School Bullying Hurts: Evidence of Psychological and Academic Challenges
among Students with Bullying Histories.
Daniel Cruz, Ph.D.*
Keywords: bullying, stress, trauma, academic achievement, reading comprehension
Bullying carries a lifelong series of emotional scars that permanently affect children into adulthood. Bullying is associated with depression, anxiety, and poor school performance. Yet, despite considerable evidence, the effectiveness of bullying programs remains questionable. The current study examined the impact of bullying on the psychological well-being of students and on academic achievement, specifically in the area of reading comprehension. Results indicated that bullying was strongly associated with increased psychological problems and with poor reading comprehension performance. These results suggest that bullying results in student low academic achievement and implies that bullying programs must be monitored for effectiveness and anti-bullying enforced.
Bullying is known to cause emotional, physical, and psychological pain. Unfortunately, children at school every day face bullying and often do not get much needed help. As much as people would like to say that words do not hurt, they do, and they can leave a person with permanent emotional scarring from which they may never recover. Some may argue that school bullying is the worst form of bullying because of the emotional pain that it carries through adulthood. All schools are supposed to showcase a safe learning environment for all of the kids, but effective monitoring and prevention of bullying continues to be problematic and programs ineffective. These children are at an age where they should not have to worry about being bullied when they attend school. An article written by Smokowski and Kopasz (2005), reviewed the characteristics of bullies and victims, family backgrounds, the short-term and long-term effects of bullying, and bullying prevention programs. The article described how bullying directly relates to school achievement. School achievement is very important to every student, and we have a significant problem on our hands when something completely unnecessary, and arguably preventable, such as bullying affects a child’s ability to learn. According to these researchers, anxiety and depression are among the major factors that inhibit or hinder a student’s ability to do well in school when they are being bullied. Students who are being bullied may focus more on safety and less on academic progress. Another factor mentioned quite a few times is absenteeism. Many bully victims are absent from school more than the average student in order to avoid being targeted. The large number of absences, in addition to the psychological problems observed in these students, takes quite a toll on their quality of life and academic achievement.
Many past studies focused on the direct relationship between bullying and academic achievement overall. Instead of only focusing on a broad level of academic achievement, our study examined specific areas of academics, most importantly, reading. Reading is a fundamental skill that is necessary for learning across all areas of the curriculum. We have reason to believe that reading is affected quite significantly in students who are bullied, and this is detrimental given that reading requires many cognitive resources. Some of these cognitive resources include, but are not limited to, attention, concentration, language, and auditory processing. A student, whose cognitive resources are focused on safety and survival, will have less cognitive resources available to engage in the learning process.
In addition to being bullied, children in the inner city are faced with unique challenges. These challenges include poverty, racism, domestic and community violence, and very limited access to much needed social and organizational resources. There have been many studies conducted to test the effect of these stressors on academic achievement. For example, McLoyd (1998) found that children brought up in poverty have more detrimental effects on IQ, school achievement, and socio-emotional functioning. As such, students in the inner city may be at particular risk for the development of trauma secondary to psychosocial stressors in addition to being the target of bullies. The challenges to a student’s development can be understood in the context of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Physiological needs may be threatened by poverty and safety by bullying. Students who are threatened emotionally at school continuously will have fewer opportunities to experience their fullest potential, a concept that Maslow referred to as Self-Actualization.
It is hoped that the current study will contribute valuable information to not only the students plagued by bullying but to the teachers who want to help alleviate students’ stress and anxiety so they can perform to their fullest potential. As such, the goal of the current study was to examine the relationships between bullying and stress and academic achievement. We hypothesized that students with histories of being bullied would also have higher stress levels and poorer academic achievement in reading. The study was reviewed and approved by the Caldwell College Institutional Review Board (IRB).
A total of 43 students participated in the current study. The mean average age of the participants was 15.56 with a standard deviation of 1.35. Twenty-one of the participants were male (54%) and 18 were female (46%). The majority of the participants self-identified as Black/African-American (n = 32, 73%). Six participants identified as Latino (14%) and one identified as “other.”
Peer Relation Questionnaire for Children (PRQ-C) - This is a valid and reliable questionnaire that provides 3 subscales: Bullying (Aggressor and Victim) scores and Prosocial Behavior scores. For the current study, we used only the bully victim scale. The scale has a total of 20 questions. Participants respond to the questions on a scale as follows: Never, Once in a While, Pretty Often, Very Often. Sample bully victim questions include: “I get called names by others,” “I get picked on by others,” and “Others make fun of me.”
