Bullying – we can all help stop it
Learn what to watch for, what you can do and where you can go to get help if your child is being bullied. Parents and guardians of students in elementary and secondary school can use this guide to get information.
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Bullying is aggressive behaviour that is typically repeated over time. It is meant to cause harm, fear, distress or create a negative environment for another person.
Bullying can happen when there is a real or perceived power imbalance. An “imbalance” could mean one student is older or in a higher-grade level than another student.
Read the legal definition of bullying in the Education Act.
Types of bullying
Bullying can take many forms. It can be:
- physical, for example hitting, shoving, damaging or stealing property
- verbal, for example name calling, mocking, making sexist, racist or homophobic comments
- social, for example spreading gossip, rumours or excluding others from a group
- written, for example writing notes and signs that are hurtful or insulting
- electronic or cyberbullying, for example spreading rumours or hurtful comments using email, text messages and social media
Regardless of its form, bullying is unacceptable.
- is used to upset, threaten or embarrass another person
- uses email, cell phones, text messages and social media to threaten, harass, embarrass, socially exclude or damage reputations and friendships
- includes put downs, insults and can also involve spreading rumours, sharing private information, photos or videos or threatening to harm someone
In Ontario schools, principals must address cyberbullying if it has an impact on the school climate. For example, if the student is being bullied and is embarrassed because of a social media post or email that was sent to other students in the school, the student may not want to attend school.
People sometimes confuse conflict with bullying, but they are different. Conflict between students does not always mean it's bullying.
Conflict occurs between people who have a disagreement, a difference of opinion or different views. When there is conflict, each person feels comfortable expressing their views.
Children learn at a young age to understand that others can have different perspectives than their own. Developing the ability to gain perspective takes time and continues into early adulthood
How people deal with conflict can make it positive or negative.
When conflict turns into bullying
Conflict becomes negative when a person behaves aggressively and says or does hurtful things. Then the conflict is an aggressive interaction.
Over time, a pattern of behaviour can emerge where the person who behaves aggressively in the conflict may continue or even make it worse. The person who is on the receiving end of the aggressive conflict may begin to feel less able to express their point of view and may begin feeling powerless. That is when negative conflict can turn into bullying.
School responses to conflict
Schools respond to bullying and conflict differently.
For example, when there is conflict, a school staff member may try to have the students come together to tell their side of the story and help them resolve the situation together.
When there is bullying, a principal will consider progressive discipline. Progressive discipline can include suspension or expulsion.
Children reporting bullying
A young child may not know the word "bully”, but they probably know when someone is hurting them, being mean or making them feel sad or scared.
A child might not tell you that they are being bullied because they might be worried they'll make things worse if they “tell”, “tattle” or “rat”.
Tattling versus telling
- Tattling is telling on someone to get that person in trouble.
- Telling is getting help when you or someone you know is being hurt, or when your right or that person's right to be safe is being taken away
Teenagers might not tell you that there's a problem. They might call it “harassment” rather than “bullying.”
Teenagers often prefer to handle things on their own. They might think you'll get upset, that you will take away something important, such as their cell phone, or they might just find it embarrassing to have a parent/guardian involved.
Effects of bullying
Bullying should never be considered just part of growing up.
Bullying is a serious issue, with far-reaching consequences for the students, their families, peers and the community around them.
Children who are victimized or bully other children are at risk for emotional, behavioural and relationship problems. They will require support from adults to help them develop healthy relationships in school and throughout their lives.
Over 1 in 5 Ontario students (23%) reported being bullied at school, according to a 2019 study from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).
Students who are bullied often experience:
- social anxiety
- physical illnesses
- low self-esteem
They can also develop phobias, take on aggressive behaviour and slide into depression.
Some students miss school, see their marks drop or even leave school altogether because they have been bullied.
It is important to help children stop bullying as early as possible.
Signs a child is being bullied
Even if they don't talk about it, you can watch for signs that a child is being bullied.
