Grundy Kendall Regional Office of Education LogoGrundy / Kendall
Regional Office of Education

Christopher D. Mehochko

Regional Superintendent
Morris Office: (815) 941-3247  |  Fax: (815) 942-5384
Yorkville Office: (630) 553-4168  |  Fax: (630) 553-4152

Bullying Definition

Bullying Welcome

To learn more about the frequency of bullying on a national level see this survey data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC)

You can also learn about school crime statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics

To learn about how the students in your county feel about bullying, look at the the Illinois Youth Survey conducted by the University of Illinois

How Is Harassment Different Than Bullying?

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have stated that bullying may also be considered harassment when it is based on a student’s race, color, national origin, sex, or disability, which are all protected classes of individuals according to Civil Rights legislation.

Harassing behaviors may include:

  • Unwelcome conduct such as: Verbal abuse, such as name-calling, epithets, slurs
  • Graphic or written statements
  • Threats
  • Physical assault
  • Other conduct that may be physically threatening, harmful, or humiliating

Students from these protected classes that can link the bullying to behaviors associated with discrimination based upon race, color, national origin, sex, or disability have protection under federal laws.[i]


Defining the Problem or Is There One?

Often there seems to be a misunderstanding in our culture of what behavior is really bullying and what constitutes “normal” behavior among humans when they interact and have conflict.  So how should we, as a culture, define bullying?  The first place to start is with the scientific research.

Researchers have traditionally defined bullying as a having three factors that need to be understood in order to be able to effectively stop it:

1.    It is a repeated pattern of aggressive behavior that involves an imbalance of power and that purposefully (or consciously) inflicts harm on the bullying victim,to potentially gain real or perceived power (Sherer & Nickerson, 2010; Limber, 2003; Olweus, 1993).

2.    It can come in two forms:direct physical or verbal actions that cause physical or emotional distress (physical), or indirect acts of social aggression that are used to damage a victim’s personal relationships or social standing (relational)(Sherer & Nickerson, 2010; Smith, et al., 2005).

3.         Although bullying occurs at any age, research indicates that more direct physicalforms of bullying tend to escalate through elementary and middle school and gradually decline as students reach high school, whereas verbal and indirect bullying typically increase through adolescence(Cohn & Canter, 2003)[i]


Any behavior that A) occurs over time that B) is repeated and becomes a pattern, either relationally or physically,C) is used to cause harm to another person, and D) negatively impacts the victim is bullying.


So what isn’t bullying behavior and thus just a normal interaction or conflict between people?

It is not easy for kids or even adults to understand the difference between a deliberate act and an accidental one. Such perception can be difficult since minor acts of conflict, done without any intention to harm, can escalate and become big conflicts.


For an incident to be considered bullying the aggressor must want to hurt someone, and the victim must perceive the incident as a deliberate act of abuse.  AND the behavior must be repeated.


It is important for the victim to know what bullying is not to make sure that when another’s acts seem hurtful, they will not fall immediately into the category of bullying, since actions to overcome bullying are different from the way to overcome other conflict. It is important to remember that a fight or quarrel between people of approximately equal strength is not classified as bullying (Smith & Sharp, 1994).


Normal conflict looks different depending on the developmental age group of the people involved.



Conflict might look like this….

1.  Not liking someone

2.  Being excluded

3.  Accidentally bumping into someone

4.  Making other kids play things a certain way

5.  A single act of telling a joke about someone

6.  Arguments

7.  A power differential. A fight between two kids of equal power is not bullying; bullying is a fight where the child who bullies has some advantage or power over the child who is victimized.

8.  Expression of unpleasant thoughts or feelings regarding others

9.  Isolated acts of harassment, aggressive behavior, intimidation or meanness: The definition of bullying states that there is repetition in the behavior. Bullying is a conscious, repeated, hostile, aggressive behavior of an individual or a group abusing their position with the intention to harm others or gain real or perceived power. Therefore, anything that happens once is NOT an act of bullying.


All the behaviors above are unpleasant and need to be addressed, but they should not to be treated as bullying. Many times, labeling a single act of aggressioncan turn it into bullying just by perceiving it that way.

Culturally it is important to recognize that the criteria that determine how power and authority should be exercised are constantly changing.  So too must be our conception of what is bullying.[1]

Is it bullying when two people of equal strength have the occasional fight or quarrel?  A premier researcher in this field, Olweus suggested that bullying occurs only when there is an "imbalance of power."The aggressor or group of aggressors is more powerful in some way than the person they are targeting. This suggestion has been adopted by most (but not all) subsequent writers. However, how are differences in power assessed that are relevant to bullying?In fact, little research attention has been given to this question. 

