The Psychology of Bullying (And Why Sixth Grade is the Worst)

Sixth graders like to call each other names. Most of us know this from personal experience or from watching a child endure it. Research also supports it, according to Amy Bellmore, PhD, a professor and researcher at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Amy’s expertise is in school-based peer relationships, and she says bullying peaks in sixth grade with name-calling as the most common bullying behavior. Name-calling might seem innocuous compared to physical violence, but it is not. “Research suggests that just being called a name has the same negative effect as being hit or punched,” Amy says.

Amy works with a team of researchers on a large national study of sixth graders from schools across the country and says, “On an average day, 10 to 20 percent of sixth graders report getting picked on that day.”

Why does bullying peak in sixth grade? Amy suspects it is partly due to the way we structure schools. The transition from elementary school to the bigger context of middle school results in children struggling to redefine a peer hierarchy. According to Amy, “Kids have to work out who’s going to be where and who is going to be popular among peers.”

Evidence also shows that early adolescence (middle school years) is the point at which children most value being “popular,” which means being well-known, well-liked, or both. Schools have experimented with doing the transition at different times, but it is likely some sorting will always take place. Understanding the psychology behind it can inform and improve our responses.

Most schools and scholars agree that behavior qualifies as bullying if it has two key characteristics: repetition and power imbalance. “Power can mean anything,” Amy says. “It could refer to physical stature, age, social status, even social skillfulness. When we think about cyberbullying, it could be anonymity or [having] a lot of followers.”

Different factors cause children to become aggressors. Some might react to having been targeted themselves. Others may be lacking socials skills (often true with younger children) or might recognize that being aggressive can result in social benefits and are consciously acting for advantage.

Children who are repeatedly the targets of bullying tend to feel worse about themselves, experience more anxiety, and display depressive symptoms. They often are less well-liked, have fewer social connections, and get lower grades. Less research has been done on whether these adjustment issues, if not addressed, could stay with them later in life because subjects would need to be followed over a long period of time. But the immediate effects, which harm social and emotional functioning and growth in the present, matter enough that we don’t necessarily need to think long-term.

Amy’s research centers on how children cope with being the target of bullying, including how they develop coping mechanisms and how they can change their response if their current coping mechanisms aren’t effective. “There is not one best strategy,” Amy says.

Broadly, there are two responses Amy sees: approach and avoidance. Those who respond with approach face the problem head on. Problem-solving, such as deciding to avoid the bully in the future, reporting the bully to an adult, and even fighting back, are all approach-related responses. Trying to forget about the incident and focusing on something else to put it out of mind are avoidance coping mechanisms. Amy explains there are effective and ineffective forms of both approach and avoidance mechanisms. “People used to think that some approaches were better than others. That is not necessarily true; except, we do know that retaliation never works.”

How children develop certain mechanisms isn’t clear. Amy suspects children come to school with different sets of social skills and varying abilities to process situations and interactions, and make judgments on how to respond. “Some have better developed skills,” she says. Research also shows that it is difficult, but not impossible, for children who are chronically bullied to alter their responses. A variety of people and approaches could help.

Currently, there is a national push away from bullying-specific programs toward social and emotional learning programs. These programs focus on building social skills and teaching children to control emotions instead of acting out in anger. “It’s often about learning how to interpret the world in a way that is not hostile,” Amy says.

Ideally, students learn not to take comments as personal attacks or blame themselves when they are bullied. Programs—like Bullies to Buddies™—arm children with strategies to deal with bullying when it does occur. While traditional programs might apply the same policy to each case and conclude there is nothing more to do if it doesn’t work, newer approaches suggest trying a variety of options: have discussions with the students involved, change their groups, bring in counselors, or involve parents. “There is not always going to be a quick fix. The social dynamics involved in it are so complex,” Amy says.

Many people also focus on the power of bystanders. Teaching behavioral norms in school and at home cultivates a community of people who could step in not only to prevent or stop incidents but also to provide comfort to someone after the fact.

Amy suggests that parents keep their ears open. “Listen when your kids are talking in the back seat of the car.” Perhaps someone describes a situation where, even if it didn’t involve your children, someone was bullied, and no one stepped in. Informal moments like these are opportunities for parents to identify bullying behavior and show alternative ways to respond.

One bright spot Amy sees is that if a child who is bullied has even just one high-quality friendship, that friendship can make a very large difference. It might also get better over time. She says kids tend to have more peer groups to choose from as they get older, which can relieve pressure to fit into one hierarchy.

Some people accept bullying as part of life and argue it contributes to character development. Amy completely disagrees. “The idea that having been bullied might toughen you up is a myth. Because something has always happened across time is not a reason for bullying to continue.”

Cara Lombardo is a writer and graduate student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Teaching Through Teasing

DJ Hilley asks kids to tease him. He asks them to make him angry and upset. It’s all part of the process for DJ, who is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Certified Bullies to Buddies™ Individual Trainer.

Bullies to Buddies™ is a multi-step program created by Izzy Kalman and based on the Golden Rule of treating others how you want to be treated. DJ helps children learn how to respond to bullying behavior using a series of three role-plays.

One of his clients, a boy, was regularly picked on at school for both his weight and his culturally different first name. In the first role-play, DJ instructed the boy to make fun of him. He told the boy not to hold back, and he didn’t. DJ raised his voice in return, getting angry. The harder DJ tried to stop the boy, the more the boy kept teasing.

In the second role-play, DJ again told the boy to tease him. This time DJ didn’t react with anger. Instead he sat comfortably, unfazed, and maintained a friendly posture. The boy had nothing left to say. “It gives them the experience of how powerful a difference in response can be,” DJ says.

In the final step, DJ had to pick on the boy. For this boy, like many others, learning to respond differently transformed his experience at school. “The program is effective because it’s about empowering kids rather than trying to solve problems for them,” DJ says.

The same principles can be applied to bullying on social media, with the addition of one suggestion from DJ: “Encourage kids not to go back and reread or review social media comments. It’s the equivalent of recording someone name-calling them in the hallway and listening to it 10 times.”