Find a course
Knowledge Hub » Mental Health » Bullying in Schools – A Comprehensive Guide

Bullying in Schools – A Comprehensive Guide


Most, if not all of us, have experienced some form of bullying during our time at school, and it continues to be a significant problem for children and young people in schools today. According to the Anti-Bullying Alliance, 40% of young people experienced bullying in the last 12 months, and 24% of children bullied most days were also most likely to be kept off school by their parents.

It is hard to understand why some children become bullies. However, when bullying occurs in schools, it is essential to address it quickly. Bullying is a pervasive problem with significant consequences for both victims, bystanders and perpetrators. Therefore, all those in a school environment and parents and caregivers need to know how to spot signs of bullying and what they can do about it.

This comprehensive guide explores various aspects of bullying, including its definition, types, causes, effects, prevention strategies, and support systems.

Bullying in Schools - A Comprehensive Guide

Defining Bullying

There is no legal definition of bullying. However, the Anti-Bullying Alliance have defined it based on thirty years of global research. Their definition is:

“The repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power. Bullying can be physical, verbal or psychological. It can happen face-to-face or online.”

The UK Government also has a definition of bullying, which is behaviour that is repeated, intended to hurt someone physically or emotionally and often aimed at certain groups. It can include physical assault, threats, teasing, name-calling and cyberbullying. There is an extended definition of bullying in the Department for Education’s guidance for schools on preventing and tackling bullying (page 8).

Some often confuse bullying with conflict and aggression. However, there are distinct differences. It is important to understand what these are to know how to respond to and manage these situations.

Bullying Conflict
Repeated behaviour and ongoing. Happens occasionally.
No remorse. Remorseful.
Upsetting for the victim, not the bully. Upsetting for both children.
Power imbalance. Equal power.
No effort is made to solve the problem. Efforts are made to solve the problem.
Can cause serious emotional damage and/or physical harm. Not typically emotionally damaging.
Deliberate. Accidental.


Conflict is a normal part of growing up, and it helps children develop social skills and relationships when they settle it appropriately and healthily. Bullying is not a normal part of growing up and is unacceptable in all circumstances.

Aggression can also get confused with bullying, but they are different and handled differently. For example, two children are physically fighting for the first time, which is aggressive behaviour but not bullying. Remember, bullying is repeated behaviour. However, fighting can be a sign of bullying, so look out for frequent incidents.

Bullying in Schools - A Comprehensive Guide

Types of Bullying

There are six types of bullying – verbal, physical, relational, sexual, prejudicial and cyberbullying. Some are easier to spot than others.

Verbal bullying

Remember the rhyme? ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones. But words shall never hurt me’. The rhyme means well, but words can and do hurt when bullies use them to scare and intimidate a victim.

Verbal bullying is one of the most common types of bullying, and it is where spoken or written words are used to:

  • Tease.
  • Name call.
  • Gossip.
  • Spread rumours.
  • Threaten.
  • Isult.
  • Discriminate.
  • Put others down.

It can often be hard to recognise verbal bullying, as bullies tend to do it when adults are not around, and they can mask it as banter if questioned.

Verbal bullying can cause stress and affect a child’s mental health. Here is a tragic example of a 13-year-old taking her own life because she was bullied for being tall (Daily Mail Online).

Physical bullying

In physical bullying, bullies use their bodies or objects to hurt and frighten the victim. It can also encompass damage to a victim’s belongings. Out of all the types, it is the easiest one to spot in schools.

Physical bullying can include:

  • Hitting/punching.
  • Kicking.
  • Tripping.
  • Pushing/shoving.
  • Pinching.
  • Biting.
  • Spitting.
  • Stealing and destroying personal belongings.
  • Damaging homework.
  • Coughing assault.
  • Inappropriate hand gestures.

Physical bullying can lead to injuries and impact a child’s mental and emotional well-being. Here is an example where a pupil was assaulted and taken to hospital, resulting in the perpetrator’s arrest (BBC News).

Relational bullying

This type is often known as social/emotional bullying or relational aggression. It involves bullies damaging the victim’s relationships or harming their reputation by:

  • Making fun of their appearance.
  • Excluding them from a group.
  • Leaving them out of social activities.
  • Spreading rumours.
  • Embarrassing them in public.
  • Giving them the silent treatment.
  • Gossiping.
  • Backstabbing.
  • Whispering about them.
  • Telling others their secrets.
  • Stipulating conditions for friendship.
  • Threatening to withdraw friendship.

