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 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, emotional or online (cyberbullying), four widely-accepted factors can be used to identify it:

  • Bullying is deliberate - one person intentionally causing physical and / or psychological harm to another.
  • Bullying involves a power imbalance - an actual (or perceived) unequal relationship, for example physical size, age, gender, social status, or digital capability and access.
  • Bullying is usually not a one-off - it is repeated over time, with the threat of further incidents leading to fear and anxiety. People may bully one person many times, or different people each time.
  • Bullying is harmful - the target experiences short or long-term physical or psychological harm (for example, as a result of coercion or intimidation).

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

Is it teasing, bullying or aggression?

Bullying is one form of aggressive behaviour – not all verbal or physical aggression is bullying. For example, if a student uses sexist or racist terms but doesn’t mean to cause harm, it isn’t bullying. Similarly, taking someone else’s things once is theft but not necessarily bullying.

You will need to use your professional judgment to decide whether or not a specific incident is bullying.

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

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The typical elements of teasing/hassling, aggression and bullying

St Francis de Sales School, Wellington

Words hurt too


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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