Bullying in Middle School: What it Is, Why it Happens and How to Spot It

What is Bullying

Bullying is a form of peer victimization displayed as intentional harassment that occurs repetitively, over a period of time. A key factor to bullying is an imbalance of power, meaning bullies pick on others who have difficulty defending themselves. Bullying can take the form of verbal abuse such as teasing or the spreading of rumors, physical assaults such as pushing, pulling hair, kicking or hitting, sexual harassment or social exclusion.

Harassment can also occur though text messaging on cell phones. Cyberbullying is another form of bullying that occurs over the Internet. A victim of cyberbullying may be teased or threatened through email or online chat. They also may have vicious rumors spread about them on social networking sites. Bullies may post embarrassing pictures of videos on the Internet or send them through picture messaging on cell phones with the intent to harass and humiliate the victim.

There is limited data on how many children are victims of bullying. A 2001 study published in "The Journal of the American Medical Association" looked at data on 15,686 children throughout the United States who had been surveyed on the subject of bullying. The data showed that 29.9 percent of school age children were involved in bullying in some way. Because children often do not report bullying to teachers or parents, it is possible that the percentage of children involved in bullying is even higher than 29.9 percent.

Why Bullying is So Prevalent in Middle School

Middle school children are at the age where they are transitioning from being a child to an adolescent. At this age, children have the strongest desire to be accepted, make friends and be part of a group. They feel pressure to act and look like their peers. With all of the attention paid to accepted appearance and behavior among their peers, middle schoolers easily spot children who are different and do not fit the so-called "norm" of their school. Bullying others also can be a way to fit into a group or the "cool" crowd.

Effects of Bullying

The harmful effects of bullying are the most severe in the victims, but bullies and witnesses to bullying are also harmed.

Victims of Bullying

Children who are bullied may experience a decrease in academic performance, decreased school attendance, health problems such as stomach-aches and headaches, difficulty sleeping, lowered self-esteem, anxiety, depression, loneliness and suicidal thoughts. Depression and low self-esteem in victims of bullying is long-lasting, often carrying over into adulthood, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


Bullies are more likely to display antisocial and violent behavior in other aspects in their lives. They are more likely to do poorly in academics, skip school, drop out of school, get into physical fights, use drugs, drink alcohol, commit theft, vandalize property and carry a weapon.

Witnesses to Bullying

Children who witness bullying may feel afraid that they will become the next target. They also may feel guilty for not stepping in and helping the bullying victim. These feelings can cause the witnessing children to become distracted from schoolwork, leading to poor academic performance. They also may learn to think of school as a negative and unpleasant environment.

Why Children Bully

There are many possible causes of bullying. Some children learn to become bullies by watching bullying behavior exhibited by their family members. Insecurity is another cause of bullying. Children may bully others in an attempt to fit in with the cool crowd at school. Insecure children may compensate for their feelings of inferiority by picking on others. Children who are the victims of bullying may also become bullies themselves as an attempt to make themselves feel better. Some children bully simply because they like the way it feels to have a position of power over others.

Identifying Bullies and the Bullied

Because children often do not report bullying behavior, it is important as a teacher to identify bullies and those being bullied. Bullying sometimes happens in the classroom, but it also happens in the playground, school hallways and on the way to and from school. Because teachers don't always witness bullying, it can be difficult to detect when there is a problem. Teachers need to observe student behavior for warning signs of a problem.

Children of all races and from all socio-economic backgrounds bully. Both boys and girls can be bullies or victims of bullying. Bullies are more commonly boys and they tend to harass both boys and girls. Girls on the other hand, tend to only harass other girls. No child is immune from bullying. However, children who look different, act different or who have physical or mental disabilities are more often the target of bullies.

Identifying Victims of Bullying

Signs that a student may be a victim of bullying include depression, withdrawing from social activities, social exclusion, frequent complaints of not feeling well, frequent crying, moody behavior, truancy, frequently claiming possessions were lost, their possessions are often getting broken, bringing weapons to school for protection, complaining about getting picked on and talking about running away from school or home.