It is not a well-known type of bullying, as it is covert and difficult to detect. However, it is another common form of bullying and girls are more likely to be victims.

Relational bullying can harm young people’s well-being and lead to low self-esteem, isolation, loneliness, anxiety and depression. Here is a tragic case where a 12-year-old girl committed suicide after being bullied, pushed out and ignored (BBC News).

Sexual bullying

Believe it or not, sexual bullying is common in schools. A review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges published by Ofsted in 2021 found that incidents are so commonplace that children see no point in reporting them.

Sexual bullying involves using sexual comments or actions to bully a victim, either in-person or online, making them uncomfortable or scared. Some examples include:

  • Making unwanted or inappropriate comments of a sexual nature, including name-calling, taunts and threats.
  • Touching and grabbing without permission, including hugging and kissing.
  • Spreading rumours about a victim’s sexual activity.
  • Sending sexual photos or videos.
  • Making crude gestures.
  • Pressurising victims to send sexual images or videos.
  • Sharing videos or photos without knowledge or consent.
  • Sending texts or messages (sexts) or making phone calls of a sexual nature.
  • Encouraging sexual games, e.g. touching games or taking clothes off.
  • Pressurising victims to be in a relationship or engage in sexual acts.

It is important to note that sexual bullying is different from sexual harassment, although they do overlap. The latter involves victimising someone for a protected characteristic, e.g. sexist comments, whereas bullying is repeated behaviour of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment and some other forms of bullying are unlawful.

Sexual bullying is sometimes hard to identify, as children and young people may feel embarrassed and ashamed of what is happening to them, even though they are the victims.

Here are a few examples highlighting the problem in schools:

Prejudicial bullying

This type of bullying is also known as prejudice-based bullying and is where bullies target victims because of their:

  • Race, e.g. skin colour, ethnicity, culture or nationality.
  • Religion or belief.
  • Sex or gender identity
  • Sexual orientation.
  • Disability or special educational needs.
  • Body image.

Prejudicial bullying can encompass other types of bullying, e.g. physical, verbal, relational, sexual or cyber, e.g. making racist, homophobic, transphobic or xenophobic comments or physical attacks based on one of the protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010.

Bullies use hurtful behaviour to make their victims feel worthless, powerless, marginalised and excluded, as they have prejudices regarding their identity, equality and belonging in society. They believe the person they are bullying does not deserve to be treated with respect like other people and base their opinions on stereotypes.

A real-life example of prejudicial bullying is when a Polish teenager took her own life at school when other pupils told her she ‘did not belong in the UK’ (The Independent).


Cyberbullying is a significant problem. A report by Childnet highlighted that 12% of 9- 16-year-olds have experienced cyberbullying. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), nearly three out of four children (72%) who had experienced online bullying behaviour experienced at least some of it at school or during school time.

Before the internet and social media, children could have some reprieve from bullying once they got home from school. Nowadays, school bullies can target their victims in all places via electronic devices and digital technologies, such as smartphones, computers and tablets, for example:

  • Text messages.
  • Social media.
  • Apps.
  • Online forums.
  • Networking applications.

Some examples of cyberbullying include:

  • Sharing a victim’s personal information to humiliate them.
  • Sending harmful photos, videos, text messages and direct messages over social media.
  • Posting inappropriate posts on social media and forums.

It can be tricky to catch cyberbullies, as many choose to open anonymous accounts. Victims may also not be able to get away from bullies, even if they block them, as they can open different accounts and posts can be shared by other pupils.

Most children and young people own mobile phones and other devices and will be on them to do school work and for social and entertainment purposes. Therefore, it can be difficult for them to get away from bullies, which can be incredibly harmful.

Unfortunately, there are so many examples of cyberbullying in and outside of school and some that have had tragic outcomes for victims. Here are some examples that have been in the news.

  • Teenager took her own life because of online bullying, says father (The Guardian).
  • Schoolmates ‘told me to die’ in online posts (BBC News).
  • A school girl was sent sexual messages after bullies shared her details online (BBC).
Bullying in Schools - A Comprehensive Guide

The Impact of Bullying

Bullying can have serious and long-lasting effects on children and young people’s mental health and emotional well-being. In worse cases, it can result in victims self-harming, having suicidal thoughts, and even taking their own lives.

