Research Forum

A comparison of secondary student and teacher perceptions of school bullying and prevention practices

A discussion of the many school programs developed to reduce bullying

By Matt Buckman, MS

The reduction of school bullying is a common concern for school personnel and communities. Many programs have been developed to target the reduction of these behaviors with unfortunately modest and inconsistent findings of the effectiveness of these programs (see Smith, Schneider, Smith, & Ananiadou, 2004, for a review). These behaviors continue to occur with moderate frequency in schools. Studies have reported that approximately 30% of adolescents report being involved in bullying at least two to three times per month (Craig et al., 2009; Nansel, et al., 2001). Nansel et al. found that students held various roles in regards to bullying, with 13% reporting being a bully, 10.6% reporting being a victim, and 6.3% reporting being a victim and bully in the past two months. Additionally, various studies have identified many negative psychological and social outcomes associated with chronic participation in bullying, including academic difficulties; lack of social support; physical and psychological health problems; poor relationships; depression; anxiety; and participation in risk behaviors, including aggression, alcohol and drug use, and carrying a weapon to name a few (Arseneault et al., 2006; Flaspohler et al., 2009; Nansel, Craig, Overpeck, Saluja, & Ruan, 2004; Stein, Dukes, & Warren, 2007).

The moderate prevalence and negative outcomes suggest a need for further research increasing the effectiveness of bullying intervention and prevention efforts. Of the various school-based intervention approaches, the whole school approach has been found to be particularly more effective in reducing bullying behavior when compared to other intervention approaches (i.e. curriculum based, social and behavioral skill group, or other interventions; see Vreeman & Carroll, 2007 for a systematic  review). Under this model, both students and teachers are recognized as key change agents (Kochenderfer-Ladd & Pelletier, 2008; Marachi, Astor, & Benbenishty, 2007). Although the whole-school approach has been lauded for its emphasis on a unified partnership between students and school staff, these programs yield moderate and inconsistent effects on bullying behavior (Smith et al., 2004).

One reason for the lower than expected results may be that the perceptions of the key change agents – students and teachers – differ. Although research investigating such differences has been scarce, there is some support that the occurrence, common locations, and prevention practices regarding bullying are not viewed consistently between students and teachers. Bradshaw, Sawyer, and O'Brennan (2007) analyzed perceptions within these three areas across a large group of students and school staff members in a large public school district in Maryland. The authors reported that school staff significantly underestimated the amount of bullying occurring when compared to student reports. They found that teachers and students had similar perceptions of the locations of bullying, with teachers more frequently endorsing bullying in each location. Further, the majority of students reported that teachers were not doing enough to prevent bullying, while the converse was reported by school staff.

Although Bradshaw et al.'s (2007) study provided remarkable information to the scientific understanding of teacher and student perceptions, future studies are warranted to replicate this study. Additionally, the current study extends the previous literature by being the first study to compare secondary student and teacher perceptions of bullying across multiple school districts. This study will examine the effects of the source of the respondent (student or teacher) on the perceptions of the overall occurrence of bullying, the locations of bullying, and the implementation of bullying prevention efforts. The following hypotheses were developed for the current study:

  1. The source of the respondent (student or teacher) will have a significant effect on the reported perceptions of the occurrence of bullying.

  2. The source of the respondent (student or teacher) will have a significant effect on the perceptions of the locations that bullying occurs.

  3. The source of the respondent (student or teacher) will have a significant effect on the perceptions of the prevention efforts conducted.

Methods

Participants

Students. A total of 905 ninth-grade students from four secondary schools in separate school districts within a 120 mile radius of each other participated in the study. All data were collected in the late spring of the 2006-2007 school years. Total consent rate was 68%, and none of the consent rates per school fell below 65%. Frequencies of the student and teacher demographic variables are reported in Table 1. Socioeconomic status could not be obtained, although all schools represented a wide array of income levels. All students with signed parental consent and signed assent were included in the current study.

Teachers. Data were collected from 211 teachers from the same schools as the students. The average age was 38.8 years old (SD = 10.79) and the average years of experience teaching was 11.45 (SD = 9.25).The total response rate for participation was 90.9% of personnel participating in the regularly scheduled faculty meeting, and none of the assent rates per school fell below 73%. Frequencies of the student and teacher demographic variables are reported in Table 1.

