It is no surprise that children who are bullied do worse in academic tests. However, after re-analyzing children’s reading test data for 30 school systems in some of the world’s richest countries, we found that an environment of bullying drags everyone’s achievement down, not just that of the victims. We published our findings on bullying and more indicators contributing to educational inequalities in a recent UNICEF report “An Unfair Start: Inequality in Children’s Education in Rich Countries”.
- The share of fourth-grade students who reported they were bullied at least monthly ranged from 25% in Finland to 60% in New Zealand (see figure below).
- Nearly half of children in the US (45 %) reported they were bullied at least once a month.
- One in three (33%) of these children said they were bullied on a weekly basis, one of the highest levels in the comparison (ahead of only nine of 30 school systems in the study).
Our research shows that school-level prevalence of weekly bullying is associated with significantly lower individual reading test scores in 24 of the 30 school systems. In the United States, a one percentage point difference in school-level bullying is associated with 1.1 score points lower reading achievement, one of the strongest correlations in the study. The association is greater in only three other countries in the comparison- Chile, Ireland and Sweden, all of which had lower rates of bullying victimization than the US.
Only 6% of children in the US sample were in schools where no one reported being bullied weekly and a quarter were in schools with a bullying prevalence of 20% or greater. This amounts to a difference in reading scores of 22 points. This is a large effect, especially as it remains after we have accounted for a host of other factors linked to children’s reading achievement: the child’s gender and age, the language of testing and the language the child speaks at home, the location of the school, whether the child comes to school hungry or tired, or has breakfast on school days, as well as the share of students from disadvantaged families in the school (reported by the principal).
It is now understood that childhood bullying casts a “long shadow” on both the victims and perpetrators, but a more nuanced understanding of how it affects bystanders is over-due. Children who get victimized as well as those who bully others tend to suffer from ill health and poor employment outcomes as they grow into adulthood. Yet our findings suggest that even children who are not necessarily involved in bullying end up being dragged down in their academic achievement.
Our research demonstrates that anti-bullying interventions need to consider the whole school context, while the evaluations of such interventions should measure the impacts on children not directly involved in peer violence.
- UNICEF Innocenti’s working paper: Developing a Global Indicator on Bullying of School-Aged Children
- For global bullying statistics and examples of anti-bullying policies and interventions, see the 2016 United Nations report “Ending the Torment: Tackling Bullying from the Schoolyard to Cyberspace”.
Yekaterina Chzhen is the lead author of the newly released UNICEF report An Unfair Start: Inequality in Children’s Education in Rich Countries.
The Office of Research–Innocenti, is UNICEF’s dedicated research centre. It undertakes research on emerging or current issues to inform the strategic directions, policies and programmes of UNICEF and its partners, shape global debates on child rights and development, and inform the global research and policy agenda for all children, and particularly for the most vulnerable. Please visit us on Twitter and Facebook.