Prevent Bullying by Promoting Healthy Relationships

Debra Pepler

Teachers are critical in socializing children and shaping their relationships through moment-to-moment interactions with their students. Through 20 years of research, we have come to understand bullying as a relationship problem in which an individual uses power and aggression to control and distress another. Our work in the Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network (PREVNet) is based on this research. (Please visit prevnet.ca for resources for teachers, parents and students.)

If bullying is a relationship problem, then it requires relationship solutions. Family, peer, and school relationships affect all aspects of children’s development – intellectual, social, emotional, physical, behavioural, and moral. When relationships are positive, children develop positive social skills, understanding, and confidence. When these relationships are destructive, as in bullying, children’s social-emotional development is compromised (Vaillancourt et al., 2011). Children’s healthy development depends on healthy relationships.

We can expect that children who have developed unhealthy relationship patterns, such as bullying, have experienced relationships that may have failed to support them in developing the essential skills, understanding, and behaviours for positive relationships. Some children who bully lack emotional and behavioural regulation and are generally aggressive, whereas others are quite socially skilled and popular, but have learned that bullying is a way to gain status in the peer group (Feris & Felmlee, 2011). Both types of children need to learn how and why to relate to others pro-socially, rather than aggressively. In other words, we should think about bullying primarily as an educational challenge rather than as a matter of crime and punishment.

Relationship solutions for teachers working with students who bully include:

  • Establishing consequences that teach how others feel when bullied and how to act differently next time (educational or formative consequences). Students can be engaged in discussing together ways to reduce negative behaviour;
  • Providing opportunities to experience positive leadership in which they are helping others, so they recognize the value and reinforcement that comes from helping, not hurting;
  • Strengthening their strategies to resist peer pressure. These youth are the most susceptible to pressure from peers to engage in deviant behaviours and;
  • Helping them find their moral compass. Youth who bully are often morally disengaged and don’t care or recognize the harm they do to others.

Relationship solutions for teachers working with students who are victimized include:

  • Making sure that students know they can and should report being bullied to adults, who will take steps to protect them;
  • Protecting them from further peer abuse by careful structuring of classroom groups and activities; Supporting them in developing social skills and assertiveness if they struggle in these areas and;
  • Helping them find strengths and domains of competence so that they can be recognized for these by peers and adults at home and school.

Everyone involved in children’s lives plays an important role in promoting healthy development. We believe that four strategies are essential to prevent bullying problems.

Self-awareness on the


teachers holding the health and safety book

When you say Occupational Health and Safety to education workers, they start talking about what they do to keep their students safe. The focus on students is admirable, but it misses the point. Occupational Health and Safety is about workers.

graphic of computer menu dropdown with word 'Bullying" highlighted

Despite the growing awareness about its negative effects, cyberbullying continues to be all too common among elementary and secondary school students. Online forums are still rife with the potential for false allegations and degrading comments, and new school-based video clips recorded with cellphones are posted to YouTube every day.