“One boy was calling me names at recess, and then my friends started doing it too. They made a circle around me so I couldn’t get out. I wanted to cry but I didn’t. They said I was small and that I wasn’t really smart. My teacher didn’t help me. She thought we were just playing. I’m not the kind of kid who tells on others. I wish that I could invent an invisibility suit so that I could play by myself, and they’d leave me alone!”
—Jason, gifted student, age 6
This story is just one of dozens that gifted students and their parents have reported to me over the years. In this situation, Jason describes a school environment where adults do not intervene, perhaps due to a prevailing myth that “boys will be boys.” But how is an adult to know the difference between playing and bullying? Let’s consider the victim’s (or target’s) perception of the situation. Jason felt intimidated, fearful, and threatened. He was unable to escape the circle that the children had formed around him. He was unable to get help from an adult. While the other children might have appeared to be having fun, probably smiling and laughing, Jason’s expression was one of fear and desolation. For Jason, this brief playground experience was frightening and stressful enough to cause stomach aches for several weeks after the event took place, according to his parents. Jason attempted to make sense of his classmates’ actions, especially the behavior of the children he had previously considered his “friends.” Jason was not sure why he was chosen as the target of their bullying.
Gifted children who are targets of bullying commonly report trying to make sense of the situation, analyzing what they did wrong and how to avoid similar situations in the future. From the number of reports I’ve received from parents of gifted learners, it would seem that gifted students are more prone to being targets of bullying behavior, but this is not supported by research. In fact, gifted children, just like their non-gifted peers, can also be bullies, but the majority of children play the role of bystander. There are, however, certain characteristics that gifted learners, bullies and targets of bullying have in common. These characteristics, or warning signs, will be discussed in this article as well as tips for parents and teachers.
Almost all children experience some form of bullying during their school years. This does not mean that bullying is a rite of passage, however. Bullying is a dangerous form of peer abuse that has severe consequences for everyone involved. Schools are beginning to acknowledge the serious nature of bullying and taking action against it. As a result of school shootings on high school and university campuses across the nation, some states have even enacted legislation to address bullying in schools. A report by the United States Secret Service and the United States Department of Education (2002) stated that about three-quarters of all school shootings were related to bullying. School shooters reported that they were tormented, suffered from long-term peer abuse, and were injured by classmates prior to their retaliation. Approximately 41% of school attackers were bright students who were doing well in school, earning A and B grades, and some were even taking AP courses. The following are some startling statistics related to bullying in schools.
Despite the statistics, bullying often goes undetected in schools and is rarely taken seriously by adults.
WHAT IS BULLYING?
According to Norwegian researcher Dan Olweus, a student is being bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to intentional acts of physical, emotional, or verbal abuse. Bullying also implies an imbalance of power between the victim and the bully. An imbalance of power can be a physical difference such as a size or strength, or a psychological difference such as one’s social status on campus. It is important to note that a student who is being bullied has difficulty defending himself.
Bullying can be direct or indirect. Direct bullying may include hitting, pushing, fighting, teasing, name calling, obscene gestures, and verbal threats. Direct bullying tends to increase during the elementary school years, peak during middle school, and decline during the high school years. Indirect bullying may include social exclusion, spreading rumors, gossip, and manipulating relationships in order to isolate another student.
Bullying often happens under the radar, away from adult supervision, especially among female students. Although both males and females bully others, male bullying tends to be direct while female bullying is often indirect. Female students tend to bully by causing emotional abuse on their targets through intentional manipulation of social relationships, using exclusion or spreading rumors.
Cyber-bullying is an online form of bullying in which bullies may create websites that contain rumors or hurtful information about their targets, similar to the “slam books” of years past. They may spread false rumors anonymously through e-mail distribution lists, text messages, or instant messages. Camera phones with text messaging and Internet capabilities are also providing a method for bullies to instantly violate classmates. The effects of cyber-bullying can be just as painful as physical acts of peer abuse. In fact, research by Willard (2006) suggests that cyber-bullying can impact a victim’s self-esteem, increase anxiety, anger, depression, school absenteeism, grades, and thoughts of suicide.