Instrument

The Teacher Perceptions of School wide Bullying Survey and the Student Perceptions of School-wide Bullying Survey were administered in conjunction with other measures as part of a larger study of adolescent experiences. These surveys were derived from previous studies and recommended bullying prevention practices (see Aceves et al., 2009; Athanasiades & Deliyanni-Kouimtzis, 2010; Bradshaw et al., 2007; Dake, Price, Telljohann, & Funk, 2003 for more details). Parallel survey items were utilized when possible; however, some items varied slightly.

Overall occurrence of school bullying. The perceived overall occurrence of school bullying was assessed using one student item ("In your opinion, how often do you think bullying occurs in this high school?") and one teacher item ("In your opinion, how often do you think bullying occurs in the school where you teach currently?"). Response options were made on a 1 (none) to 5 (all the time) scale.

Locations of bullying. The teachers and students responded to a parallel item assessing the most common locations ("Where do you think bullying most likely occurs?") of bullying in their schools. The direction for this item was to "check all that apply." Multiple response options were available for the most common locations of bullying [in class; in the lunchroom; on the bus; in the hallway (between class periods); in the school yard; in the parking lot; in the changing room (P.E. class); in the bathrooms].

School prevention efforts. The teacher survey included two items assessing the perceived bullying prevention efforts in the school. The first item assessed the teacher prevention efforts ("What  types of bullying prevention do you as a teacher perform?") with the direction to "circle all that apply." The response options included were address bullying with my class, develop rules against bullying, and promote bystanders to help the victim (tell an adult, befriend the victim, etc.). The second item assessed a process for students to report bullying ("Is there a process in place at your school for students to report bullying?") with the response option of true or false. The student survey assessed prevention efforts with four items: perceived classroom discussions ("I feel my teacher discusses bullying in class."), classroom rules ("I feel there are rules against bullying in my class."), encouragement to help victims ("I feel my school encourages me to help the victim(s) of bullying."), and a process to report bullying ("I feel I can tell an adult in my school if I am bullied."). The response options for the student items were true or false.

Procedure

Students. All eligible students were administered the instruments in counterbalanced order. Further, at least one school personnel and research assistant was assigned to each location to monitor the student's behavior. These strategies were designed and utilized to reduce potential order and social desirability effects.

Teachers. Teacher surveys were administered during a regularly scheduled faculty meeting by the researchers. All participants were instructed of the purpose of the study and given the option to participate. The survey sections were counterbalanced to reduce maturation during the completion of any one section. Fifteen minutes were allotted for the completion of the surveys.

Results

To test the first research hypothesis that the source of the respondent (student or teacher) would have a significant effect on the reported perceptions of the occurrence of bullying, a One-Way ANOVA was conducted. It tested the differences between the reported perceptions of students and teachers on the occurrence of bullying in their schools. No significant effect for the source of the response was noted, F = 1.10, df = 1/928, p = .29. On average, teachers (M = 3.73, SD = 1.008) and students (M = 3.64, SD = 1.130) did not report significantly different perceptions of the occurrence of bullying in their schools. Based on these results, hypothesis one was rejected.

Table 1: Demographic breakdown of students and teachers
Demographic Characteristic Students Teachers
N % N %
Race

 

     
Caucasian 702 80.0 199 94.3
African American 93 10.6 3 1.4
Hispanic

23

2.6 2 0.9
Asian American 19 2.2 0 0.0
Other 40 4.5 7 0.3
 
Gender        
Male 416 46.6 86 41.0
Female 477 53.4 124 59.0

Regarding the locations of bullying, students and teachers were instructed to endorse all of the most common locations they perceived this behavior to occur. The responses on this variable were tallied and are presented in Table 2. Due to the nonparametric nature of the data, Pearson's Chi-Square Tests were conducted for each location. When compared to students, teachers more frequently endorsed the buses, hallways, school yards, parking lots, changing rooms, and bathrooms as common locations for bullying behavior to occur. The perception of the hallways as the most common location of bullying had the greatest difference in magnitude between students (56.1%) and teachers (92.4%). Conversely, the perception of the classroom as the most common location of bullying was perceived similarly by students (32.8%) and teachers (37.4%). Based on these results, hypothesis two was supported for all locations with the exception of the classroom.

