What is bullying?

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It’s easy to assume everyone knows what bullying is. But often the term bullying is used to describe other aggressive behaviour. This can make it hard for schools, parents and whānau, and the wider community to consistently identify and deal with bullying when it happens. Most widely-accepted definitions of bullying are based on four elements: bullying is deliberate, harmful, involves a power imbalance, and has an element of repetition.

Defining Bullying

Whether bullying is physical, verbal, or social (relational), four widely-accepted factors can be used to identify it:

  • Bullying is deliberate - harming another person intentionally
  • Bullying involves a misuse of power in a relationship
  • Bullying is usually not a one-off - it is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated over time
  • Bullying involves behaviour that can cause harm - it is not a normal part of growing up.

Bullying can happen anywhere, in person or online (cyberbullying), at any time, and can be verbal, physical or social (relational). It can be obvious or hidden.

Kids who bully use their power — such as physical strength, knowing something embarassing, or popularity — to control or harm others. Bullying is when one student (or a group of students) keeps picking on another student again and again to make them feel bad. They say or do things to upset them, make fun of them, stop them from joining in, or keep hitting or punching them.

This downloadable factsheet can be used by schools, parents, whānau and the wider community to promote a common understanding of bullying.

St Francis de Sales School, Wellington

Words hurt too


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What is not bullying?

Bullying is a word often used to describe behaviour that is not actually bullying — not all verbal or physical aggression is bullying. For example:

  • a one-off fight or argument, or difference of opinion between friends where there is no power imbalance and they can sort it out between themselves
  • not liking someone or a single act of social rejection
  • one-off acts of meanness or spite
  • isolated incidents of aggression, intimidation or violence
  • using sexist or racist terms but doesn’t mean to cause harm
  • theft: taking someone else’s things once is theft but not necessarily bullying.

These other behaviours may be just as upsetting and serious, but may need to be dealt with in a different way. You will need to use your judgment to decide whether or not a specific incident is bullying.

This diagram shows the typical elements of teasing/hassling, aggression and bullying.

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The typical elements of teasing/hassling, aggression and bullying

The importance of a shared understanding of bullying

Having a shared understanding of bullying is important so that everyone - students, teachers, school leaders, whānau and wider community - can consistently recognise and deal with bullying when it happens.

Dannevirke High School Principal

Dannevirke High School has worked hard to promote a shared understanding of bullying amoung staff, students, parents and the wider community. Listen to the principal talk about their approach.

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Section 2 of the Office of the Children's Commissioner Responsive Schools report sets out definitions of bullying, violence and abuse, as agreed by reputable researchers in this field. These definitions can provide a good starting point for bullying prevention policy development.

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Responsive schools: Office of the Children's Commissioner

Visit the Office of the Chidren's Commissioner website to download the 'Responsive Schools' document written by Dr Janis Carroll-Lind.

How schools can identify and respond to bullying?

  • Do staff and board members understand all the students within the school and why all students need to be included in our school's approach to bullying?
  • Are we committed to a whole-school approach to ensure a positive, safe and inclusive school environment for all staff and students?
  • How does our school manage change to improve policies related to bullying?
  • Do we understand what 'bystanding' may look like online, and how this relates to the real world?
  • Do we understand the culture in which digital technology is used at our school? 

Useful links to resources and research

Further Information