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Predicting teacher interventions in bullying situations.


This study examined the attitudes and interventions of 98 elementary school teachers in bullying situations. The self-efficacy of teachers in behavioral management, empathy toward victims, and perceived seriousness of bullying situations were assessed using hypothetical vignettes that depicted different bullying incidents. The results indicated that the three teacher variables are important factors in predicting the likelihood of intervention by teachers in response to students' bullying behaviors, but not the level of teacher involvement. Implications of these findings for teacher preparation, continuing education, and future research are discussed.


An ecological perspective conceptualizes that bullying is "an interaction that occurs between an individual bully and a victim and unfolds within a social ecological context" (Atlas & Pepler, 1998, p. 86). This perspective considers not only the individuals involved (i.e., bullies and victims), but also contextual variables that influence bullying behaviors and victimization experiences. Based on the ecological framework, many interventions were proposed to address bullying behaviors by improving school climate and empowering peer groups (Olweus, 1991; Pepler, Craig, Ziegler, & Charach, 1994; Smith & Sharp, 1994). These programs share a common goal to improve the contexts in which bullying incidents occur so that bullying behaviors are discouraged and peer mediation is utilized, thus resulting in a positive school climate.

Emerging evidence indicates that individual teacher responses to bullying may be an important area to be included in investigations of students' bullying and victimization experiences. There is a great deal of variability among teachers in terms of their attitudes toward and perceptions of bullying (Craig, Henderson, & Murphy, 2000; Yoon & Kerber, in press). Stephenson and Smith (1989) found that 25% of teachers in their study reported that ignoring bullying behavior was helpful, suggesting that some teachers are less willing to intervene. It is also possible that teachers are not fully aware of the extent to which bullying incidents affect students in school, and thus, they may not sufficiently intervene. In fact, they may not even intervene as much as they think they do. For example, Pepler et al. (1994) found that 85% of teachers reported intervening "always" or "often," whereas only 35% of students reported that teachers intervened in bullying incidents.

More alarming is that students perceive some teacher behaviors as threatening and damaging as bullying behaviors of students. Song and Swearer (2002) found that compared to students who were not involved in bullying, those who were bullies and victims were more likely to report that teachers and other school staff bully students in their schools. Clearly, there is a range of teacher responses to bullying, with some not sufficiently intervening and others responding in threatening manners themselves. Moreover, teachers' responses to bullying incidents are likely to contribute to students' perceptions of classroom environments in a number of ways. Lack of appropriate consequences would reinforce students' bullying behaviors (Huesmann & Eron, 1984) and would indirectly contribute to repeated victimization by allowing the continued success of the bully exerting control over a victim. Furthermore, a teacher's permissive attitude toward a perpetrator (i.e., not following through with the consequences of bullying or blaming a victim) are more likely to perpetuate victims' feeling of being alienated and helpless (Pepler et al., 1994).

Collectively, this demonstrates the importance of teacher responses in preventing and intervening in bullying behaviors. However, there has been a lack of attention paid to this issue. The purpose of this study was to identify the individual teacher characteristics that influence teacher responses to bullying behaviors. Specifically, the study explored the cognitive pattern of teachers as possible mediators affecting students' bullying behaviors and teacher intervention.

Teachers' cognitive appraisals and beliefs are important determinants in teacher interactions with students (Chester & Beaudin, 1996; Pajares, 1992). The self-efficacy beliefs of teachers (Gibson & Dembo, 1984), expectancy toward students (Tollefson & Chen, 1988; Witek & Little, 1996) and global index of empathy (Craig, et al., 2000) have been linked to different teacher behaviors. The beliefs and attitudes of teachers are likely to influence their perceptions of bullying behaviors and their responses to bullying incidents.

In the present study, we considered the perceived seriousness of bullying, the level of empathy toward victims, and self-efficacy in behavioral management as teacher characteristics that would influence the likelihood of intervention and the level of involvement with students who are bullies and victims. It was hypothesized that teachers who report more empathy toward victims, perceive bullying more seriously, report higher self-efficacy in behavior management, and would take a more active position in dealing with bullies. This study utilized hypothetical vignettes that depict a variety of bullying situations and assessed teachers' attitudes in each bullying situation.



