How should we define bullying when talking to other staff members, students and their families?

A bullying definition for primary students

Bullying is when these things happen again and again to someone, and it is hard for the student being bullied to stop these things from happening:

  • ignoring someone or leaving them out on purpose
  • making fun of or teasing someone in a mean and hurtful way
  • telling lies or nasty stories about someone to make other children not like them
  • making someone afraid of getting hurt
  • staring or giving someone mean looks or gestures
  • forcing someone to do things they don’t want to
  • being hit, kicked or pushed around

A bullying definition for secondary students

Bullying means deliberately and repeatedly trying to make a person upset, angry, humiliated or afraid. Bullying is a behaviour used by a person or group to gain power over a less powerful person, who has difficulty stopping the situation.

Bullying is when the following things are done to someone again and again, and the person being bullied is unable to stop it happening.

Physical bullying:

  • violent actions towards another person, involving hitting, pinching, biting, pushing, pulling and shoving, slapping, punching, strangling, kicking, intentional bumping, tripping, scratching and throwing things
  • touching another person when they don’t want you to

Verbal bullying:

  • calling someone names
  • spreading rumours
  • teasing someone in a hurtful way
  • being sarcastic in a hurtful way
  • making racially offensive comments about someone and their family
  • rude comments or jokes about someone’s religion
  • hurtful comments about the way someone looks or behaves
  • mean comments about someone’s body

Relational bullying:

  • ignoring someone or keeping them out of group conversations (known as exclusion)
  • leaving someone out by encouraging others not to have anything to do with them
  • spreading lies or stories about someone
  • trying to get other students to dislike someone


  • making someone feel afraid that they or their loved ones are going to be hurt
  • making things up to get someone into trouble
  • pressuring someone to do things that they don’t want to do
  • stalking

Property abuse:

  • damaging someone’s belongings
  • stealing money or property


  • harassing or abusive emails and phone messages
  • making silent or abusive phone calls
  • spreading rumours via email or phone
  • sending someone offensive texts
  • posting insulting messages on social media

A bullying definition for adults

Bullying is:

  • a repeated, unjustifiable behaviour;
  • that may be physical, verbal, and/or psychological;
  • that is intended to cause fear, distress or harm to another;
  • that is conducted by a more powerful individual or group;
  • against a less powerful individual who is unable to effectively resist.

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Is there specific language we should use when talking about bullying?

It is important that bullying is seen as a behaviour, and not personalised in the form of someone being a ‘bully’. The message students receive should be that bullying is an unacceptable behaviour. It is easy to fall into the trap of focusing on ‘busting’ the bullies. Try not to use such terms.

This focus promotes force and exclusion as a means of getting ones way, in other words, exactly what bullying is! It also labels students who engage in bullying as ‘bullies’ and may marginalise and exclude them from change activities, because the message they receive is that they, as a ‘bully’, are not wanted or valued.

Activity to reduce and prevent bullying should promote the message that all students are valued, but engaging in bullying behaviour is unacceptable. Written information and policy should reflect this by referring to ‘students who engage in bullying’ or ‘students who bully others’ and ‘students who are bullied’ or ‘students who are the target of bullying’.

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What role can students play in reducing bullying?

Students are key to reducing bullying because they usually know what is going on among the students and who is doing the bullying long before the adults do. Research shows that more than half of students who report being bullied once a week or more do not tell their teachers, and teachers report their intervention in bullying incidents to be more comprehensive than students do. These findings suggest that bullying is more likely to be witnessed by peers than adults.

Classroom learning and whole-school responses to bullying should build upon students’ pro-social desires for bullying to stop and their inclinations to help those who are bullied. Students are also most likely to support an initiative to reduce bullying when they have been directly involved in determining the need for such a program. This includes developing bullying policies and providing feedback on school-wide or classroom strategies.

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What are some useful strategies for encouraging students to help stop bullying?

Once students are mobilised to take action against bullying, they must feel secure that teachers understand their need to stay safe. For some students this means ensuring that the information they share will not cause them to lose status in their peer group.

To ensure peer participation, teachers and school administrators must reinforce peer intervention efforts and model consistent responses to bullying. It is important that the onus for intervening in bullying incidents is not left to students alone, but rather peer intervention efforts are viewed as complimentary to a whole-school approach to tackling bullying. By alerting adults to bullying incidents, school staff and students can work together, disrupting the power imbalance present in bullying.

Classroom learning and whole-school responses to bullying should build upon students’ pro-social desires for bullying to stop and their inclinations to help people being bullied. By mobilising positive peer influence against bullying behaviour, students who are bullied will feel supported and more confident in applying the skills they have learnt to the wider setting of the school environment.

Training in assertive responses can also help to provide the skills necessary for bystanders to respond in a way that does not promote bullying, by helping them to resist group pressure to join in or do nothing. Different types of bullying and bullying situations require different responses. All behaviours should be linked with the consequences for action in the school’s Behaviour Management Plan.

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