Bullying has wide-ranging impacts on victims and their families, bystanders and even on the bullies themselves.


Bullying can have short-term and long-term psychological, social, academic and physical effects.

Short-term effects Long-term effects (from frequent bullying)
  • Stress, depression and anxiety.
  • Anger, frustration and sadness.
  • Drinking alcohol and/or taking drugs to cope.
  • Sleep disturbance, nightmares and bed wetting.
  • A change in appetite, e.g. undereating or overeating.
  • Feelings of shame and embarrassment.
  • Mental health issues, e.g. self-harm, eating disorders, suicidal or homicidal thinking, suicide attempts, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic depression, anxiety disorders, etc.
  • Low self-esteem and confidence.
  • Acting out and engaging in negative conduct.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Missing school and lessons and falling behind.
  • Less engaged.
  • Negative attitudes towards school.

  • Low grades.
  • Failing exams.
  • Dropping out of school.
  • Exclusion from school.
  • Few or no qualifications after school.
Physical ·

  • An increased risk of illness.
  • Injuries from physical bullying.

  • Health complaints, e.g. stomach aches, headaches, muscle aches.·
    Poor general health.
  • Severe injuries and even disability.
Social ·

  • Problems with relationships, e.g. family and friends.
  • A lack of interest in social activities.
  • Social rejection and isolation.
  • Poor relational skills.

  • Unemployment or difficulty in staying in jobs.
  • Earning less in the future.
  • Unstable relationships.
  • Homelessness.


Even into adulthood, some victims remember vividly who bullied them at school and what happened.

The impacts of bullying on victims can also have a significant impact on families, for example:

  • Parents/caregivers may have to take time off work, increasing pressure and stress and affecting their jobs and income.
  • Seeing the impacts of bullying can be distressing and make families feel hopeless.
  • If a child takes their own life, the family will never be the same again.
  • Victims may spend less time with their families.


Bullying can also have short-term and long-term effects on children and young people who witness bullying incidents.

Short-term effects

  • Scared to intervene in case they become a target of the bully.
  • Guilty about not intervening or helping a victim (the bystander effect).
  • Angry, upset and hostile.
  • Missing or skipping school.
  • Stressed, anxious or depressed.
  • Feeling scared to be at school.
  • Worried about school safety and security.
  • Increased alcohol and/or drug use.

Long-term effects

  • Mental health problems, e.g. anxiety disorders and chronic depression.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Poor academic performance.

If bystanders witness frequent bullying, the long-term effects may be the same as victims.


Bullies are not immune to bullying impacts and it can significantly affect their lives.

Short-term effects

  • Suspension from school, falling behind in class and achieving lower grades due to missing school.
  • Increased truancy.
  • Increased substance abuse.
  • A lack of social relationships and difficulty maintaining them.

Long-term effects

  • Exclusion from school and significant impacts on their education.
  • Engaging in violent and risky behaviours.
  • Increased risk of anti-social behaviour.
  • A lack of education.
  • Unemployment.
  • Poor relationships and an increasing risk of domestic violence and child abuse.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Criminal convictions and records, e.g. harassment and hate crimes.

The effects of bullying can be devastating for all those involved. Therefore, early intervention is vital, as the bullying is likely to continue and worsen as time goes by.

Bullying in Schools - A Comprehensive Guide

Root Causes of Bullying

While people may not empathise with bullies, there may be a reason why they do what they do. Many underlying factors contribute to bullying behaviour. Children may become bullies for some of the following reasons (this list is not exhaustive):

  • They have been victims of bullying themselves – by becoming a bully, they may feel that they can protect themselves by striking first and stopping others from bullying them.
  • Family influences – adults influence children, especially family members. If children witness bullying, conflict, aggression or violence from adults or older siblings or are a target, they can learn this behaviour and become bullies. Neglect from parents and caregivers can also result in children becoming bullies to get attention.
  • Mental health problems – some bullies have mental health problems and may bully because of low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, a lack of empathy or anger. Their issues may stem from difficulties at home, being bullied themselves, or they may have experienced trauma. Bullies want to hurt others as they are hurting themselves.
  • Peer pressure – some children bully because they want to look ‘cool’ and hang out with the right crowd, as it makes them more popular. They may also want to become a ‘leader’ of the group and become socially dominant. It can also be because of being left out if they do not join in.
  • Jealousy – some bullies feel insecure and inferior to other pupils and are jealous of them. They will bully them because they make their victim feel undervalued and worse about themselves while making themselves feel better.
  • A lack of empathy – some children become bullies as they cannot empathise with their victims, i.e. they are incapable of understanding things from the victim’s perspective and the impacts of their behaviour. They simply do not know how to be kind or compassionate, and their need for power and attention overrides their victim’s feelings.

