A New Lens for Bullying Prevention

By: Julie E. McDaniel-Muldoon, PhD

Bullying behavior remains prevalent in American schools and a persistent problem for students. The results of two surveys given every two years help to explain this prevalence. First, results from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (2007-2017) describes the rate of bullying as stable over the past decade for high school students, with about 20% of students reporting being bullied on school property (Center for Disease Control, 2017). The second survey, the National Crime Victimization Survey (2005-2015), includes all secondary students and allows for a break down of bullying data by grade level. According to the results of this survey, students in grades 6-8 report higher incidents of bullying when compared to high school students (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016). The following chart shows bullying frequency by grade levels 6-12:

Why does bullying remain a stable and unacceptable issue for young people, especially for middle school students, despite our best efforts, proven practice, solid research and more?  Perhaps the barrier to reducing bullying is the type of lens through which we view bullying behavior and our prevention efforts. To explain, the most effective research- and evidence-based bullying prevention programs are comprehensive and systemic approaches. While building strong and supportive school cultures is essential in bullying prevention, bullying is a complex social issue. Considering adolescent neurological and social development may bring a wider lens for understanding bullying and might provide new insight into this pernicious issue for young people.

Neurological Development and Social Dominance

In his 2015 book “Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain,” Dr. Daniel Siegel explains four qualities of the adolescent brain: novelty seeking, increased emotional intensity, creative exploration, and social engagement. The social engagement feature inspires young people at a psychophysiological level to strengthen their peer connections and to develop new peer relationships. As Siegel explains, there are positive and negative results from this intense social feature. The positive results are strong social connections that will lead to greater well-being and happiness. However, the disadvantages to enhanced peer connectedness is adolescents isolating themselves from adults, rejecting adult knowledge, and engaging in behaviors that pose greater risk to them. Siegel explains this separation from adults during adolescence as a process “vital for our survival” (p. 27). However, while the new relationships are taking precedence in adolescents’ lives, the continued adult attachment will ensure healthy social development as adolescents create their own communities.

If looking at bullying behavior from an adolescent neurological development lens, we understand that bullying might emerge in adolescent communities without healthy adult attachments. Trusted adults provide continued guidance for healthy individual and social behaviors for adolescents. Using this lens, adults make concerted efforts to model and teach children and young people that bullying is an unacceptable and harmful behavior while also supporting their efforts to create strong peer communities. As we know, bullying cannot flourish in strong and supportive communities.

In addition to considering neurological development in bullying prevention efforts, it is also important to include a framework for social structure and power. Adolescents learn who they are in context of their environment. They learn not just self-awareness and self-management, but have a growing understanding of who they are in their peer groups, schools, families, and society. Every social group has power, and a power imbalance is at the root of bullying behavior.

Dr. Patricia Hawley, an evolutionary developmental psychologist, explains how children learn social dominance, which may lead to a better understanding of why bullying behavior occurs and how it emerges from social structures (Hawley, 2015). Because humans think in hierarchies, it is natural for them to organize socially in hierarchical fashion. Hawley’s research with children 4-5 years old shows how children organize as a group, documenting how those who assumed dominant positions were those who were also able to control resources. Those children who exhibit a more coercive type of dominance engage in aggressive control. Interestingly, these children engaging in more aggressive control want peer approval, yet they also avoid close relationships.  Even in early childhood, strong and healthy leadership engages in prosocial behavior that serves both the individual and the community. She summarizes what children learn about social power this way: “You can get what you want in a social group while being nice to others. As a consequence, they will accept you, support you when you are in need, and help you achieve your goals” (Hawley, 2015, p. 835).

The imbalance of power manifested in bullying behavior stems from the belief that resources are finite, that people are not equal, and that shared power will never result in individual satisfaction. Hawley offers a different way to look at social dominance. By modeling and teaching prosocial behavior as a way for children and adolescents to achieve both individual and community goals, bullying might be viewed as an ineffective method of meeting individual needs and a behavior that weakens the strength of the community. Hawley also suggests that adults play the pivotal role in instilling prosocial behaviors and helping children understand the power of community. These ideas can become a part of the foundation of the K-12 experience; students are empowered through prosocial behavior and a community mindset.

An Alternative Way to Approach Bullying Prevention

By using a lens that takes into account the complex social nature of adolescents as well as their unique neurodevelopmental stage, bullying prevention can be viewed in a new way. Adults act on this new understanding, providing continued guidance in helping adolescents develop those strong and healthy relationships needed to thrive. By modeling, instilling and strengthening prosocial leadership qualities, educators are helping students create their own communities which brings them a stronger sense of belonging. When school leaders approach bullying behavior with this same mindset, all prevention efforts begin with cultivating and strengthening safe and supportive school environments.

Bullying prevention efforts should meet young people where they are. It is in this place where the social and emotional harm of bullying is healed and the sense of community is restored. It is also in this place where the solid research- and evidence-based bullying prevention programs become more impactful, and schools are finally able to reduce the unacceptable and persistent rates of bullying, especially at the middle school level.


Center for Disease Control (2017). Youth Risk Behavior Survey: data and trends report 2007-2017. Retrieved from Washington, DC: https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/data/yrbs/pdf/trendsreport.pdf.

Hawley, P. H. (2015). Social Dominance in Childhood and its evolutionary
underpinnings: why it matters and what we can do. Pediatrics, 135.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). Percentage of students ages 12-18 who reported being bullied at school during the school year, by type of bullying and selected student and school characteristics: Selected years, 2005 through 2015. In Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, School Crime Supplement (SCS) to the National Crime Victimization Survey (Ed.), Digest of Education Statistics (August 2016 ed.). Washington, DC: NCES.

Rutledge, P. (2011). Social Networks: What Maslow Missed. Retrieved from https://mprcenter.org/blog/2011/11/social-networks-what-maslow-misses/

Siegel, D. J. (2015). Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.

Julie E. McDaniel-Muldoon, PhD

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