How bullying affects learning is an interesting topic. And while this article will give you an answer, it’s probably not the one you were expecting. (As we bet you weren't aware that bullying can actually increase a child's academic performance at school!) So let’s take a look at what we already know about school bullying and how we can link the puzzle pieces correctly.
How bullying affects children at school is a worrying situation that you can find almost anywhere in the world. What makes it more serious than any adult bullying, is the fact that children can easily develop adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) when they're exposed to abuse or neglect.
If you haven’t heard of ACEs, that’s okay – not many people have. Robert Block, the former President of the American Academy of Paediatrics even said: “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation.”
In short, an ACE is classified as any traumatic childhood experience that has a lasting effect on your mental and physical wellbeing.
To really grasp this concept, try taking a step out of your own shoes here and into those of a six-year-old’s. At this time in your life, all you know and understand is that mom and dad look after you. You need to go to school and you probably really want friends so that you have people to play with. An ACE would be any trauma that affects the pillars of your life as you know it.
This can range from someone you thought was a friend pulling your hair in class, or picking on you. Or even seeing your parents fighting while they go through a bad divorce. The trick is not to assume what may or may not be traumatic for your child and to keep an open mind.
How bullying affects learning and the link between ACEs?
Adverse childhood experiences can have a direct effect on your child’s physical, emotional and intellectual wellbeing that can hurt their learning abilities in unique ways. Here’s what you need to look out for.
School bullying is a typical example of abuse that can trigger an ACE. And the more it happens to any child, the higher their risk of social, cognitive and emotional impairment will be. You may think that the first and most obvious thing that would reflect on how bullying affects learning is a drop in academic performance. Again, you’re not alone. But more reviews are showing that this actually isn’t true if your kid does well at school and is bullied for that reason.
In fact, in this situation your child could very well start working harder and performing better at school. Think about it: If they feel abused when they're in a social setting, why not steer clear? As long as they're studying, they know they're in a safe place and will get praise for doing well.
How bullying affects learning greatly depends on the type of bullying and the severity of the case. We’re not saying academic performance can’t drop (because it definitely can), but that's likely to be because your child:
1. Feels there is no safe place to study
If your child is involved in school bullying, it’s likely they won’t want to be there because they don't feel safe. Kids who are bullied are far more likely to bunk school so that they don’t have to confront their bully. The biggest problem is they end up missing a lot of school as a result and their academics will suffer.
Every time they go to school, they become more unhappy and more nervous as they don’t know when their next attack will be. What makes things even more difficult today is cyber-bullying. Kids can go home to work and still be bullied every time they go online. This constant disruption makes it very difficult to keep their grades steady.
2. Lacks motivation
Nothing is worse than putting up your hand to answer a question in class only to be called names, mocked or laughed at by the other students. Or having to team up for gym class knowing you’re the only one without a partner.
If your child feels attacked every time they have to participate in class, their self-esteem and desire to do well can slowly fade. School bullying can stunt a child’s academic motivation and break down the ambition they originally had to get through school successfully.
3. Has developed depression
Many studies show that there is a strong link between kids being bullied and falling into depression as the trauma is just too much to handle. The problem is, once you have developed depression (not only as a child but as an adult as well), it can have a big impact on your ability to work methodically, execute tasks and learn new things. This is because depression obstructs your ability to think. Whether it's your memory, your ability to process new information, or how good your decision-making skills are. These cognitive functions will take strain if you’re depressed.
4. Suffers from anxiety
Depression and anxiety often go hand-in-hand for many bully victims. But they will affect your ability to learn in different ways. If you suffer from anxiety, your body is basically in “flight or fight” mode all the time. This is because your brain can no longer differentiate between a real threat and a false threat.
Now the flight or fight mode has its place. For example, if you were walking through a forest and stumbled across an aggressive grizzly bear – flight or fight would give you a boost of cortisol and adrenaline. This hormone release helps you decide whether it’s worth standing your ground and keep on walking... or if it’s time find a rock to hide behind and pray you go unnoticed.
So if you suffer from anxiety, you’re constantly releasing these stress hormones. This puts functions like your heart rate, body temperature and ability to breath into overdrive. No, this isn’t a direct link to how bullying affects learning. But it’s safe to say if your mind is continuously telling you that you’re in danger and “you have to fight a bear”, it will automatically shift your focus off anything else. This makes things like your ability to learn very difficult.
5. Has not dealt with their depression or anxiety properly
Going through any traumatic situation can put a great deal of pressure on your mind. It will automatically try to process and recover from what has happened, but will struggle to do it properly without guidance. Often, when someone’s trauma is left unresolved, conditions such as depression and anxiety get worse. This can leave you feeling trapped in your own body and in search for outlets to relieve your pain and frustration.
While some outlets can be healthy, such as participating in sports or joining an art class, others can cause serious damage. The main two things you should be concerned about include substance abuse and suicidal tendencies.
Substance abuse through drugs or alcohol is directly known to have an effect on your cognitive functions. And by developing an addiction, your focus shifts from functioning in daily life to finding out when you can dope yourself again. Whereas, if someone has developed suicidal tendencies, it means that they no longer feel that life is worth living. So – why put any effort into anything anyway?
What can we do to stop school bullying?
By understanding that bullying is a serious issue and knowing that it needs to be addressed in a well thought-out manner. You are already so much closer to resolving the problem and truly understanding how bullying affects learning.
The next step is to better understand what kind of bullying your child is being exposed to and how it is making them feel. If you’re able to engage with them on that level, you’ll be able to see how they really feel. This could range from feelings of depression, anxiety, losing motivation, feeling scared, or even suicidal tendencies.
From here, you can help them process their emotions in a more constructive way. For example, activities like sports, music, drama and art all help calm the mind and give you attainable goals to reach. It’s time away from school, and there’s no time to dabble with social media while you’re so busy.
It’s also a good idea to speak to your child’s teachers and explain the situation. See how much school work has been missed and what areas of learning need to be improved on. This way, you work together to keep things stable academically while you try and resolve the situation with the bully.
Finding the right direction
The most important thing we can do as parents is create an environment where our children feel they can discuss bullying in an open and honest manner. This is why we have created a free Bully Awareness course where we help parents facilitate this process in a creative way.
If you have not completed the free course, we hope you'll subscribe now by clicking on the button below. This course provides practical activities that you can do with your child that will empower them and build up their confidence to deal with bullying at school.
Mersky, JP., Topitzes, J., Reynolds, AJ (2013). "Impacts of adverse childhood experiences on health, mental health, and substance use in early adulthood: a cohort study of an urban, minority sample in the U.S." Child Abuse & Neglect. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0145213413002068. [Accessed 30 July 2018].
Terrasi, S and de Galarce, PC (2017). "Trauma and learning in America’s classrooms." Phi Delta Kappan, [online]. Volume 98. Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0031721717696476. [Accessed 31 July 2018]
van der Werf, C. (2014). The Effects of Bullying on Academic Achievement. University of Bogota.