Children who are being bullied might:
- not want to go to school or may cry or feel sick on school days
- not want to take part in activities or social events with other students
- act differently than they normally do
- suddenly begin to lose money or personal items
- come home with torn clothes or broken possessions and offer explanations that don't make sense
Teens who are bullied and/or harassed may start talking about dropping out of school or skipping activities that involve other students.
If your child is being bullied
- Listen to your child and assure them that they have a right to be safe.
- Be clear on the facts. Make notes about what happened and when.
- Help your child see the difference between “ratting”, “tattling” or “telling” and reporting. It takes courage to report. Explain that reporting is done not to cause trouble for another student, but to protect all students.
- Make an appointment to talk to someone at the school. This could be your child's teacher, another teacher that your child trusts, the principal or vice-principal.
- Try to stay calm so that you can support your child and plan a course of action with them.
- Keep an eye on your child's behaviour. If your meetings with school staff haven't made the bullying stop, go back and talk to the principal. Follow up on the steps that were agreed to at the meeting.
- Speak to the instructor or coach if the bullying is taking place during after-school activities or sports events.
- Contact police if the bullying involves criminal behaviour, such as sexual assault or use of a weapon, or if the threat to your child's safety is in the community rather than the school.
“Empathy is the capacity to recognize and share emotions that another person is experiencing. It develops late in adolescence and does not usually become fully developed until early adulthood. In childhood, a basic form of empathy emerges when children start to feel upset when they see other people are upset”
Help your child deal with bullying
By working with the school to help your child handle the bullying, you are leading by example and giving a clear message that bullying is wrong.
Regardless of age, you can encourage your child to talk to you about bullying and tell them to:
- stay calm and walk away from the situation
- tell an adult they trust, for example a teacher, principal, school bus driver or lunchroom supervisor
- report it anonymously to their school or school board
- talk about it with siblings or with friends so that they don't feel alone
- call Kids Help Phone (toll-free)
1-800-668-6868or text CONNECT to 686868
If your child may be bullying others
Children who bully sometimes do so at home and at school.
Look and listen for bullying in your home. There might be signs that one of your children is bullying a sibling.
Children who bully are sometimes aggressive and disruptive at home and might not follow the household rules.
If you are concerned that your child may be bullying others, watch how your child interacts with siblings, with you and with friends.
Your child may be bullying others at school if they seem to:
- be aggressive
- not be getting along with others
- not show empathy
Children who physically bully other students may come home with bruises, scrapes and torn clothing. They may suddenly have more money to spend than usual or new possessions that they would normally not be able to afford. They may also “talk tough” about other students.
Reasons your child is bullying
Bullying behaviour can develop over a long period of time. It could be a result of major changes, losses or upsets in a child's or teen's life. Have any of your children recently had this kind of experience?
Think about how you deal with problems and conflicts in your home. Do you talk through issues as a family?
An important way to discourage bullying is to be a good role model and show your child how to sort out difficulties without using power or aggression.
It is also important to tell your children what bullying is. You should describe the different types of bullying and explain that it is hurtful and harmful. Let your child know that bullying is wrong and is not acceptable behaviour under any circumstances.
What schools can do
Students who bully others, whether it happens in person or online, can face different consequences.
When addressing bullying, principals use a progressive discipline approach. Using Ontario's progressive discipline policy, a principal can choose from a range of options to address the behaviour and help the student learn from their choices.
Progressive discipline options can include:
- an apology for a hurtful or disrespectful comment
- a review of the expectations for the student
- a meeting with parent(s) or guardian(s)
- anger management counselling
- suspending the student from school
In more serious cases, the principal may recommend that the student be expelled from school if the student was previously suspended for bullying and continues to present an unacceptable risk to the safety of another person. These rules apply to elementary and secondary students.
- helps to prevent inappropriate behaviour from getting worse and having a negative impact on all students and their perceptions of safety and the school
- promotes positive student behaviour
- helps students take responsibility for their behaviour and learn more positive ways of interacting with others
Learn more about progressive discipline.
Support for students involved
School boards are required to provide programs, interventions or other supports for students who have been bullied, witnessed bullying or engaged in bullying.
