Posted by: l2bb | February 21, 2010

Who can become a bully? A look at children with behaviour disorders

Copyright Daniel East and Amanda Gray

Profiling children who may become bullies helps us put strategies in place to prevent bullying, and to help them change their behaviour for the future.  It enables us to look beyond punitive measures to positive behaviour support (skip to slide 4 in this presentation for comparison of the two approaches).

Children at risk of becoming bullies

There seems to be much more research focused on the victims of bullying, and strategies for dealing with bullying – which I suppose is understandable.  However, the research that I have found about the characteristics of bullies has pointed to factors such as family environment, personality traits, behaviour patterns, social status and victimisation as contributors to children becoming bullies.

Another interesting statistic reported by Wyld (2006) is that children who bully when they are 14 are also likely to still be engaging in that behaviour at age 18 and 32.  So how can we change this?

Behaviour traits that increase the chances that children will bully others

Carter and Spencer (2006), Cho, Hendrickson and Mock (2009) and Nabuzoke (2003)  all explored the correlation between certain behaviour traits and being a bully.  The key behaviour traits linked to children who bullied others included inattentiveness and hyperactivity.

Signs of inattentiveness and hyperactivity

When identifying inattentiveness or hyperactivity in these studies, the following behaviours were usually identified:

  • disruptiveness in class
  • difficulty sitting still
  • difficulty following directions
  • difficulty paying attention to the teacher

Executive function, ADHD and bullying

inattentiveness and hyperactivity are most often associated with ADHD.  More importantly, links between a child’s executive functioning and these behaviour traits have been made as researchers come to a better understanding of the disorder.

What is executive function?

Queensland Health (2007) states:

“executive functioning involves the direction and organization of all behavior (emotional as well as cognitive) in order to attain goals and regulate behaviour that is consistent with attaining goals.”

Basically it is the function of our brains that helps us analyse and control our behaviour.  It works alongside theory of mind to help most of us avoid bullying others.  However, if you are acting impulsively (linked to inattentiveness and hyperactivity due to executive functioning difficulties) without predicting the possible consequences of that behaviour for yourself or others (theory of mind), you are more likely to bully others.

For example, a child with ADHD often blurts out inappropriate things at inappropriate times.  The child may call another “fat” because that is what they think, then miss all the more subtle signs – such as body language and facial expressions – that this name-calling has hurt the other child. This means they are not getting the immediate feedback that may help them realise that they have “crossed the line” between joking and bullying.

However, this child may get in trouble from the teacher (a sign they can’t miss!).  Or their peers may laugh (positive reinforcement), or show them through actions such as verbal responses or exclusion that the behaviour is not acceptable.   For most of us, this would be stored in our memory and help us make future decisions about calling other people “fat”.

For a child with executive functioning difficulties, those memories are not stored or retrieved efficiently.  Basically, they will probably do the same thing over and over again despite a build up of “memories” that should tell them that the behaviour is not acceptable.

The implications

The outcome of this is that children with conditions such as ADHD have an increased chance of becoming bullies due to poor self-regulation.  According to one study reported by Carter and Spencer (2006), 13% of children with ADHD reported that they bullied others, compared to 8% of children not identified as having ADHD.

However, according to Cho et al. (2009), this outcome can be applied to any child that displays patterns of inattentive and hyperactive behaviour – with or without a diagnosed disability or disorder.

So what can we do about it?

Despite popular belief, medication does not solve the problem.  For example, the study reported by Carter and Spencer (2006) identified children with ADHD by whether they were taking medication for hyperactivity.

Medication can contribute to children learning to manage their impulses.  However, cognitive behaviour therapy or training is also important.

One of the easiest processes that families and schools can teach students with executive functioning difficulties is the “Stop, Think, Do” method.  This is about using colour coding, familiar images, self-talk and body language to help trigger “memories”.  In essence, it is about helping children use the filing cabinet that is their memory more efficiently to help them monitor and control their behaviour.

You can find out more about this strategy from Lindy Petersen’s website and materials or read about it in my post on the Learning to be Buddies blog.

Difficulties with executive functioning is not the only factor that may contribute to bullying.  It is much more complex that this.  I will explore further factors in future posts.

It is also important to note that all the studies mentioned above also found that children with these behaviour traits were also at greater risk of being bullied, with a significant proportion being both victims and bullies.


Carter, B.B, and Spencer, V.G.  (2006).  The Fear Factor: Bullying and Students with Disabilities.  International Journal of Special Education, 21(1), p11.

Cho, J., Hendrickson, J.M., and  Mock, D.R  (2009). Bullying Status and Behavior Patterns of Preadolescents and Adolescents with Behavioral Disorders.  Education and Treatment of Children, 32(4), pp 655–671.

Nabuzoke, D.  (2003). Teacher Ratings and Peer Nominations of Bullying and Other Behaviour of Children With and Without Learning Difficulties.  Educational Psychology, 23(3), p307.

Queensland Health.  (2007).    Executive Function and Capacity.  Retrieved from:

Wyld, B.  (2006).  Beating the Schoolyard Bully.  In J. Healey (Ed.), Bullying and Harassment, p9-10.   Spinney Press: Thirroul Australia



  1. […] thought about how their actions might effect others is one key factor in the occurence of bullying (as discussed in previous posts).  The Stop, Think, Do process helps children visualise and work through the cognitive process […]

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