Participants were 98 elementary school teachers who were enrolled in graduate level classes in education at a large urban state university in the Midwest. Following the university human subject committee and course instructors' approval, a questionnaire was distributed and collected in class. Most of the participants were female (70%), certified (83%) teachers who held Bachelor's Degrees (62%). The mean years of teaching experience was six years, ranging from 1 to 25 years. The ethnic composition was Caucasian (56%), African American (32%), Hispanic (2%), and other / missing (8%).


Demographics. A typical demographics questionnaire was administered which included age, gender, educational level and years of teaching experience.

Personal self-efficacy in behavioral management. Teacher efficacy in dealing with oppositional and disruptive student behaviors was measured by asking teachers to rate five items on a seven-point scale ranging from 1 ("not true at all") to 7 ("very true"). These items were selected from the Teaching Efficacy Scale (Gibson & Dembo, 1984), which measures general teacher efficacy with less emphasis on behavioral management. The original items were revised so that the statements reflected teachers' perceived ability to influence misbehaviors (i.e., "I can successfully handle the situation when one of my students gets disruptive and oppositional"). Cronbach alpha for this scale was .86. Because the Cronbach alpha is a function of the number of items included in the scale, the Spearman-Brown was calculated. The Spearman-Brown with additional 24 items with equal quality to the original five items was projected to be .97.

Teacher attitudes toward bullying. The Bullying Attitude Questionnaire (Craig et al., 2000) is a measure of teacher attitudes toward different bullying behaviors. For the purpose of this study, the original vignettes were modified to make the bullying less ambiguous and to include only witnessed bullying situations, which resulted in six vignettes (Appendix). The vignettes depicted each bullying incident not as an isolated incident, but as a repeated pattern of behavior, which involves a bully and a victim with unbalanced power. This questionnaire was used to assess the level of perceived seriousness of the bullying event, empathy toward victims, their likelihood of intervention, and types of intervention strategies.

The participants were presented with six bullying vignettes. Following the description of each bullying incident, teachers were asked to rate each bullying behavior in terms of seriousness (ranging from 1 = not at all serious to 5=very serious). Cronbach alpha, a measure of internal consistency reliability, for this scale (n=6) was .70, based on the participants' scores in this study. Spearman-Brown, an internal consistency projected for the total 29 items, was .92.

Instead of the global empathy of teachers as measured in Craig, et al. (2000), teachers' level of empathy toward specific victims in each bullying vignette was measured. Teachers indicated how sympathetic they would feel toward the victim in each vignette by responding to the statement, "I would be upset by the student's behavior and feel sympathetic to the victim," on a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). The Cronbach alpha for the empathy scale (n=6) for this sample was .86, and Spearman-Brown, an internal consistency projected for the total 29 items, was .97.

Following the ratings for seriousness and empathy, teachers were asked to rate how likely they were to intervene when faced with bullying situations described in the vignettes using a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (not at all likely) to 5 (very likely). The alpha coefficient for this scale was .77, and the Spearman-Brown (n=29) was .94. Teachers were also asked to describe how they would respond to the perpetrators in each situation. A researcher, knowledgeable in disciplinary strategies, read the written responses and created an initial rating system that reflects different levels of teacher involvement. Then, using the rating criteria, written responses of teachers were rated on a 7-point scale to indicate the extent to which teachers and other school personnel intervene with the perpetrators. A higher score reflected more involvement of teachers and other school personnel. Interrater agreement was 92% for the level of teacher involvement. Any disagreement was resolved through discussion between the author and the two raters. The alpha coefficient for Involvement (n=6) was .67, and Spearman-Brown (n=29) was .91.


Relations among dependent and predictor variables

Correlation analyses (Table 1) were conducted to assess the relationships among teacher characteristics and teacher responses to bullying. The higher ratings of the likelihood of intervention were related to higher self-efficacy, higher levels of perceived seriousness, and greater empathy toward victims of bullying. The level of teacher involvement in bullying interventions did not have a significant correlation with any of the other predictor variables. Interestingly, teachers' ratings of their likelihood of intervention were not significantly correlated with their involvement in bullying intervention (r=.10).