Table 2: Endorsed frequencies of locations of bullying across student and teacher groups
  Students Teachers  
Location N % N % 2
Class 188 32.8 79 37.4 1.47
Lunchroom 221 37.8 115 54.5 17.78**
Bus 142

25.1

94 44.5 27.53**
Hallway 358 56.1 195 92.4 92.03**
Schoolyard 50 9.4 38 18 10.67*
Parking lot 52 9.7 41 19.4 13.29**
Changing room 59 11.2 46 21.8 13.97**
In bathroom 98 17.9 89 42.2 48.24**
Note: Significance levels < .05 are noted with an asterisk. Significance levels < .001 are noted with two asterisks.

The last hypothesis was that the source of the respondent (student or teacher) would have a significant effect on the perception of the existence of prevention efforts conducted. To test this hypothesis, Binary Logistical Regression was conducted to examine the relationship between the dichotomous source variable and the dichotomous true or false variables assessing the perceived existence of prevention efforts. Based on these analyses students were 1.64 times more likely to report there was a process in place to report bullying to an adult (p < .05), 5.01 times more likely to report there were classroom rules against bullying (p < .001), and 5.42 times more likely to report the school promoted bystanders to intervene (p < .001). The greatest difference in magnitude occurred in the perceptions of the school promoting bystanders to intervene in bullying, where 57.1% of students and 20.4% of teachers perceived this to occur.

Table 3: Comparison of student and teacher perceptions of prevention efforts

Prevention efforts

Frequency of students
Odds Ratio (OR)

Frequency of Teachers
Odds Ratio (OR)
Process at school to report 79.1

70.0

  (1.62)*  
Class discussions on bullying 32.6 54.0
    (2.43)**
Class rules against bullying 78.2 42.7
  (4.83)**  
Promotes bystanders to intervene 57.1 20.4
  (5.21)**  
Note: Significance levels < .05 are noted with an asterisk. Significance levels < .001 are noted with two asterisks.

Interestingly, the second greatest difference in magnitude was on the perception of classroom rules against bullying with 78.2% of students compared to 42.7% of teachers endorsing the existence of classroom rules. Conversely, teachers were 2.42 times more likely to endorse that bullying was discussed in the classroom when compared to students (p < .001). Table 3 reports the frequencies and odds ratios for student and teacher perceptions of the occurrence of bullying prevention strategies. Given these results, hypothesis three was partially supported.

Discussion

The current study was designed to examine secondary school student and teacher perceptions of bullying across multiple school districts. A total of 211 teachers and 905 students from four secondary schools completed the questionnaires. The analyses tested three hypotheses examining the relationship between student and teacher perceptions of bullying. The analyses revealed that the students and teachers perceived the most common locations of bullying similarly, but with different frequencies; bullying prevention efforts differently; and the overall occurrence of bullying similarly.

The first hypothesis was that the source of the respondent would have a significant effect on the reported perceptions of the occurrence of bullying in the school. The results suggested students and teachers similarly perceived bullying to occur with moderate to high frequency. These findings are contradictory to previous findings that teachers and students significantly differ in their perceptions of the occurrence of bullying (e.g. Bradshaw et al., 2007; Crothers & Kolbert, 2004; Totura et al., 2009). The differing findings may be due to methodological differences in these studies. The current study used a general item to assess the overall perceived occurrence of bullying while previous studies have compared perceptions differently. Previous studies have generally used a school-wide assessment of student self-report of their involvement and compared these frequencies to teacher nominations of individual student involvement or teacher estimates of the frequency of students involved. This study provided unique information regarding the similarity of student and teacher perceptions when using one item assessing the overall occurrence of bullying. Further studies are needed using this methodology to identify the cut-offs for significant and meaningful differences between raters.