While it is often difficult to know why some children and young people become bullies, bullying is often a manifestation of deeper issues. It does not mean condoning their behaviour, but understanding why some children are bullies and their difficulties can help combat it in schools. It can also help victims to know that there are reasons for it and it is not their fault.

Bullying in Schools - A Comprehensive Guide

Signs and Identification

It can often be hard to recognise when a child or young person is a victim of bullying. However, there are some tell-tale signs, such as:

  • Inexplicable injuries.
  • Uncharacteristic outbursts, e.g. anger or tears.
  • Lost or destroyed property, e.g. clothing, homework, books, electronic devices, jewellery, etc.
  • Reduction in academic performance, e.g. dropping grades.
  • Missing or skipping school.
  • Requesting to stay at home more often.
  • Being sick on school days but fine at weekends and holidays.
  • Changes in appetite, fatigue, headaches or stomach aches.
  • Disliking school.
  • Apologising a lot.
  • Suicide ideation or attempts.
  • Avoiding social situations.
  • Spending a lot of time alone.
  • Sleeping difficulties, nightmares and bed wetting.
  • Anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, loneliness or PTSD.
  • Acting out, e.g. running away from home.
  • Sudden loss of friends.

There are also signs of a child or young person bullying others, such as:

  • Fighting and verbal abuse.
  • An increase in aggression during atypical activities and social situations.
  • Hanging around with other bullies.
  • Getting more detentions.

If a child or young person is a bystander and witnesses bullying, they may show similar signs to victims.

Spotting the signs of bullying is essential for early intervention. There should also be an open, supportive and easy way for children and young people to report bullying incidents. The Anti-Bullying Alliance has a short guide on encouraging pupils to report bullying and what to do on receiving a report here.

Bullying in Schools - A Comprehensive Guide

Prevention Strategies

To effectively prevent bullying in schools, it is crucial to not just react to incidents each time they happen. Schools should deal with the issue proactively by having anti-bullying programmes involving all pupils, school staff, parents/caregivers and the wider community. Here are some examples of the strategies that they could adopt:

  • Understand the reasons for bullying behaviour – school staff should build relationships with pupils and get to know them better. They should talk to them and gather information to identify and understand the causes of bullying and use it in further anti-bullying measures.
  • An anti-bullying policy – is a legal requirement and underpins the school’s anti-bullying procedures and protocols and will detail how they will respond to incidents. It should be up-to-date, accessible and promoted throughout the school. All school staff, pupils, parents and caregivers must understand the policy and their role in bullying prevention.
  • Staff training – school staff play an essential role in anti-bullying programmes. Therefore, they must have appropriate training to spot the signs of bullying and know how to intervene. They should also understand their role in prevention and promoting a positive culture. It is a good idea to name a member of staff to coordinate the school’s response to bullying.
  • Pupil education and awareness – bullying should form part of the curricula to teach children about its impacts, how to identify and report it, and how to get support. It should also cover the school’s anti-bullying policy, expectations and rules.
  • Involving pupils in anti-bullying and other activities – strategies may include buddying systems, peer mentoring and setting up anti-bullying task forces to identify bullying and encourage reporting. It may also be activities that build positive social relationships and pupils themselves coming up with solutions to bullying.
  • Using reported incidents – properly recording and investigating bullying incidents can help schools identify trends and patterns to identify further prevention strategies.

For prevention strategies to work, the school leadership must be actively involved and set the direction for anti-bullying in the school community. They must be committed to creating and maintaining a safe, secure and inclusive environment with a positive culture and ethos.

The Department of Education’s advice document, Preventing and tackling bullying has information on ways schools can prevent bullying and examples of best practices. Also, various approaches and tools are on the Anti-Bullying Alliance and the NSPCC.

There have been many examples of successful anti-bullying programs and initiatives, such as:

Bullying in Schools - A Comprehensive Guide

Intervention and Support

Unfortunately, there may be instances of bullying in the school despite having effective prevention strategies. If bullying is identified, it is essential to intervene immediately, correctly and consistently and not worsen the situation. The type of response required will depend on the situation and the seriousness. There are some examples here. The NSPCC also has advice on how to respond to incidents here.

