Posted by: l2bb | February 3, 2010

Is all aggression bullying?

This is a question posed by Rigby (2002).   The answer could help us further understand what is bullying so we can respond to or prevent it more effectively.

Lists of bullying behaviour

One of the things we often come across in policies and discussions of bullying is a list of behaviours considered to fit in this category.  For example, the NSW DET’s Anti-Bullying Plan for Schools (p6) suggests:

“Bullying behaviour can be:

  • verbal eg name calling, teasing, abuse, putdowns, sarcasm, insults, threats
  • physical eg hitting, punching, kicking, scratching, tripping, spitting
  • social eg ignoring, excluding, ostracising, alienating, making nappropriate gestures
  • psychological eg spreading rumours, dirty looks, hiding or damaging possessions, malicious SMS and email messages, inappropriate use of camera phones.

So are these lists helpful?

Taken by themselves, not really.  As Rigby (2002) and Findley (2006) suggest,  it is not the behaviour itself so much as the context and nature of the behaviour that makes it bullying.  And if we don’t make that distinction, we can over- or under- react.

Lets take the example of hitting or punching.

Is it bullying if a child punches another of the same age in a dispute about a footy score?

Is it bullying if a child repeatedly loses their temper and hits out in frustration against another child who has annoyed them?

Is it bullying if a child repeatedly punches a smaller child for no clear reason?

In all cases, the behaviour is inappropriate in the context of school and community rules.  However, not all instances are bullying.

As Rigby (2008) states:

“There is a danger in tying bullying to specified behaviour.  It does not follow that hitting people necessarily implies bullying.  A child who hits an aggressor back is not necessarily a bully, even if we may wish he or she had reacted differently.” (p25)

So what is the difference between aggression and bullying?

Perhaps it is best to see aggression as an umbrella term, with bullying being one type of aggression.  Other categories of aggression might include conflict and communication.

For example, Findley (2006) has a simple and straight-forward answer about the difference between conflict and bullying:

“If two students are in a dispute and are roughly of equal power, it is not bullying.” (p13)

However, the Australian Education Authorities (AEA, 2009) don’t see it in such a clear-cut way.  In their definition of conflict,  they suggest

“Conflict is a disagreement or argument between two or more individuals where one or both sides may feel their needs are not being met…Conflict can be devastating when it involves one party trying to gain control in a way that abuses the rights of another.”

So the search for power maybe a part of both conflict and bullying.  However, AEA differentiate between the two by suggesting that bullying:

  • may be motivated by jealousy, distrust, fear, misunderstanding or lack of knowledge
  • have an element of threat
  • can continue over time
  • is often hidden from adults
  • will be sustained if adults or peers do not take action

The final category of  “communication” has been added because we need to recognise that for some children with language and developmental disorders, physical aggression may their only way of communicating in situations they find distressing or frustrating.  For more on this topic, see my relevant posts on the Learning to be Buddies blog.

The measuring stick for bullying

As discussed in an earlier post, the NSW DET (2007) define bullying as:

“intentional, repeated behaviour by an individual or
group of individuals that causes distress, hurt or undue pressure…. [and] involves the abuse of power in relationships.”

McGrath (2007), Rigby (2002) and Findley (2006) all agree cautiously with this.  So we could say, then, that bullying is about an imbalance of power, about intent to harm and the systematic or repeated targeting of a person.

However, Rigby (2008; 2002) suggests we be careful when we include “intent to harm” in the definition of bullying.   Firstly, he suggests that “intent to harm” is not as relevant as the actual carrying out of harm.   And, secondly, he highlights the importance of recognising the difference between what he calls malign and non-malign bullying.

The “intent to harm” and malign bullying

In Rigby’s (2002) discussion of the difficulties of using the intent to harm as a measure of bullying, he suggests that this could mean over-identification of children who are bullying others.  He discussed research which indicates a significant variation between children who at some stage “felt like hurting another student”, and the actual implementation of that desire.

Let’s face it, most of us at some time or other have thought about hurting someone.  Does that make us bullies?

So in his definition of bullying, Rigby (2008) adds that the  “intentionally hurtful or threatening action is actually carried out.”   He also adds that with malign bullying, the act is unjustified and satisfying to the perpetrator.

Non-malign bullying and the problem of zero tolerance

So should we jump in with zero tolerance measures, implementing suspension and expulsion based on a list of behaviours?  This is a complex question that people researching in the field of bullying have not been able to agree upon, so I don’t want to over-simplify the issue with the answer, “No!”

We should, however, think about how such a zero tolerance approach can paint everything in black and white, instead of recognising all the shades of grey inherent to human interaction.  It also focuses on what is immediately visible, rather than on the dynamics of human relationships.

Rigby (2008) discusses the fact that there are children who unintentionally or unwittingly cause  hurt and distress.  They may be using power, but a full understanding of the hurt they are causing is not there.

Dubin (2007) discusses this in the context of children with Asperger Syndrome (AS).  He suggests that some children with AS can behave in a controlling and aggressive way in their attempt to deal with the anxieties they face in social situations.  They can unwittingly become “bullies” according to the definition above… except that the intent to harm is absent.

So responding with a one-size-fits-all, zero-tolerance approach can mean that children who are “bullying” without intent do not get the support they need to change their behaviour.

But what about the victim?

In dealing with bullying in schools, Findley (2006) suggests that we should first take stock of the effect the behaviour is having on the targeted child before we treat it as bullying.  He suggests we determine if the targeted child is really a victim experiencing distress before we classify the action as bullying.

So from this perspective, the effect of the behaviour on the victim is the measure of whether it is bullying, conflict or “just having a joke”.

So why is this important?

One of the things that I hear anecdotally from parents is a suggestion that they feel schools are not acting quick enough or taking things seriously enough.   And I have heard from educators that they at times do not think an incident is as serious as a parent/child might think.

Having a clear understanding of bullying can help with this.  As Findley suggests (2006), communication and empathy are important ingredients in identifying and dealing with bullying.

We need to victims and their parents, observe what is going on and pay close attention to the impact of the behaviour as each individual has their own level of resilience.  And we need to act as quickly as possible to minimise harm.

But as Rigby (2008) suggests,  we also need to have a clear understanding of the type of bullying that is occurring so we can act in a way that will increase the chances of changing that behaviour whilst minimising harm.

This is not a simple task.


Australian Educational Authorities (2009). Bullying. No Way!  Retrieved 3rd February, 2010 from

Dubin, N.  (2007).  Asperger Syndrome and Bullying: Strategies and Solutions.  Jessica Kingsley Publishers: London.

Findley, I.  (2006).  Responsibility: Beating bullying in Australian schools.  ACER press: Camberwell.

McGrath, M.J.  (2007).  School Bullying: Tools for Avoiding Harm and Liability.  Corwin Press: Thousand Oaks.

NSW Department of Education and Training (2007).  Anti-bullying Plan for Schools.  Retrieved 3rd February 2010 from

Rigby, K.  (2002).  New Perspectives on Bullying.  Jessica Kingsley Publishers: London.


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