This study was one of the first to compare student and teacher perceptions of the common locations. The results revealed that students perceived bullying to occur most commonly in the hallways (56.1%), lunchrooms (37.8%), classrooms (32.8%), and buses (25.1%), while teachers perceived bullying to occur most commonly in the hallways (92.4%), lunchrooms (54.5%), buses (44.5%), and bathrooms (42.2%). Overall, students and teachers identified the same top two out of the four most common locations of bullying; however, teachers endorsed these locations more frequently than students. With the exception of the classroom, a higher percentage of teachers perceived bullying to occur in each location when compared to students. These findings are consistent with Bradshaw et al.'s (2007) study. Bradshaw et al. also found that the hallways and lunchrooms were endorsed as two out of the top three most frequently endorsed locations of bullying. These authors found that the classroom was the most frequently endorsed location of bullying by teachers and students; however, the current study found the classroom to be perceived as a less common location for bullying.

These findings suggest that students and teachers are similarly identifying the top locations as hot spots for bullying, and teachers are generally more likely than students to endorse these locations. These results are promising for school efforts to reduce bullying. Given the institution of a prevention protocol for reducing bullying behavior in hot spots (Olweus, Limber, & Mehalic, 2000), students and teachers would mostly agree on these locations and would likely work together to target them. Given that a relatively high percentage of teachers agree that several locations outside of the classroom are the most common locations for bullying, schools may benefit from encouraging teachers to actively supervise areas outside of the classroom, especially the hallways and lunchrooms.

The current study was also unique in that it was one of the first to compare secondary student and teacher perceptions of bullying prevention efforts. The results revealed that students more frequently reported a process in place at school to report bullying, the existence of classroom rules against bullying, and the promotion of bystanders to intervene in bullying when compared to teachers. Teachers more frequently reported that there were class discussions on bullying. Overall, a higher percentage of students believed bullying prevention strategies occurred when compared to teachers. These findings suggest a disconnect between student and teacher awareness of the prevention strategies being implemented.  One possible explanation for this is that a small number of teachers or school personnel may implement bullying prevention strategies while the majority of the teachers are unaware, uninvolved, or both. Based on these results, schools may benefit from having meetings and trainings focused on increasing teacher awareness of bullying prevention policies and practices for the school and to promote more teacher involvement in prevention efforts. Previous studies have found that increasing teacher awareness of bullying prevention policies and priorities increases teacher involvement and decreases teacher avoidance of incidents involving bullying behavior (Marachi et al., 2007; Bauman, Rigby, & Hoppa, 2008).

Limitations

Although this study advances the current research knowledge of secondary school teacher and student perceptions; there are several limitations that warrant attention. Specifically, these limitations are related to the sample and the administration procedures. The sample for the current study was a convenience sample of schools willing to participate in the study within a geographically and demographically limited area. The results may represent characteristics of the individuals and schools in the sample and not general perceptions of students and teachers. Additionally, the student sample consisted of 9th grade students only and the teacher sample consisted of 9th-12th grade teachers. Only a portion of the teachers and students interacted on a regular basis which may have influenced the ability to compare their perceptions. Future studies may be needed to compare perceptions of students and teachers across all grade levels of secondary school and in a variety of geographically and demographically varied environments.

Several limitations are notable regarding the administration procedures as well. The questionnaire frequently utilized single-item indicators. Although the use of single-item indicators is a common occurrence in social sciences research, an examination of the psychometric properties of the surveys was not possible. Future studies using multiple items for each construct are warranted. Lastly, students completed the questionnaires in conjunction with various other measures, which may have influenced the quality of their responses due to maturation effects.

Conclusions and Implications

The current study examined the relationship between secondary school student and teacher perceptions of bullying across multiple school districts. Overall, the results found that students and teachers perceive bullying to occur with moderate to high frequency. Both groups relatively agreed on the most common locations of bullying being the hallways and lunchrooms. This finding underscores the need for teachers and other adults to be more involved in the active supervision and intervention in hotspot areas outside of the classroom. Lastly, this study highlights that teachers may not be as aware of the school bullying prevention policies or practices as students. The school may benefit from increasing teacher awareness and involvement in bullying prevention practices. Further research is needed to confirm the findings of this study, expand on the understanding of why perceptual differences exist between students and teachers, and create ways to bridge these differences.

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