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Using Peer Nominations to Help Identify Bullies in Schools
Researchers have relied primarily on self-report surveys to measure bullying. This method of assessment generally consists of paper-and-pencil questionnaires that are completed anonymously by the students. In most studies, students are given a definition of bullying and then asked to report how often they engage in different kinds of bullying behaviors (Salmivalli, Karhunen, & Lagerspetz, 1996). Salmivalli et al. found that simply asking students to respond to the statement "I bully others" often produced unreliable self-reports, because many students who bully do not consider their behavior as bullying. To obtain more accurate results, many researchers (Bosworth, Espelage, & Simon, 1999; Olweus, 1991; Smith & Sharp, 1994) asked students about the frequency of specific behaviors such as teasing, name calling, or hitting. Solberg and Olweus (2003) contended that self-reports are the best means of measuring bullying; however, self-reports can underestimate the prevalence of bullying if students are unwilling to admit socially undesirable behaviors or are unaware that their behavior constitutes bullying. Some bullies insist they are just "having fun" or "joking around" even though their behavior is intimidating or distressing to their victims. The most important limitation of anonymous self-report surveys from a counseling standpoint is that they yield estimates of the prevalence of bullying but do not help counselors identify the specific students involved in bullying.
Peer nomination (or peer report) represents an alternative approach to identifying bullies. The peer nomination method usually involves asking students to write down the names of classmates who match a descriptive statement, such as "someone who bullies others." Students who receive nominations beyond some cutoff point are considered to be possibly involved in bullying. It should be emphasized that counselors would not conclude that a student was bullying others based on peer nominations alone, but would use the peer nomination results as a basis for further investigation, such as interviewing students and consulting with teachers. Although peer nomination is not widely used in the literature on bullying, peer reports are a standard method of assessing peer social status ranging from peer aggression to popularity (Ladd & Kochenderfer-Ladd, 2002). Leff, Power, and Goldstein (2004) reviewed the most commonly used measures to evaluate the effectiveness of bullying prevention programs (i.e., nursing logs of injuries, discipline referrals, student self-report measures, teacher-reported measures, peer sociometric measures, and behavioral observation systems). They concluded that peer nominations have strong concurrent and predictive validity and are the "methodology of choice for identifying perpetrators" (p. 282).
Purpose Of Current Study
The current study compared three groups of students: bullies identified by self-report, bullies identified by peer nomination, and students not identified as bullies by self-report or peer nomination (nonbully group). We addressed three primary questions: (a) How do self-reported bullies and peer-nominated bullies compare in the frequency and type of bullying behaviors? (b) How do self-reported and peer-nominated bullies compare in levels of general self-concept, attitudes toward aggression and bullying, and disciplinary infractions? And, (c) how do self-reported and peer-nominated bullies differ from peers who do not bully?
Our findings indicate that counselors who rely on student self-report to measure the prevalence of bullies in their school will obtain markedly different results than if they use peer nominations. Self-report surveys of bullying are used much more frequently than peer nominations (Nansel et al., 2001; Olweus, 1997; Rigby & Slee, 1993; Solberg & Olweus, 2003), but this method may greatly underestimate the number of bullies in middle school. Overall, most students did not report involvement in physical, verbal, or social bullying on the self-report survey. Only a small number (N = 9) of students admitted to directly engaging in bullying behaviors. Students might have been unwilling to admit bullying others or they might have been unaware that their behavior was regarded as bullying by others. Despite denying their involvement, 70 students were nominated by two or more of their peers as perpetrators of bullying. However, peer nomination methods must be viewed with caution, too, because some students could have nominated classmates as a joke or identified peers that they did not like. For this reason, we selected students who were nominated by at least two classmates. In 49 of 70 cases (70%), students were identified by three or more classmates. There was not a statistically significant difference between identified bullies and non-bullies in general self-concept. This finding is contrary to some reports in the literature (O'Moore & Hillery, 1991) but consistent with the view that at least some aggressive youth may have an overly positive perception of their status (Baumeister, Smart, & Boden, 1996). There were statistically significant self-concept differences, however, between the self-reported bullies and the peer-nominated bullies. Peer-nominated bullies endorsed items such as "I have a lot to be proud of," "I like being the way I am," and "A lot