Cyber-bullying is different from other forms of bullying in that it usually occurs outside of school, is hidden from adult supervision, and the bully may not be known to the victim. Cyber-bullying can occur very quickly and it is sometimes difficult to determine who the culprit is. It also changes the balance of power because anyone can become a bully online. Victims of cyber-bullying are afraid of being “disconnected” by their parents and may therefore not report this form of peer abuse.
HOW TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ROUGH PLAY, FIGHTING, AND BULLYING
It is sometimes difficult for adults to tell the difference bretween rough play, fighting, and bullying. Fighting is usually a one-time occurrence that isn’t repeated and the power between students is relatively equal. Bullying implies an imbalance of power and negative actions that are repeated over time. Here are a few more things to consider when determining the difference between play, fighting and bullying:
Look at the relationship between the students involved. Are they typically friends? Are they from different social or academic groups?
Pay attention to the facial expressions and general atmosphere. Is one student smiling, laughing, and enjoying the bullying? Does one student appear frightened or distressed? Is there a group of bystanders nearby watching and cheering or encouraging the behavior?
Determine if there is an imbalance of power. Is one student larger, stronger, or more popular than the other?
Ask yourself what the intent is. Does one student want to hurt the other?
GIFTED LEARNERS AND BULLYING
Are gifted learners at risk? Schools that do not value intellectual diversity make it difficult for the gifted learner to “fit in.” Hollingworth (1926) claimed that the “socially optimal intelligence range” was between an IQ of 125-155 and that exceptionally-to-profoundly gifted learners with an IQ above 160 may experience social isolation. The reason for this isolation is not because of any inherent emotional disturbance, but from the “absence of a suitable peer group with whom to relate” (Gross, 1994). In schools where the gifted child is heterogeneously grouped by age, it can be a challenge for those with extreme intelligence to find soul mates. Furthermore, social isolation can place a student at greater risk for becoming a victim of bullying. Students with bullying behavior tend to seek out others who are easy targets, such as introverted students who sit alone at recess or lunch, or students who are highly sensitive and will be easily provoked. School cultures that do not value diversity, academic giftedness, or creativity can become unsafe places for students who march to the beat of a different drummer.
Being a target of bullying or witnessing bullying behavior may increase anxiety and depression in the highly sensitive gifted child. Additionally, an active and vivid imagination can intensify fears. Advanced cognitive ability combined with average or “typical” physical and emotional development can result in the gifted student reacting to bullying situations in ways that provoke more bullying. For example, a verbally gifted student may rely on a sense of humor or sarcasm to defend him or herself which might be interpreted as aggression by the bully (Frazier-Koontz, M., Swearer, S.M., & Miller, C.K., 2004).
Perfectionist tendencies can also make it difficult for the gifted student to report victimization. Gifted students with perfectionist traits may feel as though they have to deal with these problems on their own and may therefore not confide in parents or adults. Through the observation of peer and adult responses to bullying, they have probably come to believe that bullying is a part of growing up. It is crucial for the gifted child to know that it is perfectly acceptable to turn to adults for assistance in handling certain bullying situations and adults must be ready to listen and support the student.
Gifted learners can be both victims and bullies. A retrospective national survey of gifted 8th graders found results similar to other studies of bullying among the general population. In this study, 67% of gifted learners surveyed reported that they had experienced bullying at some point during grades K–8 with bullying peaking in grade 6 (Peterson & Ray, 2006). Many of the participants also reported that they did not tell anyone about the bullying. By grade eight, 29% of gifted targets had violent thoughts and one in five gifted males was identified as having bullying behavior.
