Moving beyond the Emphasis on Bullying: A Generalized Approach to Peer Aggression in High School

Jan 13, 2016

csBullying has been a major topic in the media in the past decade, and many well-meaning activists and politicians have attempted to tackle this problem head-on. In some jurisdictions, anti-bullying legislation has even been introduced. By mandating anti-bullying measures for public schools, for instance, regulators have necessitated reporting requirements on incidences and trends in bullying in schools. But these efforts are hampered by the lack of a consensus definition of bullying. If no standard agreed upon definition of bullying has been used, reports of incidences and trends may vary widely from school to school and jurisdiction to jurisdiction. How can we address this problem?

In an article in the most recent issue of the journal Children and Schools, researchers Christopher Donoghue, PhD, and Alicia Raia-Hawrylak, MA, MST, propose a possible direction to take in addressing this definitional dilemma. They note that the definition of bullying is often confused with the definition of aggression, and that bullying differs from simple aggression by containing a power-differential element (among other things). Aggression— such as scapegoating, individual honor contests, and intergroup fights— on the other hand, can be peer-to-peer.

The researchers experimented with a questionnaire designed to tease out statistics on incidences of bullying and aggression, and the results are published in the article. They emphasized that the small data sample and demographic limitations mean the results cannot be generalized. On the other hand, the use of the questionnaire format did point to ways to differentiate the documentation of bullying and aggression.

This is important because children may over-report or under-report bullying incidences by virtue of confusing them with aggression. (Younger children tend to be more inclusive in their categorizing of what counts as bullying, whereas older children are more aware of the manifestations of “power asymmetry.”) The researchers also maintain that aggression needs to be reported as well, especially with a view to school social worker intervention.

The authors conclude:

Practitioners generally agree that a whole-school (or ecological) approach is preferable for reducing bullying behaviors …, and there is reason to believe this would be true for generalized aggression as well. This approach is considered most effective when it is informed by data indicating patterns in victimization and aggression. By measuring all forms of aggression in school surveys, not just those that meet the definition of bullying, school administrators may gain a more complete picture of the challenges posed by peer conflict at school and respond more effectively. Knowledge of the scope of aggressive behaviors, which may or may not be chronic and involve a power imbalance, can enable teachers and other school personnel to be more vigilant about all negative behaviors, whether or not they are in the realm of liability for anti-bullying rules.