Schools must record and investigate reports of bullying to demonstrate to victims, bullies, bystanders and families that the school takes bullying seriously. Investigation outcomes will typically determine the actions needed and the consequences.

Schools have a responsibility to provide support to children and young people who are victims (and also witnesses) of bullying, which may include:

  • A teacher or mentor who they trust has a quiet word.
  • Formal counselling.
  • Involving parents and caregivers.
  • Support from the pastoral team.
  • Referral to local child services or mental health services.
  • Contacting the police if a crime has been committed.
  • Separate on-site provision to provide respite.
  • Alternative provision, e.g. school transfer (in severe cases).

Bullies must also be dealt with appropriately and their needs addressed. Schools may:

  • Apply fair, consistent and reasonable disciplinary measures, considering the bully’s motivations, safety concerns and special educational needs or disabilities.
  • Identify whether they need support, e.g. mentoring, counselling or referrals.
  • Contact parents and caregivers.
  • Monitor their behaviour after resolution.

The nature and level of intervention and support will depend on each situation, the needs of those involved, and individual school anti-bullying procedures and policies.

The Department for Education’s guidance for schools on preventing and tackling bullying has further information on intervening and supporting pupils if bullying occurs.

Bullying in Schools - A Comprehensive Guide

Promoting a Positive School Culture

School culture is ‘the way we do things around here’. It includes the beliefs, ethos, values and attitudes of the school. Leaders must promote a positive culture and ensure the entire school community understands and subscribes to it.

Fostering a positive school culture and promoting inclusion, respect, and empathy is the most effective way of preventing bullying, as it allows pupils to be in an effective learning environment where they feel:

  • Safe.
  • Supported.
  • Valued.
  • Respected.
  • Understood.
  • Included.
  • Secure.
  • Welcomed.
  • A sense of belonging.
  • More connected to their peers.

If pupils feel this way, they are more likely to have:

  • Increased engagement in learning and collaboration with peers.
  • Higher academic achievement.
  • Improved communication skills.
  • Decreased prejudices and discrimination.
  • Increased understanding of other pupil’s feelings.
  • Improved relationships with other pupils and teachers.

The above will mean children and young people can thrive academically, socially, and emotionally and are less likely to become bullies.

To promote positive relationships and empathy among pupils, schools can use various strategies, e.g. (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Involve school staff, pupils, parents and caregivers in establishing a shared vision and common objectives to create a sense of ownership.
  • Use positive approaches to support behaviour, e.g. setting clear expectations for behaviour, reinforcing positive behaviours and addressing challenging behaviours proactively.
  • Staff modelling behaviours and positive relationships.
  • Staff should have appropriate training, professional development opportunities and support to promote a positive learning environment.
  • Use active listening and open communication channels, e.g. school newsletters, frequent meetings with staff and conferences with parents/caregivers.
  • Celebrate equality and diversity, e.g. cultural events and traditions and incorporate an inclusive curriculum.
  • Encourage peer collaboration by providing opportunities where pupils can work together and consider each other’s values and perspectives.

Here are some useful resources that can help schools to promote positive relationships and empathy:

Bullying in Schools - A Comprehensive Guide


Bullying is completely unacceptable in all forms and can cause serious harm to all those involved. We have looked at the impacts in this guide, and they can be devastating to victims, bystanders, families and even the bullies themselves. There have been tragic cases where children and young people have taken their own lives because of bullying at school.

Understanding the types of bullying, the signs, and early intervention is crucial to combat bullying and minimise its impacts. That is why schools need prevention strategies, support and an overall positive school culture set by school leadership.

Parents, caregivers, educators, and communities have a shared responsibility in addressing bullying in schools and the wider community. Therefore, it is essential to take proactive steps to prevent and respond to bullying rather than a reactive approach that deals with each case as it happens. The aim is to create safe and nurturing environments for all pupils.

Please share experiences, insights, or strategies for combating bullying in the comments section. Having a supportive and informed community can help in the fight to eradicate bullying in schools.

Counselling level 2 course

Interested in working as a counsellor?

We offer the TQUK Level 2 Certificate in Counselling Skills through our online campus.

Learn more about our CACHE Level 2 course

Read another one of our posts