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Virginia Journal of Education

Getting at the Roots of Bullying

Our efforts to fight bullying will be more effective if we understand what motivates it.

by Bob Sullo
The following story, as heartbreaking and infuriating as it is, is true—and happened here in Virginia: Last January, a young man, a 16-year-old high school freshman, moved with his family from Texas to York County. An enthusiastic skateboarder, he dressed and acted differently from many of his new peers.

As a result, he became a bullying target. His mother believes the harassment started soon after he began attending his new school. As it continued over the next few months, she reported it to both school officials and local law enforcement.

The bullying, however, didn’t let up and, in the end, proved too much for the young man to handle. Last Memorial Day, he slipped into his bedroom and hung himself.

Bullying is one of the most abhorrent behaviors we deal with in school. Sadly, it is all too common, and the problem only seems to be getting worse: worse in numbers and worse in the level of harm inflicted. Once perpetrated almost exclusively by males victimizing other males and engaged in face-to-face, today bullying is practiced by both males and females. With cyber-bullying providing anonymity, today’s victims sometimes never even know the identity of their tormentors Whereas bullying was once a horrible personal attack, and still often is, now it can also be impersonal while inflicting as much pain as ever.

Advances in technology also mean that victims have more difficulty avoiding being a target. In days gone by, a potential victim could walk home a different way or take an alternative route to class. With the Internet, there’s no getting away. Once students have been targeted, they can be victimized regardless of where they are.

While the York County incident and other well-publicized examples, such as the case of a 15-year old girl in Massachusetts whose bullying-related suicide has led to criminal charges against several of her classmates, are horrendous extremes of bullying, they are only the tip of the iceberg. Far less dramatic are the innumerable bullying incidents that occur in countless schools, whether they are rural, suburban or urban; whether they are large or small; and whether they are elementary, middle or high schools. Although the majority of bullying is less extreme than what’s described above, peer harassment takes a tremendous toll on its victims, their families and their communities. The emotional scars of bullying often linger for years after the actual episodes have ceased.

Prevention vs. Intervention
Most discussions about bullying focus on how to effectively intervene after bullying occurs, discouraging future offenses while providing comfort and relief to victims. Because it is so distasteful, bullying is an emotionally-charged topic. In an effort to protect victims and demonstrate that they are fully supported by the adult community, many propose severe penalties for bullies. Unfortunately, punishment typically is ineffective. It would be wonderful if wayward students were punished, learned their lesson, and became model citizens. As we all know, it doesn’t usually work that way.

More often, bullies resent any punishment they incur. While they may behave appropriately for a brief period, when things normalize they tend to revert to their bullying ways. Only this time they are a little angrier, a little smarter, and a little less likely to be caught.

The most we can hope for when we focus on post-bullying punishment is to secure a measure of justice. But justice won’t bring back children who have taken their own lives or undo the emotional scars that victims and their families suffer. To effectively address the bullying epidemic, we need to switch our focus from intervention to prevention. We need to stop bullying from occurring, rather than developing interventions that have no chance of providing genuine satisfaction.

What Motivates Bullying?
All behavior, even behavior as distasteful as bullying, is purposeful. We behave to satisfy the needs that drive all human beings: to connect and belong; to be powerful; to be free; to have fun; and to feel safe and secure. Let’s look at how these drives manifest in bullying behavior.

Connecting/Belonging. Some bullies victimize others in an effort to connect and belong. Bullies often have a large circle of friends. We adults may suspect that many of these so-called friends simply act friendly to avoid becoming the next victim. But bullies often believe that the friendships are genuine. In a warped way, bullying helps them satisfy the need to connect and belong. Bullies motivated by the need to connect can often be identified by looking at their relationship with peers. If they dominate their friends and peers are drawn to them to avoid being targeted, they most likely bully to build a circle of friends and satisfy the need to belong.

Power. The need for power drives more bullies than any other need. The physical and/or psychological power wielded by a bully is enormous. While there are certainly bullies who are academically successful, students who do poorly academically are at increased risk of becoming bullies. Doing well in school is a way to get power responsibly. Students who don’t do well in school have a need for power, and bullying offers a way to achieve it, albeit irresponsibly. That’s why it is so important for us to ensure that all students have the ability to satisfy their need for power through success in school, athletics, the arts or some other pro-social, responsible pursuit.

Freedom. Some bullies are primarily driven by the need for freedom. Because it is frowned upon, bullying is the quintessential act of defiance, a declaration of autonomy. Their behavior screams, “You can’t tell me what to do. I do exactly what I want, when I want.” Freedom-driven bullies often engage in less extreme acts of bullying. Because all forms of bullying are frowned upon by the adult society, these bullies are typically satisfied by less violent acts. What matters most to them is defying authority and asserting their autonomy. Create schools and classrooms where students have the opportunity to satisfy the need for freedom while following reasonable expectations and there will be fewer incidents of bullying driven by the need for freedom.

