Drop the Label – Bullying is a Behavior, Not an Identity

Many of us can remember our early days on the playground when teams were chosen for kickball and not everyone got picked or someone was singled out as the Bullying is typically defined with two main descriptors: intentional and repetitive. But what causes a person to intentionally and repeatedly cause harm to another person? Discovering why someone chooses to bully is often the most difficult yet effective way to prevent bullying. Many students do not even recognize that what they are doing is a form of bullying rather they feel they are reacting to a situation in a way that feels appropriate to them. This graphic from Ripple Effects illustrates some of the behaviors that may be lying under the surface causing a student to bully.

What Causes Students to Bully Others?

In order to redirect bullying, we must first determine the cause. Here are a few thoughts to consider about the person who is bullying:

  • Home-Life: Has the student been a witness to abuse or experienced trauma? Does the student’s home promote violence and aggression? 
  • Power Struggles:  Does the student have a need to be in control? Does the student have low self-esteem? 
  • Stress: Has the student been under an unusual amount of stress? Has their life situation changed over the past several weeks or months? 
  • The Target of Bullying: Has the student also been a target of bullying? Is the student responding to bullying rather than instigating the bullying? 
  • Friend Group: Does the student have a group of friends or is he or she considered a “loner?” Does the student seek attention from peers in other ways?

Preventing Bullying

After considering why a student may be choosing to bully others, educators can have a significant impact on preventing further acts of bullying by proactively supporting students with bullying tendencies. Here are a few ways to redirect bullying behavior:

  • Talk About It: Have open and honest communication with students about the consequences of bullying. Also, encourage students to get to the root of what is causing them to react with bullying behaviors. 
  • Focus on Strengths: Ask those who bully what they enjoy doing, look for their strengths and “catch” them doing good. Find ways to provide them with things they enjoy and give them opportunities to use their strengths in positive, constructive ways.  
  • Be Proactive: Schools should be intentional about creating an anti-bullying culture. Incorporating character education and social and emotional learning throughout each and every school day will promote a positive school environment. 
  • Create a Mentoring Program: Students who have positive role models are more likely to replicate positive behaviors. Invite high school students to encourage elementary students to be kind and respectful to each other. 
  • Model It: Our words and actions are powerful! Adults can oftentimes perpetuate a bullying culture by making negative comments about others in front of students. Adults who shame students in front of other students can inadvertently condone bullying behavior.

Ultimately, bullying is a learned behavior. The good news about learned behaviors is that with the right intervention and support, this behavior can be unlearned. Labeling a student a bully will only continue the cycle of bullying behavior instead let’s focus on understanding why a student chooses to bully and proactively intervene before the behavior occurs. How does your school promote a positive culture where students are kind and respectful to each other?


Reiney, B. E. (2021, May 21). Why we don’t use the word “bully” to label kids. StopBullying.gov. Retrieved October 9, 2021, from https://www.stopbullying.gov/blog/2013/10/23/why-we-dont-use-word-bully-label-kids.

Sabrina Valverde is an educator, entrepreneur, educational trainer/consultant, and published author. She is a fiercely passionate advocate for children and has worked in many settings to foster an environment where all children can succeed. Sabrina holds a Master’s of Education in Instructional Leadership and believes that equipping teachers with the best curriculum, resources, and professional development is the cornerstone to student achievement.

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