An imbalance is obvious enough when a bully towers over a cowering victim or a group of bullies abuse a solitary individual. Yet society is inclined to call bullying any altercation that occurs between people for whom the nature or basis for the power differential is really obscure, but is it?  One must pay attention to the details of the conflict and listen to the victim.  For example, one of the people in conflict may have the sharper tongue with a better command of language, argument or invective; one of them can call upon his supporters (and the other knows it); or one (such as a boss) has status and can "pull rank."Would these scenarios be bullying?  Also, there may be hidden vulnerabilities in the victim: a phobia that can be exploited; hopelessness at sports; a stammer under pressure; a father who is in prison; an interest in poetry that can be laughed at or scorned, etc.Does this make the altercation bullying?  In this fact based world, it feels as if bullying should be recognized at a glance. Sometimes it is just not that simple or possible.

Here are some other scenarios.  Is it bullying if a supervisor is sick of what they see as insubordination?  Or a big sister is sick of her younger sister stealing her clothes? Or a teacher telling a student repeatedly to stop talking out loud?  Is the action justified?  The question deserves to be asked; the answer harder to define.  What is seen as justified at one time and in one place may not be seen that way at another—principals used to paddle children in school—not acceptable in today’s society.  The criterion that determines how power and authority should be exercised is constantly changing. Therefore, so must the concept of what constitutes bullying.

There is a further consideration that may help to identify bullying—the feelings of the target of aggression. This is the sense of oppression that the victim of bullying invariably feels. In fact, one influential writer in this field, the English criminologist, David Farrington (1993) saw "oppression" as central to what bullying is. His definition—bullying is "repeated oppression, psychological or physical, of a less powerful person by a more powerful person.”  What is happening is invariably seen by the victim as hard to bear as well as being unjust. It does not follow, of course, that the victim's judgment is sound or that there perception is accurate. An unsympathetic critic may see some justification for the oppression.The practical point is that one should always first listen to what the victim has to say and determine whether the aggressor’s behavior is problematic. A sense of being oppressed is a necessary but not sufficient indicator of whether bullying is taking place.


[i]“Analysis of State Bullying Laws and Policies,” Department of Education (DOE), 2011, Introduction, page 1.


What is the difference between bullying and normal conflict between peers?

This website has developmental appropriate behavior for each age level: 3 to 5 years-old, 6 to 9 years-old, 10 to 14 years-old and 15-18 years-old.  Please reference this website, developed by the Search Institute, for a quick read on what constitutes normal behavior between peers.

 The key consideration for adults when assisting youth in navigating peer interactions is that conflict is a normal part of most relationships because people have different perspectives and priorities.  While kids need adult supervision so that they learn how to deal with conflict constructively, most upsetting behavior between people is NOT bullying.  People can also be hurtful to each other because of thoughtlessness, annoyance, poor boundaries, and experimenting with negative uses of their power without realizing the impact they may have on others. [i]

Other Definitions of Bullying Behavior

  • Bullying is a continuum of behavior that involves the attempt to gain power and dominance over another (Askew, 1989). 
  • Bullying is the repeated attack - physical, psychological, social, or verbal - by those in a position of power on those who are powerless to resist, with the intention of causing distress for their own gain or gratification (Besag, 1989). 
  • Bullying is repeated oppression, psychological or physical, of a less powerful person by a more powerful person or group of persons (Farrington ,1993). 
  • Bullying is the willful, conscious desire to hurt or threaten or frighten someone else (Johnstone, Munn, and Edwards, 1991). 
  • Bullying includes any action or implied action, such as threats, intended to cause fear and distress.  This behavior has to be repeated on more than one occasion.  The definition must include evidence that those involved intended or felt fear (Lane, 1989). 
  • A student is being bullied or victimized when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other students.  A single instance of more serious harassment can be regarded as bullying under certain (unspecified) circumstances (Olweus, 1993a). 
  • Bullying intentionally causes hurt to the recipient.  This hurt can be either physical or psychological.  In addition, three further criteria particularly distinguish bullying:  it is unprovoked, it occurs repeatedly, and the bully is stronger than the victim or is perceived to be stronger (Smith and Thompson ,1991). 
  • Bullying is a willful, conscious desire to hurt another person.  It can be occasional and short-lived, or it can be regular and long-standing.  Negative actions may include such low-level nonverbal harassment as stares and glares as well as cruel teasing, social ostracism, malicious gossip, sexual harassment, ethnic slurs, unreasonable territorial bans, destruction of property, extortion, and serious physical assault (Tattum , 1989). 


Reference: Ross, D. (2003). “Childhood Bullying, Teasing, and Violence: What School Personnel, Other Professionals, and Parents Can Do” (2nd ed.), p. 23. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.