CHARACTERISTICS OF BULLIES
Contrary to popular belief, bullies tend to have average to high self-esteem. Imagine the popular high school athlete who hazes and intimidates others. Does he have low-self esteem, or does he enjoy having this power over classmates? Despite myths, bullies are often popular, at least in the early grades, and then this popularity decreases as they age (Nansel, et al, 2001; Olweus, 1993). Of course, not all physically strong male students or popular students are bullies, but there is evidence in the literature that bullies are those students who have the combination of an aggressive reaction pattern and physical strength. In his book Bullying at School (1993), Olweus lists characteristics of bullies as shown below.
Bullies are students who:
Students who bully others are more likely to grow into violent adults. Those who were identified as bullies at age 8 were six times more likely to be convicted of a crime by age 24 and five times more likely than non-bullies to have a serious criminal record by age 30. In addition, approximately 60% of students who were identified as bullies in grades 6–9 had at least one conviction by the age of 24 (Olweus, 1993). As much as 35–40% of students who had been identified as bullies had three or more convictions by age 24.
VICTIMS OF BULLYING
Another myth is that bullies pick on children who look different, who are overweight, wear glasses, have accents, or stand out in some way. What the literature tells us is that bullies do not choose their victim because of any outward physical appearance, but because the victim is an easy target. Bullies look for someone who will not fight back, who will not defend himself, and who will give them the reaction they are seeking, such as crying or giving up possessions. Keeping in mind some of the specific characteristics of gifted introverts, exceptionally gifted learners and twice exceptional children, you might see some overlapping risk factors among those shown below.
Passive victims tend to:
Provocative victims tend to:
The majority of students (between 60% and 75%) are neither victims nor bullies, but are witnesses to bullying behavior in schools. This group of students is often aware of bullying and may hold important information that can be used by adults to prevent or stop bullying behavior. Schools can focus on this majority population by teaching them safe ways to intervene or encouraging them to anonymously report bullying through hotlines or other communication tools.
Even bystanders stand to suffer from witnessing bullying in their schools. Students who regularly witness bullying can develop indifferent attitudes and decreased empathy (Olweus, Limber, & Mihalic, 1999). They also may feel afraid, powerless, and guilty for not intervening. A heightened sense of moral ethics and justice can be used to empower gifted bystanders to support targets of bullying. Parents and teachers can encourage gifted students to include others who are left out, to speak to an adult at school and at home, to report acts of bullying, and to support targets. A bully needs an audience to receive the rewards he or she seeks. If bystanders take an active role in bullying situations by not cheering on the bully and by helping the target find a safe exit, they can change the school climate. Adults need to teach these bystanders how and when to take action.
WHAT CAN ADULTS DO TO HELP?
First of all, adults need to learn how to recognize bullying and call it what it is. Bullying is peer abuse. Parents and teachers should examine myths about bullying. Bullying is no longer a rite of passage. The same behaviors that occur in bullying situations, such as extortion, sexual harassment, assault, and theft are considered criminal offenses when they are carried out by adults or by young adults outside the school walls.
Students need adults to intervene in bullying situations, and they need to feel empowered to speak out against bullying. Peer mediation and conflict resolution interventions are not acceptable responses to bullying situations. Bullying implies an imbalance of power; therefore any forced apologies or no-contact contracts will only serve to re-victimize the target. Using peer mediation in a bullying situation is like asking a battered wife to sit down and “work it out” with her husband. We must be careful not to place blame on the victim of bullying.
According to unpublished survey results from over 12,000 sixth-througheighth grade students in a large southeastern public school district, students often do not report bullying because of a code of silence among peers because the adults just make things worse, or because the adults don’t do anything about it to help. From the time our children enter kindergarten, they are told repeatedly to “stop tattling.” Students need to be taught the difference between tattling and telling, or reporting. Parents and teachers should explain that tattling is done to get someone in trouble and telling is done to get someone out of trouble. Parents and other adults should take all reports of bullying seriously and follow up with students to let them know that the behavior has been addressed and there will be consequences.
