Teasing and Bullying

Jaan Pill

Handouts from presentation by Jaan Pill, International Stuttering Awareness Day, University of Toronto, October 21, 2007

Three topics:

  • What is bullying?
  • Bullying of kids who stutter
  • What can we do to reduce bullying?

Many people have contributed to the study of bullying.

Dan Olweus of Norway is a pioneer in the systematic study of bullying. An anti-bullying program he developed has been applied in many countries.

Debra Pepler of York University and the Hospital for Sick Children, and Wendy Craig of Queen’s University, have done extensive research related to bullying in Canadian schools.

Barbara Coloroso of the USA is author of a book on bullying and another on genocide among other books.


We need to take care in how we define things, so we can be sure we’re talking about the same things.

  • Pepler and Craig define bullying as a problem of relationships; they view it as the assertion of interpersonal power through aggression. It involves negative physical or verbal action that has hostile intent, causes distress to the victims, is repeated over time, and involves a power differential between bullies and their victims.
  • Coloroso defines bullying as a conscious, willful, deliberate activity intended to harm, to induce fear through the threat of further aggression, and to create terror in the target. In her view, even a single instance of a harmful activity can be defined as bullying. Her definition does not restrict itself to activities that are repeated over time. Contempt is a key ingredient of bullying, according to Coloroso. Contempt is a powerful feeling of dislike toward somebody considered to be worthless, inferior, or undeserving of respect.

What’s the opposite of contempt?

  • Compassion
  • Empathy
  • Respect

(I list these because I believe it’s useful to keep such opposites in mind rather than focusing exclusively on contempt.)

Marilyn Langevin of the University of Alberta, who has developed an anti-bullying program used in many schools, has recently remarked:
“I have been thinking that I want to move the anti-bullying work from awareness and strategies for dealing with it to respect. Respect is so fundamental across all relationships.”

Daniel Goleman of the USA has recently published a book, Social Intelligence, which serves as a follow-up to an earlier book, Emotional Intelligence. His work is part of an approach that focuses on the opposite of contempt.

Pepler and Craig note that bullying is not the same as fighting. Bullying, victimization, and fighting refer to different types of involvement in violence. People who end up fighting are typically of a similar age and of equal strength.

Bullying is not the same as ordinary conflict. Ordinary conflict is “normal, natural, and necessary,” according to Coloroso, while bullying is not. Many anti-bullying programs have as their foundation the teaching of conflict-resolution skills. The problem is that bullying is not about anger or conflict – it’s about contempt. Conflict-resolution is not the answer to bullying, says Coloroso, who is critical of anti-bullying programs based on conflict-resolution skills.

“Children who work through these anti-bullying programs are skilled in handling all different kinds of conflict and learn anger management skills, but they still have no clue as to how to identify and effectively confront bullying.”

Why be concerned about bullying?

  • It is every child’s right to be safe.
  • Bullying is a significant health issue.
  • Bullying is a warm-up for long-term relationship problems.
  • Victimized children are at risk.
  • Compared to their peers, they are more anxious and insecure, have lower self-esteem, are lonelier, are more likely to be rejected by their peers, and are more depressed.
Bullying across the generations

Wendy Craig of Canada and Yossi Harel of Israel, in a 2001/2002 WHO survey report, note that children who are bullies tend to be bullies as adults and to have children who are bullies, and that children who are victimized tend to have children who are victimized.
Childhood bullying often continues into adulthood. Childhood bullying is associated with antisocial behaviour in adulthood including criminal behaviour and limited opportunities to achieve stable employment and long-term relationships.

Bullying in elementary schools

According to research cited by Marilyn Langevin, between 49% and 58% of all elementary students are bullied at school at some time or other, and as many as 32% are bullied once a week or more often. (I think the reference is to North American schools.)

Bullying of kids who stutter

Children with disabilities, including those who stutter, are often singled out to be bullied. In research cited by Langevin, 81% of children who stutter report they were bullied at school at some time, and 56% of those children report they were bullied about their stuttering once a week or more often.

How do we deal with bullying of kids who stutter? We have to address it as part of a wider picture.

Murder and suicide as a response to bullying

Dan Olweus implemented an anti-bullying program in Norway following three suicides of students who had been bullied. The Columbine High School incident and a murder-suicide in Ottawa also warrant discussion.

