Research by School of Education’s Espelage led to laws to protect students from bullies

In observance of National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, she offers her expert tips on how to handle bullies.

Dorothy Espelage, professor of education

When a school-age child changes his or her routine, chances are it could be because of bullying.

“Victims may change their behavior to avoid a bully, maybe by quitting a sport, eating lunch in the bathroom or not riding the bus,” said Dorothy Espelage, William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of Education in Carolina’s School of Education.

Research by Espelage, one of the world’s leading experts on bullying, has led to interventions, policies and laws intended to protect students, to make schools safer and to guide parents and students on how to handle bullies.

For Espelage, bullying begins with aggression shown by school-age children, although it also occurs in higher education and workplaces. “It’s not reactive aggression in the heat of the moment,” she said. “It’s repeated behavior or has a high likelihood of being repeated.”

Espelage’s research shows that, in a typical school, 15% of students in third to eighth grades are chronically victimized up to 60 times a month. Around 17% of the bullies are ringleader bullies, who encourage others to target victims. About 8% of bullies are victims themselves. Only 13% of students will intervene to help a victim.

The numbers may be discouraging, but Espelage is working to train school administrators, teachers, custodians, cafeteria workers, school police and others who support children. These adults working in schools often do not have the knowledge to recognize and prevent bullying.

Through collaborations with faculty in computer science, psychology, public health and other disciplines and with technology companies developing virtual reality and artificial intelligence, she has created programs to help school personnel and students decrease bullying and classroom violence.

How to handle bullying: tips from an expert

October is National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month. Espelage, who has served as a consultant for the website and the Department of Health and Human Services’ national anti-bullying campaign, offers tips for parents and school workers during this time.

For parents:

  1. Talk face-to-face with the school’s administrator and make sure there is a prevention program in place that addresses bias-based bullying (disabilities, sexual orientation, etc.).
  2. Know and stress to administrators that children who feel safer will engage and do better.
  3. Be persistent, making sure you know what’s going on with your child. Ask questions.
  4. Show unconditional love to your children, be there for them and build up their confidence.
  5. Know your children’s friends and their families; sometimes good kids go along with bullying for fear of rejection.

For school administrators and teachers:

  1. Policies and procedures are important for school safety, but schools also must understand how to implement them and do so consistently.
  2. Explain policies to parents, not just through a handbook, but in regular meetings and frequent communications through emails and newsletters.
  3. Provide training on bullying and safety to all adults who interact with children, including custodians, cafeteria workers and school police.
  4. Set expectations that promote school safety, making it clear that certain behaviors will not be tolerated.
  5. Implement a social-emotional curriculum, defined as one that develops the self-awareness, self-control and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work and life success. Track and assess the curriculum’s implementation and effect.