Predicting teachers' likelihood of intervention and teacher involvement in bullying

A multiple regression analysis was conducted to investigate whether the three teacher variables (perceived seriousness, empathy, and self-efficacy) predict teacher reports of how likely they were to intervene in response to bullying situations. Years of teaching experience was entered first to control its effect and the three predictor variables were entered into the model on the next step. Years of teaching experience was not significant. The model was statistically significant (p = .000), accounting for 61% of variances in the likelihood of intervention by teachers. The standardized beta coefficients for perceived seriousness (.54), teacher self-efficacy (.21), and teacher empathy (.29) were statistically significant, all at p<.001.

The same teacher characteristics were regressed on actual teacher involvement in bullying intervention, controlling the years of teaching experience. The effect of teaching experience was not statistically significant, F(1, 91)=.28. The full model was not statistically significant F(4, 88)=1.47, only accounting for 2% of variance.


The purpose of this study was to explore three teacher characteristics (empathy, self-efficacy and perceived seriousness) that influence teacher responses to students' bullying behaviors. The results indicated that the three teacher variables are important factors in predicting the likelihood of teacher intervention in response to bullying behaviors. Specifically, teachers who perceive bullying more seriously and report higher self-efficacy and greater empathy were more likely to report that they would intend to intervene. Thus, these appear to be important aspects of the decision of teachers to get involved in bullying situations.

Although all three variables were part of the model, it was also notable that the perceived seriousness of bullying situations was even more important than the others. It made the most contribution in predicting the likelihood of teacher intervention in the presence of empathy and self-efficacy. This finding indicates that increasing teachers' awareness of negative outcomes associated with bullying behaviors may change teachers' appraisal of bullying situations, thus increasing their likelihood of intervention. Both teacher preparation and continuing education programs should include discussions about specific short- and long-term consequences for victims and perpetrators of bullying. This will not only enhance teachers' knowledge about bullying in general, but also help teachers better understand victimization experiences, thus increasing empathy toward victims. How teacher responses influence future bullying behaviors and contribute to students' perceptions of classroom climate should also be highlighted. To further increase self-efficacy, specific strategies and procedures in effective management of bullying behaviors should be presented to teachers.

Interestingly, teacher responses to the open-ended questions indicated a great deal of variability in how teachers handle bullies. Furthermore, the same teacher characteristics did not predict the level of teacher involvement in bullying responses. That is, these teacher characteristics predict their intentions to intervene, but not the actual level of intervention. This pattern may also reflect that teacher behavior is a product of complex processes that involve different individual and situational characteristics in certain organizational contexts. For example, certain school environments permissive of bullying may lead teachers to respond to a bully in a lenient way. Future studies must explore other teacher characteristics and organizational variables that are related to teacher behaviors in response to bullying behaviors. System constraints that deter teachers from intervening such as lack of administrative support (Yoon & Gilchrist, in press) must be examined.

Limitations of this study must be considered in the interpretation of the results. The participants in this study were recruited through their graduate courses. This study should be replicated using a broader range of teachers in terms of educational level. In addition, only the self-report of teachers was used in the study. Given that teachers and students do not necessarily agree on the extent to which bullying is addressed (Pepler et al., 1994), future studies should include reports from both teachers and students. Of particular interest are teacher responses to bullying behaviors and their impact on students' perception of school climate and school adjustment.

Finally, the study's methodology may be perceived as both a strength and a weakness. The present study used hypothetical situations to measure the attitudes and responses of teachers to bullying behaviors. This method has an advantage over the typical survey method in that it provides the participants with a realistic context about which to respond. However, observational data may be necessary to gain better insight into teachers' actual responses to bullying. Despite these limitations, the results suggest strong support for looking beyond individual variables (i.e., individual bullies' and victims' behaviors) and considering teachers' roles in the prevention of and intervention in students' bullying. Teachers' roles may be critical with respect to bullying experiences and perception of school climate, particularly in elementary schools where students' social networks are relatively small and often confined to a class.


