustment: A meta-analytic review of cross-sectional studies. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 41, 441-455. doi:10.1111/1469-7610.00629

11 Rigby, K. (2003). Consequences of bullying in schools. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 48 (9), 583-590.

12 Dempsey, A.G., Haden, S.C., Goldman, J., Sivinski, J., & Wiens, B.A. (2011). Relational and overt victimization in middle and high schools: Associations with suicidality. Journal of School Violence, 10, 374-392. doi:10.1080/15388220.2011.602612

13 Klomek, A.B., Marrocco, F., Kleinman, M., Schonfeld, I.S., & Gould, M.S. (2007). Bullying, depression, and suicidality in adolescents. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 46, 40–49. doi:10.1097/01.chi.0000242237.84925.18

14 Meltzer, H., Vostanis, P., Ford, T., Bebbington, P., & Dennis, M.S. (2011). Victims of bullying in childhood and suicide attempts in adulthood. European Psychiatry, 26, 498-503. doi:10.1016/j.eurpsy.2010.11.006

15 Klomek, A.B., Kleinman, M., Altschuler, E., Marrocco, F., Amakawa, L., Gould, M.S. (2011). High school bullying as a risk for later depression and suicidality. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 41 (5), 501-516. doi:10.1111/j.1943-278X.2011.00046.x

16 Swearer, S. M., Espelage, D.L., Vaillancourt, T., & Hymel, S. (2010). What can be done about school bullying? Linking research to educational practice. Educational Researcher, 39 (1), 38-47. doi:10.3102/0013189X09357622

17 Kaltiala-Heino, R., Rimpelä, M., Rantanen, P., & Rimpelä, A. (2000). Bullying at school: An indicator for adolescents at risk for mental disorders. Journal of Adolescence, 23, 661-674. doi:10.1006/jado.2000.0351

18 Haynie, D.L., Nansel, T., Eitel, P., Crump, A.D., Saylor, K., Yu, K., & Simons-Morton, B. (2001). Bullies, victims, and bully/victims: Distinct groups of at-risk youth. Journal of Early Adolescence, 21, 29-49. doi:10.1177/0272431601021001002

19 Phillips, M. (1997). What makes schools effective? A comparison of the relationships of communitarian climate and academic climate to mathematics achievement and attendance during middle school. American Educational Research Journal, 34 (4), 633-662. doi:10.2307/1163352

20 Zins, J.E., Weissberg, R.P., Wang, M.C., & Walberg, H.J. (Eds.). (2004). Building academic success on social and emotional learning: What does the research say? New York: Teachers College Press.

21 Osterman, K.F. (2000). Students’ need for belonging in the school community. Review of Educational Research, 70 (3), 323-367. doi:10.2307/1170786

22 Cornell, D., & Gregory, A. (2008). Virginia High School Safety Study: Descriptive report of survey results from ninth grade students and teachers. Charlottesville: University of Virginia.

23 Carter, B.B., & Spencer, V.G. (2006). The fear factor: Bullying and students with disabilities. International Journal of Special Education, 21 (1), 11-23.

24 Kosciw, J.G., Greytak, E.A., Diaz, E.M., & Bartkiewicz, M.J. (2010). The 2009 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth in our nation’s schools. New York: GLSEN.

25 Peterson, J.L., Puhl, R.M., & Luedicke, J. (2012). An experimental investigation of physical education teachers’ and coaches’ reactions to weight-based victimization in youth. Journal of Adolescent Health, 47, 99–101. doi:10.1016/j.psychsport.2011.10.009

26 Wang, J., Iannotti, R.J., & Luk, J.W. (2010). Bullying victimization among underweight and overweight U.S. youth: Differential associations for boys and girls. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13, 177-185. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2009.12.007

27 Llewellyn, A. (2000). Perceptions of mainstreaming: A systems approach. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 42, 106–115. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8749.2000.tb00055.x

28 Marini, Z.A., Fairbairn, L., & Zuber, R. (2001). Peer harassment in individuals with developmental disabilities: Towards the development of a multi-dimensional bullying identification model. Developmental Disabilities Bulletin, 29, 170–195.

29 Norwich, B., & Kelly, N. (2004). Pupils’ views on inclusion: Moderate learning difficulties and bullying in mainstream and special schools. British Educational Research Journal, 30, 43–65. doi:10.1080/01411920310001629965

30 Olweus, D. (1993b). Victimisation by peers: Antecedents and long-term outcomes. In K.H. Rubin & J.B. Asendorpf (Eds.), Social withdrawal, inhibition and shyness in childhood. (pp. 315-341). Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum.

31 Olweus, D., Limber, S.P., & Mihalic, S. (1999). The Bullying Prevention Program: Blueprints for Violence Prevention, Vol. 10. Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence: Boulder, Co.

32 Whitney, I., Rivers, I., Smith, P.K., & Sharp, S. (1994). The Sheffield Project: Methodology and findings. In P.K. Smith & S. Sharp (Eds.), School bullying: Insights and perspectives (pp. 20-56). London: Routledge.

33 Orpinas, P., & Horne, A.M. (2006). Bullying prevention: Creating a positive school climate and developing social competence. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/11330-000

34 Vreeman, R.C., & Carroll, A.E. (2007). A systematic review of school-based interventions to prevent bullying. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 161, 78-88.

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