All schools and boards must have:
- policies to prevent and address bullying
- bullying prevention and intervention plans
- policies for progressive discipline and equity and inclusive education
Contact your local school or school board to learn about bullying policies, programs and interventions.
Read Ontario's policy on bullying prevention and intervention. This policy outlines expectations for school boards on developing and implementing their bullying prevention and intervention policy.
All school board employees are required to report serious student incidents, such as bullying, to the principal.
Principals are required to investigate all reported incidents of bullying.
Board employees who work directly with students (for example, teachers, social workers and guidance counsellors) must respond to all inappropriate or disrespectful behaviour that has a negative impact on the school climate, including bullying.
Learn about how staff deal with incidents at school.
You can also talk to your school's principal if you would like to learn more about what the school is doing.
What parents and guardians can expect from the school
Schools must have a process for students to safely report bullying in a way that will minimize the possibility of reprisal. Talk to your school about how to report bullying.
If staff becomes aware that your child is being bullied, you can expect the school to contact you. Your child's teacher, or another teacher your child trusts, may be able to help identify strategies that will help resolve the problem.
Principals must contact the parents or guardians of students who have been bullied and students who have engaged in bullying, to tell them:
- what happened
- what harm was done to the student
- what steps were taken to protect the student's safety, including any disciplinary measures taken in response to the incident
- what supports will be provided for the student in response to the incident
Schools are expected to make every effort to fully investigate your concerns, while protecting students' privacy.
The school will have a process you can follow if you are concerned about the support provided to your child. If you are not satisfied with the school's response, you may contact the supervisory officer of your school board.
If you are concerned about your child, or want more information, ask to see your:
- school board's bullying prevention and intervention policy
- school's code of conduct, which sets out how students, teachers, and other members of the school community should behave towards one another
- school and board's bullying prevention and intervention plan, that outlines what school staff can do to solve the problem
- school's results from the school climate survey
The school climate survey for parents/guardians is an anonymous survey helps schools assess feelings about safety and make decisions about how to prevent bullying and promote safe and accepting schools. Surveys must be done at least every two years. This survey is available in 22 languages.
Read Ontario's code of conduct. This guide to Ontario's code of conduct outlines the roles and responsibilities for everyone in the school community, including students, parents/guardians, school staff and community partners.
You may consider joining the safe and accepting schools team at your school. The team is responsible for fostering a safe, inclusive and accepting school climate. It includes the principal, at least one parent/guardian, school staff, a student and a community partner.
Everyone suffers when bullying occurs, and everyone can help to prevent it. In 85% of cases, bullying takes place in front of witnesses.
Witnesses are affected by what they see. The witnesses may be afraid or not want to get involved because they're afraid of becoming a target themselves or making things worse for the person being bullied.
You can help your child understand that bullying is not acceptable and that they can help stop it by reporting it to an adult or reporting it anonymously.
Promote healthy relationships
Bullying prevention and intervention is about more than just eliminating bullying.
Bullying prevention promotes the development of healthy relationships that involve respectful interactions between people, face-to-face and online. The goal is to help ensure that all students have healthy, safe, respectful and caring relationships with everyone in their lives.
Teachers, parents/guardians, and other adults support and act as role models for children by showing them how healthy relationships can work. Children's positive relationships with other children depend on positive relationships with adults.
Students who have healthy relationships will be less likely to bully others, more likely to support students who are bullied and better able to reach their educational goals.
Promoting healthy relationships is a key way to prevent bullying and create a safe and accepting school climate.
Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week
Ontario has designated the week beginning on the third Sunday of November as Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week to help promote safe schools and a positive learning environment.
During Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week – November 19 – 25, 2023 – Ontario students, school staff and parents are encouraged to learn more about bullying and its effect on student learning and well-being.
- footnote Back to paragraph Stepping Stones: A Resource on Youth Development, page 26
- footnote Back to paragraph Ontario Teachers' Federation (OTF) and Le Centre Ontarien de prévention des agressions (COPA), Creating Safe Schools, January 2012, page 56
- footnote Back to paragraph Stepping Stones: A Resource on Youth Development, page 25