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Ervin Staub, Ph.D.

Ervin Staub Ph.D.

Many Students Are Happy, Others Bullied, Some Excluded, Active Bystandership Helps.

There needs to be culture change about shame and passivity.

A student receives a phone call and when she picks up the phone, she is listening to a conversation among her up to then best friends and some other girls saying terrible things about her. A student is severely beaten, while about 50 others stand around, making videos on their cell phones and sending them to YouTube.

Bullying, children and youth intimidating, harassing, verbally degrading, spreading rumors about, destroying the property or physically harming each other has received a great deal of attention in recent years. Researchers first in Norway, then in Britain and other countries, and then in the U.S. have shown that this happens a great deal and can create intense suffering in its targets. Cyber-bullying has become an additional form of it. Usually the victims quietly suffer while it is happening, but can carry for a long time, sometimes all their lives, the psychological wounds that result from their bad treatment, and from the passivity of witnesses to their torment. In rare instances this is a short life, as the victim commits suicide at some point. Also in rare instances victims strike back, not always at their tormentors, but in an indiscriminate manner at anyone who happens to be around them in the school where they have felt abandoned. Research on school shooters has shown that in a substantial percentage of instances the perpetrators were severely bullied.

I have studied the negative and positive behaviors that students direct at each other in a whole school district in Western Massachusetts, together with how students feel about their lives at school.* Students from second through 12th grade report a great deal of positive behavior directed at them and at other students by peers and adults in the school, or performed by them. They report less, but still a substantial amount of negative behaviors within the past week, such as being called names (62 percent), someone kicking, hitting, or pushing them (42 percent), and others, with such behaviors directed at many students multiple times in the course of a week. Some students are the recipients of little negative behavior, others a great deal.

Students report a lot of positive feelings about school life, feeling happy, comfortable, accepted, safe and part of the group. But the more negative acts are directed at them, the more students have negative feelings about their lives at school. 18 percent reported that they feel unsafe or very unsafe from students, 15 percent from adults, with other negative feelings associated with this. But even students who have many negative behaviors directed at them feel less bad about school if other students have intervened in their behalf. And students who report that they have attempted to protect someone who was bullied feel better about their lives at school than those who have not. A striking finding was that the 15 percent of the students who received the least positive behavior from their peers (0 or 1 during the week) reported even less positive feelings than the 15 percent who received the most negative behaviors.

Bullying diminished in 4th grade, then increased and remained high through the school years. 50 percent of the students reported in 5th grade that they had witnessed bullying in the last two weeks, 71 percent in high school. Another striking finding was that active bystandership decreased over the years. This was reported by students who were bullied, students observing others’ response to someone being bullied, and students reporting their own passivity or action. While 80 percent of the students in second grade reported that they came to the aid of a bullied peer in the past week, in spite of more bullying in 12th grade less than 30 percent report that they did this. Adults in the schools are active bystanders more often than students, but only 45 percent of students who reported that they were bullied in the presence of an adult said the adult came to their aid. Only 32 percent reported that another student was an active bystander, helping them.

When there is substantial negative behavior in a classroom, it affects everyone. When students are harmed by their peers, and no one does anything to stop it or to support the person who was harmed, it teaches everyone that this is an unkind world. It also interferes with learning. It is not always easy to know where to draw the line between playful if somewhat negative interactions, letting children deal with their own problems, or taking positive action. We found that some teachers believe in letting children work out their relationships. This is good up to a point; it is relinquishing responsibility as an adult and a socializer beyond that point.

While teachers have important responsibilities, so do students. By turning to and joining with other witnesses and acting together, students could often stop or prevent bullying. They can learn to do this with minimal force. Since people learn from and change through their own actions, and some aggressive children become more aggressive over time, such actions help not only the children who are harmed, but also those who do the harm—and everyone else. A classroom culture of caring and active bystandership also means including students in the community who are excluded and receive little positive behavior. Their need is more difficult to notice, but their life in school is painful.

People who are victimized, whether children or adults, tend to feel shame, that something must be wrong with them. As a result, they keep quiet. Parents often don’t know what is happening to their child, and if they do, they often take only limited action, not wanting to make things worth by intervening. But our way of thinking needs to change. While some children are both targets and harmdoers, many who are targeted are innocent of blame. We must work to create a culture in which children understand their right to be safe and not harmed and are encouraged to look for help, if they have difficulty protecting themselves, and where parents and school personnel join to create environments in which all students can thrive.

There is a detailed account of these research findings in Staub, E. (2003). The psychology of good and evil: Why children, adults and groups help and harm others. New York: Cambridge University Press. Ervin Staub’s latest book is Overcoming Evil: Genocide, Violent Conflict and Terrorism. New York: Oxford University Press


About the Author

Ervin Staub, Ph.D.

Ervin Staub, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.