of things about me are good" at a higher level than did self-reported bullies. Rigby and Slee (1993) suggested that a bully's self-concept is maintained by the "sense of power they gain through dominating and humiliating those weaker than themselves" (p. 373). Individuals who are able to dominate others may be expected, therefore, to have a similar or higher self-concept than those who are not (i.e., victims) (Bjorkqvist, Osterman, & Kaukiainen, 1992; Olweus, 1993, 1997). The combined group of self-reported and peer-nominated bullies endorsed more positive attitudes toward aggression and bullying than did non-bullies. This finding is consistent with other studies showing a link between bullying and aggressive attitudes (Huesmann & Guerra, 1997; Perry, Perry, & Rasmussen, 1986; Slaby & Guerra, 1988). Pikas (1989) developed the Common Concern Method, a bullying intervention program that focused on changing aggressive attitudes and student interactions. The goal of the model was to foster empathy among bullies for their victims and to help students take ownership of the bullying problem and responsibility for its resolution (Hoover & Oliver, 1996). School counselors should work with bullies to identify the fallacies in their beliefs about aggression, such as their belief that aggression will make them popular or that victims deserve what happens to them. Peer-nominated bullies endorsed lower levels of involvement in bullying behavior--such as hitting or kicking someone on purpose, threatening to hurt someone, or telling peers not to be someone's friend--than did self-reported bullies. Peer-nominated bullies also were less likely to endorse positive attitudes toward aggression than were self-reported bullies. These findings suggest that bullies who fail to admit their involvement in bullying are also less likely to admit aggressive attitudes and behavior. This means that school counselors cannot rely on indirect measures of bullying such as self-reports of fighting and hitting others to identify possible bullies. Peer-nominated bullies were a high-risk group who received more disciplinary infractions over the course of the school year than did other students. In fact, peer-nominated bullies received almost four times as many disciplinary infractions as non-bullies. Furthermore, they were three times as likely to receive detention and they were about six times as likely to be suspended from school as non-bullies. These observations provide independent corroboration that students identified as bullies by their peers have behavioral adjustment problems. Peer-identified bullies are good candidates for preventive counseling services and deserve prompt intervention when behavior problems surface. The few students who were willing to admit bullying others on the self-report survey were probably less concerned about self-disclosure and more willing to admit other aggressive behavior, too. Unfortunately, few of the students perceived as bullies by their peers were wilting to admit this behavior on the self-report instrument. Although self-report is widely used in schools to assess the level of bullying (Nansel et al., 2001; Rigby & Slee, 1993), the students identified by dais method appear to differ substantially from those identified by their classmates.
Implications for School Counselors
The impact of bullying extends beyond the individual victim to affect many other students (Hoover & Hazier, 1991). Students who observe bullying may fear that they could be the next target, or they may feel guilty that they stood by and permitted the bullying to take place. Worse, some students may be encouraged to emulate the bully and become bullies themselves. Unnever and Cornell (2003) described a "culture of bullying" in middle school in which students come to expect that bullying will take place and teachers will do little to stop it. Bullying becomes more serious and more difficult to prevent the longer it continues. "By the time these children reach middle school, they have not only developed a pervasive pattern of aggressive behavior but have also acquired sophisticated methods that can make them more difficult to detect as well as discipline" (Bonds & Stoker, 2000, p. 341). In order to implement effective intervention strategies for bullying and aggression, it is necessary to develop better strategies to identify at-risk youth (Atlas & Pepler, 1998).
One clear advantage of peer nomination is that counselors not only can assess the prevalence of bullying, they also can identify students who are possible bullies. Although counselors should not conclude that a student is a bully based on peer nominations alone, they could follow up on the results by interviewing and observing students to determine if bullying is taking place. According to Clarke and Kiselica (1997), a major purpose of a school-wide assessment of bullying is to ascertain the current extent of the problem and to identify perpetrators who require counseling services and additional support. Peer nomination and self-report measures should be given in the context of a school-wide assessment of bullying. Teachers must be prepared in survey administration and motivated to create a receptive classroom environment to attain valid survey results (Cornell, Cole, & Sheras, in press). Cross and Newman-Gonchar (2004) proposed that administrator training may be a critical factor in obtaining more consistent and trustworthy survey data.
