The community-based view of bullying

Research shows that bullying is caused by dysfunctional group dynamics, where children develop a community based on excluding others from it.

Historically, educators and scholars predominantly approached bullying as a problem limited to the children perceived to be involved. As bullying research took root in the 1970s, it focused exclusively on the “bully” and the “victim” as stereotypes characterised by identifiable personality traits.

In the 1990s, this perspective evolved to include the impact of “bystanders” who may have witnessed the bullying episode. Meanwhile, the potential influence of other children or adults in their community, or of their shared culture, remained largely unexplored.

However, a growing body of research shows that even the post-90s perspective is too narrow.

One such study is eXbus (Exploring bullying in schools). Conducted by the Danish School of Education (DPU) at Aarhus University, this long-term research project explores how instances of school bullying develop, are maintained, and can potentially be dismantled.

longing to belong

Prominent eXbus researchers Dorte Marie Søndergaard, Helle Rabøl Hansen, Jette Kofoed and others have discovered that bullying stems from children’s innate need to feel they belong to their class or group community. And if they feel unsafe and sense potential isolation from their community, social exclusion anxiety can arise.

In turn, affected children may attempt to deal with their fear of exclusion by forming new groups, whose shared insecurities and need to belong lead them to exclude others.

That is why bullying tends to reoccur in groups where children feel insecure and excluded. By contrast, children’s communities that are characterised by tolerance and inclusion leave little room for bullying.

The key to preventing bullying – instead of only trying in vain to cure the problem after the fact – therefore lies in focusing on developing a caring, tolerant and inclusive culture.

A new definition of bullying

Bullying is defined as behaviour or actions that exclude people from a community to which they have the right to belong.

Researcher Helle Rabøl Hansen describes bullying in terms that accurately reflect the new community-centric perspective.

She highlights that bullying is characterised by all of the following:

  • Bullying is a group phenomenon.
  • Bullying is systematic acts of exclusion.
  • Bullying can be direct and victimising or indirectly exclusionary. Hitting and pushing are direct forms of bullying, while bad-mouthing and ignoring are examples of indirect bullying.
  • Bullying takes place in a social context, such as among a group of children in a preschool or primary school.
  • Bullying occurs only when there is an imbalance of power.

bullying is about destructive patterns

A key tenet of the new community-based view of bullying is that bullying can never be explained in individual terms alone.

It is not simply about dysfunctional children acting out and vulnerable individuals being targeted because of some aspect of their personality or physicality.

Stay curious

Rabøl Hansen and other reseachers demonstrate why bullying can only be understood by looking beyond the specific individuals involved  – and paying more attention to the community as a whole.

  • What is it about the community’s shared norms and culture that has led to a perceived need among one or more children to push another child out?
  • Why did the child or children feel it necessary to act in the way they did?

There are good examples of children who function well in a given community, such as a class, but then change to a different class and suddenly start to bully other children.

Context is key

In other words, these children are not bullies as such, but they react by bullying when the environment is dysfunctional. Likewise, a child who thrives in one community may be the victim of bullying in another.

It is also worth noting that children are biologically wired to want to please and be included, which is why they generally behave well when given the chance.

The responsibility of educators and parents

The responsibility for giving them that chance lies squarely with the adults.

They are the ones who must foster the necessary positive relationships with and among the children in their care to help prevent bullying.


In Denmark the number of children, who reported being bullied at school at least twice in the previous two months dropped from 25% in 1998 to 5% in 2018.

This is good news, and suggests that growing efforts over the past decades by schools and child-centred organisations to address the problem are having a positive effect.

Bullying requires ongoing prevention. There will always be a new generation of children who will benefit from inclusive communities, developing their social skills and learning to be a good friend. And all communities are in constant motion and forever changing.

Preventing bullying is thus – by definition – a never-ending endeavour.

early intervention essential

In terms of which age groups are most affected, Danish research (WHO’s cross-national survey on Health Behaviour in School-aged Children) suggests that bullying peaks in Grades 4 to 6, but early intervention is essential.

Studies have shown that early signs of bullying can be observed from a very young age.

A Norwegian study found that relational bullying (which refers to indirect bullying involving destruction of friendships, spreading rumors, ignoring and exclusion from play) starts from as early as three years of age (Helgesen, M.B. (editor) (2014) Mobbing i barnehagen. Et sosialt fenomen.).

An American study showed that both indirect and direct forms of bullying could be observed among children as young as 30 months (Crick, Ostrov, Burr, Cullerton-Sen, Jansen-Yeh & Ralston (2006) A longitudinal study of relational and physical aggression in preschool).

how to stop bullying

The key to stopping bullying is to prevent it. And this requires proactive steps to create positive, inclusive and tolerant communities where children can flourish.

Childcare professionals and teachers must constantly ask themselves what more they can do to help each child in their care feel more included, seen and heard. They must evaluate and implement initiatives to improve the culture in their children’s community. Meaning that they need to work with the children to foster a shared set of attitudes, values, beliefs and behavioural norms that motivates every child to feel they belong to and are safe in the group.

Practical tools for everyone

In practice, this means establishing routines, planning activities and supporting children’s free play in ways that cultivate the positive, tolerant and inclusive culture. It also means involving everyone – i.e. all the children, colleagues, managers and parents – in this effort.

And yes, as is often the case, this is easier said than done. That’s why The Mary Foundation and Save the Children Denmark have worked for more than a decade alongside experts in bullying to:

  • identify the specific values we want to encourage to prevent bullying, and
  • develop simple, practical tools that childcare facilities and schools can use to strengthen those values.
free of bullying

This has resulted in the anti-bullying programme Free of Bullying. This programme has been adopted by over 45% of childcare facilities, 60% of preschools and 45% of primary schools in Denmark, where it has proven to be highly successful (see the Free of Bullying and Children’s socioemotional skills report for the most recent findings). It has also been rolled out in Estonia, Iceland, Romania, Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

Please visit our Free of Bullying page, The Programme, if you would like to know more about the programme. For more on the steps required to introduce Free of Bullying to a new market (country), go to The Free of Bullying Competence Centre.

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