Identifying Bullies

It can be hard to identify bullies when the harassing behavior is not done inside the classroom. There are certain traits bullies tend to exhibit that teachers can keep an eye out for in students. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration identifies the following traits as commonly exhibited by bullies: impulsiveness, becoming frustrated easily, trouble following rules and a lack of empathy.

How to Stop Bullying

There are three main steps to stopping bullying: prevention, identification and action.


There are several methods teachers, school counselors, school administrators, bus drivers and other school staff can all help prevent bullying.

  • Establish school rules on bullying. Post signs in the classrooms, restrooms, hallways and playgrounds that clearly state what behaviors are unacceptable and will not be tolerated, as well as consequences that will be taken if the rules are broken.
  • Increase staff supervision in hallways, playgrounds, the cafeteria and other areas where bullying is likely to occur.
  • Devote class time each week for anti-bullying activities to teach students what bullying behavior is, why it is wrong and what to do if bullying occurs. Some anti-bullying classroom activities include reading short stories or watching movies that have a bullying theme, followed by an open classroom discussion, or have the students fill out anonymous question cards that the teacher can offer answers to for the class.


A study conducted in the year 2000 by Queens University and York University found that less than 50 percent of bullying victims reported the harassment to their teachers and approximately 19 percent of students had little confidence that their teachers would help them. The most likely reason students failed to report bullying and believed teachers wouldn't help is the failure of the teachers to detect the bullying.

Increasing staff supervision and looking for behavior signs commonly found in bullies and bullying victims are good ways to detect bullying problems. There are other tools teachers and school staff can use as well to detect bullying in the school. Don't underestimate parent teacher conferences as a tool to detect harassment. Students often tell parents about bullying, rather than teachers. Parents may also mention home behaviors that may identify bullying.

Another important tool for teachers is talking with students. When signs of bullying behavior are present in a student, teachers should pull the child aside for a calm discussion. Examples of good questions to ask are, "Who do you sit with at lunchtime?" or "How does it make you feel when somebody calls you names?"


Intervention is one of the most important tools to stop bullying. Failure to take action against bullying does two things, besides allowing the harassment to continue. One, students are more likely to fail to report bullying if they think that school staff won't help them. Two, bullies are likely to continue bullying activity when they see that there are no consequences. Always take action when bullying behavior is exhibited, even less-serious offenses. The mindset that a little name calling is just fun play among children, is wrong. What seems like harmless play to outsiders can have devastating emotional consequences to the children affected.

Bullying by Teachers and Other Adults

There has been little research on the subject of teachers and adults bullying students. With the little research that has been conducted, it is clear that some teachers and other adults do bully students. A survey conducted by Wittenberg University in 2005 showed that it may indeed be common for teachers to bully students. Students who are bullied by teachers often feel trapped and helpless. The authority figure that is supposed to protect them is the one that is victimizing them. Not knowing where to turn, students may not tell anyone. It is important for teachers and other school staff to be observant of other educator's behavior and to report offenses.


  • The Journal of the American Medical Association; Bullying Behavior Among US Youth – Prevalence and Association With Psychosocial Adustment; Tonja R. Nansel, PhD et. al; 2001
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; All About Bullying; http://stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov/adults/why-should-adults-care.aspx
  • SAMSHA; Bullying Affects All Middle School Kids; http://www.samhsa.gov/scienceandservice/mhp2008.aspx
  • Teachers Who Bully Students: Patterns and Policy Implications [9520]; Allen McEvoy, Wittenberg University, Ohio
  • American Psychological Association; APA Resolution on Bullying Among Children and Youth; 2004
  • School Psychology International; Observations of Bullying in the Playground and the Classroom; Wendy M. Craig, Debra Pepler, Rona Atlas; Queens University, York University; 2000