School counselors can work with teachers to alleviate ally concerns they may have about survey administration. Sometimes teachers fear that a peer nomination procedure will arouse anxiety in students or be disruptive to the classroom. Students should be advised that the purpose of the survey is to prevent students from being bullied, and that because oftentimes students are reluctant to come forward and seek help for bullying, or to seek help for their friends who are being bullied, the peer nomination provides them with a means to do so (Unnever & Cornell, 2004). Leff et al. (2004) suggested that teachers and school counselors fully debrief students after using the peer nomination procedure. They suggested that teachers explain why students are been requested to rate others in their class and talk about the importance of keeping their responses confidential. In practice, we have observed that peer nominations can be conducted in a straightforward and low-key manner that does not generate undue anxiety or distress among students. Concerns about peer nomination procedures must be weighed against the cost of failing to identify bullies and their victims. The ability to identify bullies and victims of bullying is critically important to any bully prevention effort. Moreover, in cases of severe or chronic bullying, we believe that counselors and teachers have an obligation to use all reasonable means to stop it from continuing. Interventions with identified aggressive youth must begin with behavior management (Bonds & Stoker, 2000; Clarke & Kiselica, 1997). Students must receive clear instructions that bullying will not be permitted and will have disciplinary consequences. It is important that students perceive that discipline is "firm but fair" and applied equally to everyone (Sprague & Golly, 2004). In addition to disciplinary consequences for bullying, schools should make ample use of incentives and rewards for appropriate behavior, consistent with the philosophy of positive behavior support (Sprague & Golly, 2004). Counselors should encourage teachers to emphasize positive consequences and recognition for peer behavior that shows empathy, respect, and consideration for others. This approach may be augmented by school-wide efforts to teach communication and conflict resolution skills, as well as nonviolent attitudes and values (Sprague et al., 2001). Students involved in bullying need assessment to identify potential problems with anger, socio-emotional adjustment, and peer relations. It may be useful to conduct a functional behavior analysis to identify factors that encourage, model, or reinforce the student's behavior, and then to develop an appropriate intervention plan (Skiba, Waldron, Bahamonde, & Michalek, 1998). Students must learn positive alternatives to aggression that replace patterns of bullying and related maladaptive behaviors (Clarke & Kiselica, 1997; Hoover & Hazier, 1991).
Some school staff members may have the mistaken idea that bullying is normal, unavoidable, and relatively harmless. School counselors can play an important role in helping school staff to develop a greater awareness of bullying and a willingness to respond to it (Atlas & Pepler, 1998). As Hernández and Seem (2004) emphasized, "Due to their knowledge, skills, and education, school counselors are uniquely positioned to institute the development of safe climates in schools and can serve as advocates for school change" (p. 257). School counselors can oversee and coordinate a school-wide effort to implement surveys that measure bullying and its effects on school climate. Results of a school-wide assessment can help develop policies and programs to deal effectively and quickly with bullying and aggression.
This study compared peer nomination and self-report approaches to the identification of middle school bullies. The peer nomination method identified a much larger group of students reported to engage in bullying and found that these students committed more disciplinary infractions than students identified as bullies by self-report. There were no differences between bullies and non-bullies in self-concept, but bullies were more likely to endorse attitudes justifying the use of aggression and minimizing its effect on victims. These findings point to some practical approaches that school counselors can take to identify and intervene with middle school students who engage in bullying behavior.
- Cole, Joanna C. M.; Cornell, Dewey G.; Sheras, Peter; Identification of School Bullies by Survey Methods; Professional School Counseling, Apr2006, Vol. 9 Issue 4, p305-313
Reflection Exercise #2
The preceding section contained information regarding using peer nominations to help identify bullies in schools. Write three
case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in
What is one difference that Cole identified between self-identified and peer-nominated bullies? To select and enter your answer go to .