Committee for Children Blog

3 Practical Strategies that Teachers, Counselors, and Staff Can Use to Prevent Adolescent Bullying

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Addressing bullying is a difficult task for any educator, but it’s particularly challenging for those of us who work with adolescents. Adolescent bullying doesn’t fit the traditional image of bullying. It’s less direct. Instead of teasing and name-calling, it’s rumors and subversion on Instagram or Snapchat. Instead of pushing people and breaking things, it’s social ostracism. In place of clear power dynamics, influence is constantly shifting: the person doing the bullying one day can become the target of bullying the next. Instead of being a sign of poor social-emotional skills, it’s a sign of well-developed social skills being used in unfortunate ways. Instead of happening in view of adults and in clear violation of school norms, it’s quite strategically done away from adult presence and in ways that skirt rules designed to prevent it. Adolescent bullying is often successful because you have no idea it’s going on. And to top off this uplifting first paragraph, bullying peaks in early adolescence: 61 percent of adolescents report being bullied, 58 percent report bullying others, and 90 percent report regularly witnessing bullying (Konishi, Miyazaki, Hymel, & Waterhouse, 2017).

None of this is news to experienced middle and high school educators. Identifying the issue isn’t a problem. What educators continue to struggle with to this day is how to reduce its prevalence. Many bullying prevention strategies have shown positive effects among elementary school students, but when they’re applied to adolescents they lose their effectiveness or even make bullying worse (Yeager, Fong, Lee, & Espelage, 2015).

Don’t despair! Recent research shows that there is a way forward. First, throw out any strategies you’re using that are derived from elementary-level bullying prevention. Then focus on these three developmentally appropriate strategies (and in this order):

Build a Safe and Supportive School Climate

It’s important to resist the urge to focus on punishing individuals or banning specific behaviors. You’d be playing whack-a-mole, and any positive results would be modest and temporary. Instead, focus on changing the overall school environment to promote the behaviors you want. Develop school rules and norms your students (not you) see as clear and fair. Promote positive peer relationships and provide opportunities for students and staff to build strong, personal relationships with each other. A great first step is to conduct a school climate survey to identify where to focus your efforts. A second step is to create space in the school day for students to build positive relationships. Advisory programs are ideal for this. Finally, implement a developmentally appropriate social-emotional learning program—like the Second Step Middle School Program—to weave concepts like kindness and respect into the fabric of your school. Schools that do this can decrease bullying, without ever specifically using the word “bullying” with students (Konishi et al., 2017; Trach, Lee, & Hymel, 2017).

Implement an Effective Prevention Program

Implement a developmentally appropriate bullying prevention program that focuses on bystanders. The key words in that sentence are “developmentally appropriate” and “bystander,” so I’ll repeat them for emphasis. Developmentally appropriate. Bystander. I can hear what you’re saying: “Thank you very much, Captain Obvious. What does this actually look like?” Good question. “Developmentally appropriate” means two things. First, talking about the kind of bullying that’s actually happening among adolescents. Indirect, socially-oriented bullying. Students have the same misconceptions about what bullying looks like as adults, and if they’re looking for the kind of bullying that happens in elementary schools, they won’t recognize as bullying the behaviors they see and do themselves every day.

Second, address bullying in a way that respects adolescents’ sense of autonomy. Thousands of years of evolution have primed adolescents to push back against adult authority, and we’re not going to overcome that. Don’t tell them what they should do—suggest what they might do. Don’t focus on how bad those people are who engage in bullying; focus on what a positive thing it is to help those targeted by bullying. Empower students to take action themselves to help stop bullying, and trust that they actually have more power than you do to make a real difference. Harnessing this power is why it’s so important to focus on promoting positive bystander reactions to bullying. Although we may never see the bullying that happens at our schools, most acts of adolescent bullying are witnessed by peers—that’s the whole point of bullying among adolescents. When those bystanders refuse to reward students who bully with social status, then those students will turn to other, more pro-social strategies to climb the social hierarchy (Yeager et al., 2015; Yeager, Dalh, & Dweck, 2018).

Don’t Focus on Bullying in Isolation

Harassment starts to become a significant issue in adolescence, and bullying and harassment are very much intertwined issues. Research shows that students who engage in homophobic name-calling (such as using the word “gay” as a derogatory term) early in adolescence are more likely to engage in bullying later on, and schools that are more permissive of sexual harassment or harassment of LGBTQ students experience higher levels of bullying. Not only will addressing harassment help reduce bullying, but it will help foster a safe and supportive school climate, especially for LGBTQ youth, who experience bullying at far higher rates than others and also have far high rates of depression and suicide (Pepler, 2006; Espelage et al., 2017).

None of these steps is easy (well, except tossing out elementary-based interventions), but nothing about addressing bullying really is. The good news is that by reading this blog post you’re demonstrating that you’re active and engaged in this issue, which bodes well for the adolescents you work with. And now you can tell others there’s a clear, research-based way forward. To learn more, I highly encourage you to check out the articles I’ve cited in this post. They’re all practical and readable, and I think you’ll appreciate what they have to say. For those of you who are teaching the Second Step Middle School Program, I also encourage you to explore the program’s professional development resources to learn important social-emotional learning concepts and classroom strategies, many of which are foundational to bullying prevention at this age.

Matt Pearsall is the senior educational designer for Committee for Children.

Learn more about bullying and bullying prevention from our free resources page.


Espelage, D. L., Hong, J. S., Merrin, G. J., Davis, J. P., Rose, C. A., & Little, T. D. (2017). A longitudinal examination of homophobic name-calling in middle school: Bullying, traditional masculinity, and sexual harassment as predictors. Psychology of Violence, 8(1), 57–66.

Konishi, C., Miyazaki, Y., Hymel, S., & Waterhouse, T. (2017). Investigating associations between school climate and bullying in secondary schools: Multilevel contextual effects modeling. School Psychology International, 38(3), 240–263.

Trach, J., Lee, L., & Hymel, S. (2018). A social-ecological approach to addressing emotional and behavioral problems in school: Focusing on group processes and social dynamics. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 26(1), 11–20.

Yeager, D. S., Dahl, R. E., & Dweck, C. S. (2018). Why interventions to influence adolescent behavior often fail but could succeed. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(1), 101–122.

Yeager, D. S., Fong, C. J., Lee, H. Y., Espelage, D. L. (2015). Declines in efficacy of anti-bullying programs among older adolescents: Theory and a three-level meta-analysis, Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 37, 36–51.