Bullying Vignettes

1. At the writing center, you hear a student chant to another child "Teachers pet, browner, suck-up, kiss-ass." The child tries to ignore the remarks but sulks at his desk. You saw this same thing happen the other day.

2. Your class is getting ready to go to lunch and the kids are in line at the door. You hear a kid say to another child, "Hey, give me your lunch money or I'll give you a fat lip." The child complies at once. This is not the first time this has happened.

3. A student brought a dinosaur shaped eraser to school. He boasts that it was a prize from a game arcade. Another child goes over and smacks his head, demanding the eraser. The child refuses at first, but eventually gives in.

4. As your kids return from having music class you see a student kick another child without provocation. Bruising is evident. This student has been known to engage in this type of behavior before.

5. During project time you overhear a child say to another student, "If you don't let me have the purple marker, I won't invite you to my birthday party." This is not the first time you have heard this child say this type of thing.

6. You have allowed the kids in your class to have a little free time because they've worked so hard today. You witness a kid say to another student, "No, absolutely not. I already told you that you can't play with us." The student is isolated and plays alone for the remaining time with tears in her eyes. This is not the first time this child has isolated someone from playing.
Table 1 Correlations among Teacher Variables in Response to Hypothetical
Bullying Situations

Variables 1 2 3 4 5

1. Perceived Seriousness 1.00
2. Teacher Self-Efficacy .14 1.00
3. Empathy Toward Victims .52** -.11 1.00
4. Likelihood of Intervention .73** .27** .55** 1.00
5. Teacher Involvement .12 -.15 .19 .10 1.00

** p<.01


Atlas, R.S., & Pepler, D.J. (1998). Observations of bullying in the Classroom. Journal of Educational Research, 92, 86-99.

Chester, M.D., & Beaudin, B.Q.(1996) Efficacy beliefs of newly hired teachers in urban schools. American Educational Research Journal, 33(1), 233-257.

Craig, W. M., Henderson, K. & Murphy, J.G. (2000) Prospective teachers' attitudes toward bullying and victimization. School Psychology International Special Issue: Bullies and Victims, 21(1), 5-21.

Gibson, S., & Dembo, M.H. (1984) Teacher efficacy: A construct validation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 76(4), 569-582.

Huesmann, L. R., & Eron, L. D. (1984). Cognitive processes and the persistence of aggressive behavior. Aggressive Behavior, 10, 243-251.

Olweus, D. (1991). Bully / victim problems among school children: Basic facts and effects of a school based intervention program. In D. Pepler & K. Rubin (Eds.), The development and treatment of childhood aggression (pp. 411-438). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Pajares, M.F. (1992). Teachers' beliefs and educational research: Cleaning up a messy construct. Review of Educational Research, 62(3), 307-332.

Pepler, D.J., Craig, W. M., Ziegler, S., & Charach, A. (1994). An evaluation of an anti-bullying intervention in Toronto schools. Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health, 13, 95-110.

Smith, P.K., & Sharp, S. (1994) School bullying: Insights and persepectives. London:Routledge.

Song, S.Y., & Swearer, S.M. (2002, February). An ecological analysis of bullying in middle school: Understanding school climate across the bully-victim continuum. Paper presented at the Annual Convention of the National Association of School Psychologists, Chicago, IL.

Stephenson, P., & Smith, D. (1989). Bullying in the junior high. In D. Tattum & D. Lane (Eds.), Bullying in schools (pp.45-48). Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books.

Tollefson, N., & Chen, J.S. (1988) Consequences of teachers' attributions for student failure. Teaching and Teacher Education, 4(3), 259-265.

Witek, J. M., & Little, S. G. (1996, August). The influence of exceptionality and gender on teacher attribution and expectancy. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, Toronto, Canada.

Yoon, J. & Gilchrist, J. (in press) Teachers' perception of administrative support in working with disruptive and aggressive students. Education.

Yoon, J. & Kerber, K. (in press). Bullying: Elementary teachers' attitudes and intervention strategies. Research in Education.

Jina S. Yoon

Wayne State University

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jina Yoon, 347 Education, Educational Psychology, College of Education, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan 48202. Email address:
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Author:Yoon, Jina S.
Publication:Education & Treatment of Children
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2004
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