Fun. As perverse as it sounds, bullying is often great fun for the bully. As a school psychologist, adjustment counselor and administrator, I worked with a number of bullies over the years. It was not unusual for them to tell me that the role of bully was fun. Many of these students had little capacity for empathy. Cyber-bullying, in particular, distances the bully from the victim and is often seen as fun because the victim is never seen or heard. For the fun-driven bully, the intent is not to hurt. It’s to have fun. I don’t say that to excuse the bully or diminish the suffering that they cause. I say it because it helps me solve this horrendous problem. When I help the fun-driven bully develop appropriate ways to meet his or her need for fun, the bullying is likely to stop.

Safety/Security. Finally, a small percentage of bullies engage in bullying behavior to feel safe and secure. These are “reluctant bullies,” children who bully to keep from being victimized themselves. While their behavior is as deplorable as any other bully, it’s crucial to remember that these bullies are driven to feel safe. They have no desire to inflict pain on another. Feeling trapped, they victimize others, generally at the behest of a power-driven bully, so they won’t be victimized. Once the fear is removed and they feel safe, these bullies generally refrain from aggressive behavior because it no longer need-satisfying.

To prevent a problem like bullying, we need to understand why it occurs in the first place. Rather than dismissing it as aberrant behavior that can be alleviated by the threat of severe punishment, it’s essential to remember that bullying, like all behavior, is purposeful. It’s time to address the root cause of bullying.

Everyone is Doing The Best They Can
I emphasize prevention because prevention is more effective than intervention. That said, even the most elegantly designed prevention model will not work all the time and there will still be occasional episodes of bullying. When bullying occurs, our impulse is often to punish and punish severely. We do this because:

• We want to show this bully and all potential bullies that we won’t tolerate such inappropriate behavior.

• We want to clearly demonstrate to victims and their families that they are fully supported.

• We are offended that such behavior continues, especially when we have implemented specific strategies to prevent bullying. As a result, we quickly resort to punishment, an unmistakable sign of our frustration.

A prevention orientation will minimize the bullying problem but it won’t eliminate it completely. When bullying does occur, we need to intervene effectively. It’s crucial to remember that we are asking adults to act under stressful conditions. Faced with an emotionally-charged, abhorrent act of violence requiring intervention, we need to be mindful of our own behavior.

To be effective, I need to be calm, balanced and centered. If I allow myself to focus on the inexcusable behavior of bullying, I automatically perceive the bully in the most negative light and my urge to punish and punish severely dominates my thinking. My anger, frustration and desire to punish are understandable, but they are not especially helpful. But here’s the crucial point. I don’t have to perceive things that way. I don’t have to become a victim, too. Bullying doesn’t make me behave a certain way.

Everyone has choice, including me. I don’t need to focus on the bullying. Even though it may go against the grain, I can remain calm and access the skills needed to intervene effectively. It’s not easy. It may not come naturally. But I have a choice. In these moments it’s wise to keep in mind a central tenet of internal control psychology: everyone is doing the best they can to meet their needs. Yes, even bullies. When I am consumed by anger – even justifiable anger – I sentence myself to failure. But when I choose to remember that bullies are doing the best they can, I am able to remain calm and intervene effectively. No longer fueled by anger, I see the bully as unskilled, as someone who needs my help.

Keeping this in mind has served me well over the years. More than anything else, it allows me to remain in a role that I treasure: educator. Rather than settling for the role of enforcer and punisher, I remember that I am first and foremost an educator. When I approach a bully with anger, I am likely to be punitive and I compromise my ability to teach a better, more appropriate way to act. When I remember that everybody is doing the best they can – yes, even this bully – I continue to do what I want to do: teach under-equipped children more socially acceptable, responsible behaviors to satisfy the needs that will drive them for the rest of their lives. My unspoken message to bullies is this: “You may choose to bully others, but you can’t make me do anything. I am an educator and I will do everything in my power to teach you how to act appropriately and develop the skills you need to be a productive citizen. Regardless of what you choose to do, I will remain an educator. I choose to see you as a student with behavioral, social and emotional deficiencies and I will do what I can to help you learn a better way. While I cannot ‘make’ you behave better, it is my choice to remain a teacher even in the most difficult circumstances.”

It’s hard to accept the notion that bullies are doing the best they can, especially when they inflict such pain and we see these same students behave responsibly at other times. But remembering this core principle has been invaluable for me. It has kept me from resorting to fruitless punishment and allowed me to focus on ensuring that we create schools and classrooms where students can connect, be powerful, have freedom, and enjoy themselves in a safe, secure environment. Fostering such an environment is one of my central roles as an educator and parent. And when intervention is necessary, I choose to remain calm, balanced and resourceful so I can help bullies learn a more responsible way to behave.

Sullo ( is an educational consultant with more than 30 years of experience as a classroom teacher, school psychologist and administrator. He’s the author of several books, including Activating the Desire to Learn and The Motivated Student: Unlocking Enthusiasm for Learning. For information about staff development workshops, visit



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