October is National Bullying Prevention Month and Marguerite Ohrtman, Associate Professor in the College of Education and Human Development, shares her expert commentary on how bullying affects students and how schools can work to prevent it.
Q: How do you define harassment?
Professor Ohrtman: There are many types of bullying. Many think of physical bullying first, however, there can be just as much harm created by verbal bullying, cyberbullying and harmful bullying (bullying someone because of their race, ethnicity , religion or sexual orientation). In my own words, bullying is when someone is discriminated against or hurt, verbally or physically, and those behaviors are repeated. There is usually a power imbalance between the individuals involved and the behaviors used to maintain or create more power for those who bully. It is difficult for the child or adolescent concerned to feel able to stop it and they can often feel hopeless in these situations.
Q: Where does bullying happen?
Professor Ohrtman: Everywhere! For children and teens, this can happen at school, at home, with friends, and online. Online bullying is tricky because there isn’t much legislation around it or systems in place to track and reprimand those who cause harm online. The internet has given even more power to those who want to bully others, as these aggressive behaviors have little repercussion. It can cause great distress and even more a feeling of helplessness in the victims.
Q: What are the effects of bullying?
Professor Ohrtman: Victims of bullying are at increased risk of anxiety or depression, which can impact their learning as well as their future. When children or teens feel hopeless or helpless, they may make harmful choices, including withdrawing, avoiding, or even acting out. When we think about the effects of bullying, we are often looking to solve the problem for the victim, when we should also be looking more systematically at the problem. The bully usually satisfies a need by hurting another person. As a society, we need to explore how we can change these behaviors to help children, teens, and even adults meet their needs without hurting anyone else.
Even for those who observe or witness the bullying, their silence can be interpreted as compliance or agreement that the action must occur. This silence can be powerful. However, it is difficult to stand up to those who bully; it is important for children and teens to know that by not helping or stopping the bullying, they are participating in it. Those who observe bullying may also develop mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, as they too feel powerless to change what they have observed.
Q: What can schools and other organizations do to prevent bullying?
Professor Ohrtman: I think the best answer is to increase mental health support in schools by having school counselors in every school in Minnesota, along with other support staff. Currently, Minnesota has one of the worst student-advisor ratios in the United States. Many school districts in Minnesota do not have elementary school counselors, and those that do have ratios of 500 to 1,000 students per counselor. If we are to systematically reduce bullying, we must start early with preventive work for our students and their families. By increasing mental health support, we increase conversations about bullying, teach students coping skills, and improve overall resilience.
Q: What work does U of M do around bullying prevention?
Professor Ohrtman: At the University of Minnesota, we strive to reduce bullying in our state and across the country by translating bullying prevention research into practice. The Department of Educational Psychology trains school psychologists, special educators, and school counselors to help prevent bullying and make healthy learning environments a reality.
Marguerite Ohrtman, Ed.D., is an associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota and past president of the Minnesota School Counselors Association. She is a licensed Professional Clinical Counselor in Minnesota. Dr. Ohrtman works in the Counselor Training Program of the Department of Educational Psychology where she trains and conducts research with prospective school and mental health counselors.
About the College of Education and Human Development
The University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) strives to teach, advance research, and engage with the community to increase opportunity for all individuals. As the third-largest college on the Twin Cities campus, CEHD’s research and specialties focus on a range of challenges, including: educational equity, innovations in teaching and learning, child mental health and development, family resilience and healthy aging. Learn more at cehd.umn.edu.
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