Trauma Symptom Checklist for Children (TSCC) – The purpose of this measure was to assess chronic stress and psychological trauma that may also negatively impact academic performance. The scale is used for students between the ages of 8 to 16. For the current study, we used the TSCC total score as a global measure of chronic stress.
Index of Race-Related Stress – Brief (IRRS-B) Cultural and Racial Discrimination Questionnaire –This is a self-report scale that measures racism and discrimination. It has 22 questions, and participants were asked to report on how stressful situations related to racism were to them. The questions include experiences of being negatively stereotyped or judged to being denied services and/or opportunities because of ethnic/racial group status.
Basic Achievement Skills Inventory (BASI) – This is a widely used standardized measure of academic achievement. The test is made up of several subtests that assessed spelling, language mechanics, math, and reading comprehension. For the purposes of the current study, students were administered the reading comprehension subtest, a 30-minute test of reading skills that is aligned with state and national reading standards.
The current study used a Simultaneous Multiple Regression Analysis (SMRA). The independent variables entered into the model were chronic stress and trauma (i.e., total score from the TSCC), stress related to racism (IRRS-B total score), and bullying stress (bully victim subscale of the PRQ-C). The criterion variable was the reading comprehension score of the BASI. The Pearson Product Moment Correlations revealed that students who experienced higher levels of bullying also tended to report greater chronic stress and trauma symptoms (r = .48, p < .05) and stressful situations associated with racism (r = .55, p < .05). Additionally, trauma correlated with racism-related stress (r = .36, p < .05). These results provide evidence that students in the current sample presented with high levels of bullying and tended to be associated with greater experiences of stress.
The results of the regression analysis revealed that the set of 3 predictors (i.e., chronic stress, racism-related stress, and bullying experiences) explained a significant proportion of the variance in reading comprehension performance, R2 = .47, F (3, 18) = 4.38, p < .05. Critical to the current investigation is the finding that bullying negatively impacted reading achievement. A look at the individual bully victim scale revealed that students affected by bullying performed significantly lower on reading comprehension, β = -.66, p < .05.
The goal of the current study was to investigate the relationship between bullying and stress along with the relationship between bullying and reading comprehension in a sample of ethnically diverse students. All of the data from the four questionnaires were analyzed through multiple regression and correlation analyses. The original hypothesis stated that participants who endured bullying would experience higher levels of stress and trauma as well as a negative impact on school subjects, specifically reading comprehension. The Simultaneous Multiple Regression Analysis demonstrated significant results that bullying is associated with chronic stress and trauma symptoms. The Pearson Product Moment Correlations showed that bullying was strongly negatively correlated with reading comprehension, such that more bullying experiences resulted in lower reading comprehension performance. These results indicate that bullying is a serious problem that can cause children to experience chronic stress, trauma symptoms, and negative impacts on their reading comprehension performance, an area that is critical to many areas of the curriculum.
The data from the current study were beneficial to the existing literature on bullying and its effects, because bullying has become an epidemic. Unfortunately, bullying happens every day, and it is important for us to help put an end to it. The current study shows that bullying has a direct impact on stress and trauma symptoms. Bullying is problematic because children are not able to reach their full potential because of the fear of bullying. The results of this study may give insight to the teachers and educators who want to help their students who are suffering in the classroom due to bullying. Poor academic achievement, in addition to behavioral and emotional challenges, may be well understood within the current framework. To combat poor reading comprehension, teachers can provide extra help in reading comprehension in addition to promoting a safe learning environment. Teachers may be able to use new approaches for bully victims. Educators and schools need to do everything they can to create a learning environment that limits the effects of bullying. In addition to taking new and flexible approaches to reading instruction, this study showed strong associations between bullying and chronic stress and trauma symptoms. Hopefully, more and more educators will use the results of this study to do something to reverse the negative consequences bullying can have on students.
We strongly believe that successful bullying programs must involve, not only a working knowledge of the research, but also active strategies for monitoring school climate. Bullying is an unnecessary act that should not have to happen to young students in a school setting. It should be understood that it is not only the responsibility of the teacher to prevent bullying but also the social and political structures. Government must continue to provide effective evaluation tools for bullying programs and enforce anti-bullying policies. It is hoped that this study will inspire others to conduct similar studies and monitor data in order to further decrease bullying and shed light on the many effects bullying can have on learners.
McLoyd, V. C. (1998). Socioeconomic disadvantage and child development. American Psychologist, 53(2), 185-204.
Smokowski, P. R., & Kopasz, K. (2005). Bullying in school: An overview of types, effects, family characteristics, and intervention strategies. Children & Schools, 27(2), 101-110.