Exit strategies can be discussed and practiced through role-play or creative writing. Bibliotherapy, journaling, artistic expression, and class or family meetings can also be effective tools to help gifted students deal with bullying and to recognize their own bullying behaviors. School guidance counselors can provide individual counseling as needed. School counselors or gifted specialists can also lead discussion or support groups in a homogenous setting. Some possible discussion group topics include friendship building skills, social skills, assertiveness training, anger management, and stress reduction.
TIPS FOR PARENTS WHO THINK THEIR CHILD MAY BE A VICTIM OF BULLYING
U.S.D.O.E. and U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services
Activities for kids, handouts and resources for adults.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
National Mental Health Information Center.
Research-based strategies to reduce bullying in schools.
See articles by Tracy Cross and Jean Peterson on bullying.
SENG Website: http://sengifted.org/
Beane, A.L. (2005). The bully free classroom: Over 100 tips and strategies for teachers K-8. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing. (CD-ROM features 34 reproducible forms from the book.)
Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. NY: Blackwell.
Kerr, B. A., & Cohn, S. J. (2001) Smart boys: Talent, manhood, & the search for meaning. AZ: Great Potential Press.
Romain, T. (1997). Bullies are a pain in the brain. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing. (DVD release date: 2005, Studio: The Comical Sense Company)
Simmons, R. (2002). Odd girl out: The hidden culture of aggression in girls. NY: Harcourt, Inc.
Freedman, J.S. (2002). Easing the teasing: Helping your child cope with name-calling, ridicule, and verbal bullying. NY: Contemporary Books.
KERI M. GUILBAULT, Ed.S., is a doctoral student in the Educational Leadership program at the University of Central Florida. Guilbault has taught elementary gifted learners, French K–8, art K–6 and has worked as a bullying prevention specialist for a large school district in Florida. Ms. Guilbault serves on the board of the Florida Association for the Gifted, has accepted appointment as the national Gifted Children’s Program Chair of American Mensa beginning in July 2008, and has received the 2005 NAGC non-doctoral student award.
Fekkes, M., Pijpers, F. I., Verloove-Vanhorick, S.P. (2004). Bullying behaviors and associations with psychosomatic complaints and depression in victims. The Journal of Pediatrics, 25 (1), 17-22.
Frazier-Koontz, M., Swearer, S.M., Miller, C.K. (2004, November). Bullying at school: Special needs of gifted learners. Power point presented at the NAGC Annual Convention, Salt Lake City, UT.
Gross, M.U.M. (1994). Factors in the social adjustment and social acceptability of extremely gifted children. In N. Colangelo, S. Assouline, & D. Ambroson (Eds.), Talent Development (pp. 473-476). Dayton, OH: Ohio Psychology Press.
Hawker, D. S. J., & Boulton, M. J. (2000). Twenty years’ research on peer victimization and psychological maladjustment: A meta-analysis review of cross-sectional studies. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 41(4), 441-445.)
Hollingworth, L. S. (1926). Gifted children: Their nature and nurture. New York: MacMillan.
Nansel, T. R., Overpeck, M. D., Pilla, R. S., Ruan, J., Simons-Morton, B., & Scheidt, P.C. (2001). Bullying behaviors among US youth: Prevalence and association with psychosocial adjustment. JAMA, 285 (16), 2094-2100.
Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. NY: Blackwell.
Olweus, D. Limber, S., & Mihalic, S. (1999).The Bullying-prevention program: Blueprints for violence prevention. Boulder, CO: Center for the Study of the Prevention of Violence.
Peterson, J. S., & Ray, K. E. (2006). Bullying and the gifted: Victims, perpetrators, prevalence, and effects.Gifted Child Quarterly, 50(2), 148 – 168.
Peterson, J. S., & Ray, K. E. (2006). Bullying among the gifted: The subjective experience. Gifted Child Quarterly, 50(3), 252-269.
United Secret Service and United States Department of Education. (2002, May).The final report and findings of the safe school initiative: Implications for the prevention of school attacks in the United States. Washington, D.C.
This article has been reprinted from the Gifted Education Communicator, a publication of the California Association for the Gifted (CAG).
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