In 1982, after three Norwegian boys between 10 and 14 killed themselves to avoid continued severe bullying, Norway’s minister of education launched a national campaign against bullying and Dan Olweus introduced an anti-bullying program for the schools.

In April, 1999, two Columbine High School students killed 12 students and a teacher and then committed suicide. Some observers noted that Columbine High School had long condoned a culture of bullying at the school. Many factors, not just teasing and bullying, are at play in such incidents.

In Ottawa in April, 1999, a former co-worker, Pierre LeBrun, killed four employees and himself. A coroner’s jury established that LeBrun had endured years of workplace taunting and teasing focusing on his stuttering.
The coroner’s jury recommended that the federal government and the province should train workers and supervisors to recognize, report, and deal with harassment, bullying, teasing, and mocking in the workplace.

Continuum of aggressive behaviour

Wendy Craig and Yossi Harel note that bullying may be one step along a continuum of aggressive behaviour combining the use of power and aggression.

Coloroso views bullying and genocide as part of a continuum: “When institutional and situational factors combine with a murderous racial, ethnic, or religious ideology rooted in contempt for a group of people, then bullying is taken to its extreme.”


What can we do?

  • Go where the evidence leads us. Adopt an evidence-based approach. As well, focus on relationships and social contexts. The solution to bullying requires the efforts of many people working together. Pepler and Craig recommend we focus on both the children involved in bullying – and on the relationships and social contexts
  • Bullying is a relationship problem that requires relationship solutions.
  • When children are involved in bullying as aggressors, they experience regular lessons in the use of power and aggression. Children who are victimized become trapped in a disrespectful relationship. Children who are bystanders are also learning about the use of power and aggression in relationships.

Relationship solutions for bullying

Pepler and Craig avoid labelling children as “victims” or “bullies” but instead take a broader perspective. We must take into account children’s relationships within the family, peer group, school, and wider community. Children need consistent messages across these contexts. All children involved in bullying incidents must be included in bullying interventions.

  • What children need depends on their role. Children who bully need support in understanding the impact of their behaviours and the importance of relating positively to others. They need what are called “formative” consequences.
  • Children who are victimized require protection from bullying and support in developing social confidence and positive relationships.
  • Children who are bystanders need support in recognizing their behaviour is part of the problem.

Prevention of bullying involves building of healthy relationships

Protect and connect children who are bullied. Turn children who bully from negative into positive leaders. Change bystanders into heroes.

Practical strategies

Change group dynamics – stop bullying before it starts. Use “social architecture” to organize groups. Stop bullying in the moment.

The PALS (Playground Activity Leaders in Schools) program at the Peel District School Board creates a good social architecture and develops positive leadership skills. It teaches schoolyard games that all kids used to know, and encourages active participation of students who would otherwise play alone.

Of particular significance: Nothing is left to chance with regard to how the PALS program is implemented in a given school. In my years as an elementary school teacher, I saw many anti-bullying programs come and go. Sometimes all the teachers in a school go to workshops, each receives a big binder, and the program is never implemented (for whatever reason).

The PALS program – along with a program developed by staff at a school where I worked – has on the other hand been highly successful. The latter program is called the Seemore STARR program, STARR being an acronym for Safety, Teamwork, Attitude, Responsibility, and Respect.

World Health Organization
 survey (2001/2002)

This document can be located through a Google search for “WHO health behaviour school-aged children 2001”

Of the 13-year-olds who bullied others at least two or three times a month in the previous couple of months, Canada ranks 26th of 35 countries on measures of bullying.

Of the13-year-olds who were bullied two or three times or more in the previous couple of months, Canada ranks 27th of 35 countries on measures of victimization.

Internet resources

The following document is a primary resource for the overview, highlighted above, of Pepler and Craig’s research on bullying in Canadian schools: Binoculars on bullying: a new solution to protect and connect children . Other resources can be found at that link as well.

World Health Organization:
Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study: international report from the 2001/2002 survey. Full text version

PREVNet: Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network
Partnership involving Networks of Centres of Excellence – New Initiative program.
The goal of this organization is to raise awareness of bullying problems and promote healthy relationships.

Barbara Coloroso offers additional key resources on bullying. As with the TAB developed by Marilyn Langevin, her approach brings together so many groups – the children, the school, and the community. One or two people, on their own, can do little to address problems such as teasing and bullying. Some books by Coloroso:

  • The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander
  • Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide


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