The Bully, the Victim, and the Classroom: What to do now?

The issue

What is bullying? Bullying affects all children, with and without hearing loss, but do we recognize it? When a boy in my son’s class was bullied, his mother went to the teachers and reported this. One of the teachers reacted, saying: “Oh, we do not like that word, ‘bullying.’ All children make jokes, sometimes. Children need to learn to deal with that.” Yet this kind of dismissive attitude might be as harmful as the bullying itself. Even constant “jokes” can be bullying, as can ostracism, being neglected by others, or always being last to be picked when teams are formed, or never being invited to a birthday party, when everyone else is. These kinds of bullying behaviors are much more difficult to identify than openly aggressive acts, let alone explain or “prove” to an unwilling teacher. So, importantly, bullying is in the eyes of the beholder – the target – and should not be questioned.

Bullying happens when the target does not have the power to stop repeated unpleasant behaviors by others, with the intention of harming him or her, or when behavior is experienced as such.

However, bullying is so difficult to come forward with, children feel fearful and ashamed, as if their experience has made them a “social failure.” This might even more so apply to children with hearing loss, because they often try to avoid being stigmatized or asking for social support by adults. Importantly, once children report it, they should not be questioned about the validity of their claims. Instead, receive full support from their environment.

What we know

Bullying happens everywhere, affecting 10% to 25% of all youth; and these rates are higher for children with hearing loss. Whoever is the bully, the consequences can be devastating. A wealth of studies shows the long-lasting negative consequences from bullying, emotionally, socially, and academically. Targets of bullying develop more mental health problems, and academic performances suffer. What many fail to recognize is that no one is a winner, when it comes to bullying: bullies develop academic and emotional problems – especially externalizing problems – such as aggressive or delinquent behaviors; and bullies are often targets themselves in other situations, such as at home, with (older) siblings. In short, bullying is harmful for everyone involved, even for the followers of the bully, and the by-standers who do not take sides.

What we don’t know

Why are some children bullied, while others are not? Because children with hearing loss, for example, are bullied more often than their hearing peers, is this “their own fault”? Definitely not. The target is never to blame, and should not be told to change. Sometimes the target is simply different from the majority; sometimes not. Point is that anyone can become a target.


How to stop this? Bullying is a group process: it’s about power and hierarchy, and someone needs to be a target, for a bully to have power. So, telling the target that he or she should learn to better defend him or herself stigmatizes that child. Instead, group processes should be altered, and interventions should address the group.

A successful program from Italy uses peer-led models, where some children in a class receive training on how to create an inclusive and socially safe environment for all children in the class. When children have social difficulties, they can come to one of these peer supporters, who will help solve the problem.

Another useful strategy can be to promote prosocial behavior and a sense of responsibility in bullies’ supporters and bystanders. If they turn away from the bully, yet socialize with the target, bullies lose their power. In the example of my son’s class, my son waited for a day when the bully was absent. He then gathered the supporters – the other boys who also took part in it, thereby legitimizing it – and asked them: “Do you want to be bullies?” “No,” they replied. He asked them again “Do you want to be bullies?!” and received the same response. “So why do you always help Boy X? If you do, you are also being bullies. Do you want that?”. When I spoke again to the boy’s mother, the bullying had stopped. Note that one intervention is usually not enough, and it should not rely on a single child. Most important, however, is awareness on the part of adults that bullying exists – even when seemingly invisible – and that the group climate should be warm, welcoming and inclusive of all.

Posted on Jan. 31, 2019 by
Carolien Rieffe
Leiden University, Netherlands
University College London, London, UK
NSDSK, Amsterdam, Netherlands


Further reading