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The Connection Between Literature and Bullying in the Classroom

For people of all ages, bullying is not a new phenomenon. Picking on others can take place with any age group or demographic, but one place bullying can often be consistently seen is at school.

Although bullying has been around for years, the people, actions and locations it takes place have changed. For instructors, it’s important to not only address bullying with your students, but how it has changed over the years and the role students can play to help prevent it.

One way of doing so is through literature. By sharing appropriate novels with your students and discussing them in the right way, a conversation about bullying can be created to help inform and empower your students.

Researchers Janette Hughes and Jennifer Lynn Laffier from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology present their findings on how to approach the topic of bullying in their article Portrayals of Bullying in Young Adult Literature: Considerations for Schools.

Hughes and Laffier identify four key themes from existing research on bullying that should be considered when choosing young adult literature that can help create meaningful conversations about addressing bullying in the classroom. The authors also suggest ways to address these bullying themes with your students through literature.

What is Bullying?

The authors recognize that traditional bullying can be described in many ways: a repeated pattern of anger to gain power over another, the intent to harm another or a disparity of power between the bully and their victim. Bullying can also occur verbally and physically or socially and emotionally.

However, the study also indicates four variances in bullying that help alter its definition in our present society and should be looked for in any bullying literature you may plan to share with your class.

1. Bullying is a social phenomenon

In the young adult literature examined by Hughes and Laffier, a trend developed where the bully was keen to maintain their status or sense of control. These behaviors are considered to be a social phenomenon because youths’ desire for power in a hierarchical social setting, like school, where they are trying to learn ‘who they are’ can be considered a natural consequence.

To help address bullying as a social phenomenon with your students, ask them:

  • How does bullying begin in a social setting?
  • Does bullying reflect social issues?
  • How can bullying be continued or halted by bystanders?
  • How does your social response impact bullying behaviours?

2. Bullying as a Group

Bullying may no longer be perpetuated by a single individual. In some cases, the authors note that a group of people bully another person or group. The authors also note that the group does not necessarily need to be together to carry out the harassment. For example, members of the group could attack a victim at different times through cyberbullying.

To engage your students on the topic of group bullying, ask them:

  • What impact does group bullying have on victims?
  • What role do the members of the group play?
  • Do the group members do anything to prevent or encourage the bullying?
  • How can bullying by a single person evolve into a group phenomenon? What would your role be if it did?

3. Cyberbullying

According to prior research, between 30–40% of students have felt the effects of or taken part in cyberbullying.

The act of cyberbullying maintains the same characteristics and actions of traditional bullying with the exception of the actions happening online through messenger chats, emails, texting or social media.

The authors note that because it is easier to remain anonymous online, bullying can be easier or even engaged in with students who would not typically take part.

The wide expanse of the internet helps to create more chances for bullying to occur and allows the impact of the actions to spread farther and faster.

To help address cyberbullying with your students, ask them:

  • What is cyberbullying and why do students take part in it?
  • Why can cyberbullying have more of a negative impact than traditional bullying?
  • What kinds of cyberbullying have you seen? What are some options for intervening?

4. Sexual Bullying

Hughes and Laffier note in their study that verbal abuse is the most common type of bullying and can frequently include language that attacks a person’s sexual orientation. Research has shown that 93% of youth hear negative language about sexual orientation occasionally, while more that 50% of teenagers hear this kind of verbal abuse daily at school.

To help your students talk about sexual verbal abuse, ask them:

  • What are the reasons and outcomes of verbal abuse?
  • How can others intervene with sexual verbal abuse?
  • How can we create a safe and inclusive learning environment?

Who are Bullies?

The second theme to look for when choosing literature to be shared with your students on bullying is determining the characteristics of bullies.

Recent research suggests that bullies may not be the stereotypical bigger student picking on those smaller than them. It’s also important to note that emotional or cyberbullying is not defined by size, making the task of creating a defined image of a bully difficult.

However, several risk factors have been noted that can help identify bullying behaviour: limited communication skills, inconsistent problem-solving skills, limited ability to resolve conflict, bad self-regulation and not being tolerant of differences.

In addition, other research has indicated that bullies can have higher levels of emotional intelligence (allowing them to better manipulate others), a perception they are more dominant than others, have high self-esteem and even be popular among other students.

To help your students recognize the definition of bullies can be fluid, ask them:

  • How does the environment in which bullying takes place help perpetuate bullying behaviors? How can these behaviors be intervened?
  • How can social pressure encourage negative behavior?

Who Are the Victims?

The third theme identified by the authors to help select literature that can be used in the classroom to learn about bullying is a tricky one. Research suggests that creating a definition of a victim can be dangerous. By defining characteristics that are likely to encourage bullying may suggest that these people attract bullying. However, experts have agreed that there are several common characteristics that can be seen among bullied victims, including: sensitivity, shyness, insecurity, unassertiveness, low self-esteem, problems with mental health, limited friends and being different.

In addition to a passive victim, other researchers believe that there are ‘bully victims’ — those who experience bullying first-hand and then decide to bully others in order to help them cope.

When discussing bullying victims with your students, ask them:

  • Does the perception of the victim indicate that they deserve to be bullied?
  • Why are some people intolerant of what they see as weakness in their peers?
  • How is one’s personal character changed by how they perceive others?

Who are the bystanders and what is their role?

The final theme to look for in bullying literature focuses on bystanders — those who witness bullying. The authors indicate that bystanders can either have a positive or negative role in bullying. If they say or do nothing, they act as an audience and help encourage the situation.

Bystanders can also help stop bullying by alerting somebody about it, not engaging in the group behaviour or helping the person being bullied if it is safe.

To help your students better understand the role of the bystander, ask them:

  • What can friends do to help each other?
  • How does bullying reach beyond just impacting the victim?
  • What are some reasons why you would not want to intervene with bullying?
  • What are some safe ways to help prevent bullying in the classroom?

The authors also suggest having students interact and come up with solutions in group settings in order to promote acceptance of the ideas among their peers.

Using Literature to Explore Bullying

There are various ways to address the topic of bullying with your students and the authors of this study suggest using literature. Young adult literature about bullying that resonates with students can help you develop a high level of engagement on the topic of bullying.

Some ways you can include bullying literature in your course design are:

  • Reading a novel aloud and encouraging group discussion on how bullying can impact youth and how they can care and support for their peers
  • Create smaller reading groups among your class that each evaluate a different book and discuss ways they can provide support for others
  • Have older youth mentor younger youth through bullying literature circles

Regardless of how you choose to incorporate bullying-related literature into your classroom or course design, it’s important to push your students to have meaningful discussions about what they read and experience. Students should be encouraged to actively take part in finding solutions to prevent bullying in the classroom and empower themselves to help support an inclusive community at school.

Originally published at

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Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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