How Mean Behavior and Bullying Affect Academic Performance—And What to Do About It

By Jonathan C. Erwin, M.A., author of The School Climate Solution: Creating a Culture of Excellence from the Classroom to the Staff Room

How Mean Behavior and Bullying Affect Academic Performance—And What to Do About ItThe Problem
Bullying, defined as an act of repeated physical or emotional victimization of a person by another individual or a group, has been an issue in schools for decades. In recent years, bullying—which children and adolescents might have previously experienced on the bus, in the cafeteria, on the playground, in the school restroom, or in the hallways—has grown to reach kids by way of the internet and social media. In other words, it’s practically everywhere.

The statistics are deeply concerning. According to various national surveys (Hirsch et al., and Erwin) conducted in the last several years:

  • 1 in 10 students reported being physically victimized on a regular basis.
  • 1 in 4 students reported being excluded or emotionally hurt by another student on a regular basis.
  • 75 percent of students report being bullied at least once during the last ten months.

In addition to bullying, which emphasizes repeated physical or emotional abuse, even more students (54 percent) reported being subjected to meanness, or relational aggression. Based on my personal experience as a student, parent, teacher, and educational consultant, that figure seems low. I’d argue that virtually all students have been targets of or witnesses to name-calling, exclusion, threatening, or rumor-spreading. This discrepancy in statistics is likely due to students not reporting meanness. Or perhaps relational aggression has become such a norm in many schools that students don’t recognize it when it happens.

The Impact
What results from bullying and meanness? The emotional consequences are horrific. Two of the main reasons students list for dropping out of school cited in a 2013 survey are “not feeling like they belong” and “fearing for their safety” (Doll et al.).

According to the 2012 book Bully: An Action Plan for Teachers, Parents, and Communities to Combat the Bullying Crisis, 30 percent of children who reported having been bullied said they sometimes brought weapons to school (Hirsch et al.).

And we have all heard of students who have taken their own lives as a result of bullying at school or on social media. In one highly publicized case in 2011, Jamey Rodemeyer, who was known for his activism against homophobia, hanged himself as a result of homophobic cyberbullying.

While most students who experience meanness or bullying don’t drop out, bring weapons to school, or commit suicide, the stress caused by anticipating meanness or bullying causes students to lose sleep, be absent from school, or skip classes where they may be targeted. It’s well known that when a person perceives a threat, the brain’s hippocampus goes into high gear, sending the person into the fight, flight, or freeze response and inhibiting the capacity of the cerebral cortex (the thinking and learning part of the brain). It stands to reason that when students are sleep deprived, absent, or in fight-flight-freeze mode, their ability to learn and perform is significantly reduced.

According to an article in Public School Review, bullying and meanness have a powerful negative impact on student learning. Author Kate Barrington cites a UCLA study that concludes, “Students who are repeatedly bullied receive poorer grades and participate less in class discussions . . . They may get mislabeled as low achievers because they do not want to speak up in class for fear of getting bullied . . . Once students get labeled as ‘dumb,’ they get picked on and perform even worse.”

One Solution
Despite the fact that many anti-bullying books and programs are being used in schools, the statistics on incidents of bullying are not improving at the rate we would like. This might well be because “organizations move in the direction of the things they study” (Cooperrider and Whitney). If we put too much focus on bullying, bullying may become a bigger problem. Instead, my suggestion is to focus on its opposite: social responsibility, empathy, and kindness.

Research shows that when schools focus on creating a positive school climate and culture, students are far less likely to bully or engage in mean behavior. Schools can involve every member of the school community (parents, teachers, students, and staff) in creating a safe, connected, and engaged climate and culture by

  • developing a shared vision based on shared positive values
  • teaching social-emotional skills
  • giving a voice to every stakeholder
  • integrating social-emotional learning and character education into the curriculum

When we do that, we make schools places where students feel accepted and connected and want to learn and work. Creating this kind of culture takes time, effort, and intentionality. But our students’ emotional wellness and academic success are well worth the effort.

Author Jonathan C. Erwin, M.A.Jonathan C. Erwin, M.A., has been a secondary English teacher, a professional development specialist, a college professor, and the director of training and curriculum for a federally funded character education program. His previous books include The Classroom of Choice (ASCD, 2004) and Inspiring the Best in Students (ASCD, 2010). Jon is currently an independent educational consultant, a senior faculty member at the William Glasser Institute, and a trained HealthRhythms facilitator. Jon’s work focuses on providing research-based approaches to teaching, managing, counseling, and training that appeal to people’s intrinsic motivations and help children, adolescents, and adults develop physically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially. A musician and martial arts enthusiast, Jon has earned a second degree black belt in karate and a first degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. He lives in western New York.

The School Climate SolutionJonathan Erwin is the author of The School Climate Solution: Creating a Culture of Excellence from the Classroom to the Staff Room.

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Barrington, Kate. “How Does Bullying Affect a Student’s Academic Performance?Public School Review, May 17, 2016.

Cooperrider, David L. and Diana Whitney. Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2005.

Doll, Jonathan Jacob, Zohreh Eslami, and Lynne Walters. “Understanding Why Students Drop Out of High School, According to Their Own Reports: Are They Pushed or Pulled, or Do They Fall Out? A Comparative Analysis of Seven Nationally Representative Studies.SAGE Journals (October–December 2013): 1–15.

Erwin, Jonathan. The School Climate Solution: Creating a Culture of Excellence from the Classroom to the Staff Room. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing, 2016.

Hirsch, Lee and Cynthia Lowen with Dina Santorelli, eds. Bully: An Action Plan for Teachers, Parents, and Communities to Combat the Bullying Crisis. New York: Weinstein Books, 2012.

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