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Your Career• 5 Min read

6th September 2022

How to spot the signs of bullying at school | Engage Education

Bullying is sadly very common in both primary and secondary schools, with one in five (20%) students reporting being bullied at some point in their school lives. Children who experience bullying often internalise these issues, which is what can enable it to get progressively worse. Understanding how to spot the signs of bullying earlier will help teachers and parents take action sooner.

Verbal and cyberbullying are the two most common types of bullying, with name-calling, insults, swearing and nasty messages being the most frequent. The ONS found that 10% of children aged 10 to 15 years experienced some or all of the above.

Bullying can come in many different forms, including verbal, physical, psychological, cyber and prejudicial bullying. Some forms of bullying are illegal and require police involvement if they occur. These types of bullying include theft, violence or assault, repeated harassment in the form of cyberbullying, name-calling, threats and hate crimes.

This guide is to help teachers and parents recognise the signs of bullying at school and the harmful impacts it can cause on mental health – and to raise awareness of how to stop bullying.

What are the signs of bullying at school?


Bullying affects all children differently and some children may not display any signs at all, whilst some might openly tell you that they’re being bullied. Here are some key signs to look out for when a child is being bullied:

  • Reluctance to go to school – children that are reluctant to go to school could be victims of bullying. This is especially clear on Mondays when children have felt safe at home over the weekend. If a child used to enjoy going to school and is suddenly reluctant, this could be a sign of bullying.
  • Scared to walk to school – bullies often target other children when they’re walking to school as there are no parents or teachers to intervene. A child might want to change their route to school or be too scared to walk to school altogether.
  • Avoiding school transport – similar to walking to school, buses and trains are also a hotspot for bullying. Children may feel anxious when travelling to school and so might avoid it or show signs of distress beforehand.
  • Drop in school performance – when children are being bullied, their focus, motivation and mood will drop. As a result, they may become disinterested in school and grades could begin to fall. They may also stop participating in class when they once did.
  • Changed eating habits – bullying can lead to a loss of appetite and children may skip meals. They might come home hungry if they didn’t eat lunch due to bullies. 
  • Difficulty sleeping – anxiety about the next day can lead to a night of tossing and turning with little sleep. Children may also experience frequent nightmares about their bullies, leading them to wake up upset.
  • Loss of friends – sadly, friends may abandon one another when bullying takes place, to avoid being bullied too. Or, children may avoid spending time with friends when the bullying is taking place within the friend group. Parents should be aware of shifts in friendship groups and stay in touch with other parents to catch the warning signs.
  • Damaged or lost belongings – torn clothing, damaged items or missing belongings can all be signs that bullies are targeting a child.
  • Physical injuries – any unexplained cuts, bruises or scratches could be a result of attacks by bullies.
  • Change in emotions – children may become withdrawn, avoid spending time with family or be prone to emotional outbursts, unhappy and anxious. Any changes in emotions are cause for concern and could be due to bullying in school.
  • Frequent illness – often, our bodies can have physical reactions to stress, such as tummy aches, feeling nauseous and headaches. A child might also ‘fake’ illness to avoid going to school and facing their bullies.

What are the signs of cyberbullying at school? 

Cyberbullying can be harder to spot as mobile phones are often banned in schools and classrooms. However, there are some key warning signs that both parents and teachers should look out for, including any of the behaviours listed above. 

  • Avoiding technology – children may avoid texting or using social media when they once enjoyed it. Also, teachers should be aware that children may no longer enjoy IT lessons in school due to bullies singling out children online while in the classroom.
  • Upset after going online – children may become angry or frustrated when using social media or texting. 
  • Reluctant to discuss online activity – parents or teachers might try asking children about their problems online, only to be met with silence or an unwillingness to discuss.
  • Stops participating in school activities – teachers may notice that a child is no longer participating in school events or clubs.
  • Jokes in the classroom – teachers should look out for any teasing or bullying in the classroom that relates to cyberbullying. 

Cyberbullying has such an extreme impact on children as it doesn’t stop when they go home. Technology is so widely available that there’s often no escape for children being bullied online. Cyberbullying often has terrible consequences such as depression, self-harm and, tragically, suicide. It’s important to protect vulnerable children from online bullying, which is why the warning signs need to be identified early on.

What are the effects of bullying on children’s mental health?

Bullying comes in several different forms and doesn’t always leave physical signs, which is why it can be tricky to spot. Mental health is already an issue amongst school-aged children, even without bullying. Mental health charity Mind found that 7 in 10 young people reported being absent from school at least once due to mental health difficulties. Bullying only exacerbates these mental health issues.

Being bullied can leave children feeling as though they can do nothing to stop it:

  • Children may think they’re weaker than the bully
  • They may feel outnumbered by bullies
  • Children think no one can help them, with no one to talk to or stand up to the bully
  • Children feel sad and alone

The powerlessness that results from being bullied can be extremely detrimental to mental health. Studies have found that children that already suffer from anxiety or depression have an increased risk of being bullied, which only further damages their mental health. The National Child Development Study indicated that victims of childhood bullying have higher rates of depression, anxiety, panic disorder and suicidality in their 20s. These long-term effects of bullying are extremely concerning and more needs to be done to stop bullying early on.

How should a teacher intervene in bullying at school?

Teachers have a responsibility to protect their students and intervening when bullying takes place can be life-changing for a child. However, there are some things that can potentially make bullying worse. Below are the key dos and don’ts of bullying intervention:

The dos:

  • Stop bullying immediately – if you see a child being bullied, immediately step between the bully and the child. Speak to the bully and child separately once they’re calm to understand the situation.
  • Reinforce the school rules – speak to the bully about the school rules regarding bullying prevention, then relay this information to the whole class.
  • Support the bully’s victim – make a point to speak to the bullied child separately and offer your support. Explain that they’re safe to speak to you about bullying and increase your supervision of the child. Keep checking up with them in the following weeks to ensure the bullying hasn’t continued. 
  • Speak to nearby friends or peers – make it clear that children shouldn’t just standby when someone is being bullied and encourage them to speak up. If a child did speak up and notify you of the bullying, praise them for doing the right thing. 
  • Show that there are consequences – it’s important for bullies and children to understand that bullying has consequences. Make sure you impose consequences in line with the school rules.
  • Tell parents and colleagues – both the bully and the victim’s parents should be notified of the situation. Make sure you tell other teachers too so they can look out for any signs. 

The don’ts:

  • Don’t force the bully and victim together – forcing a child to face their bully can be traumatic. Giving both the victim and the bully a voice could only result in empowering the bully. Instead, speak to them separately. 
  • Don’t tell the whole class – after a bullying incident, you should reinforce school rules on bullying to the whole class. However, pinpointing which child is being bullied in front of the whole class can be counter-productive and result in more bullying. 
  • Don’t do group resolutions – if there’s a group of bullies targeting a child, you should speak to them all individually. If you punish the group together, they might end up reinforcing each other’s behaviour, only for the bullying to continue.

How can parents recognise if their child is being bullied? 

If your child has displayed any of the behaviours mentioned above, then it could be a sign that they’re being bullied. There are a few dos and don’ts for helping your child if they’re a victim of bullying:

The dos:

  • Talk about bullying – using educational stories, books and videos can be a great way to open up a conversation about bullying. This will help teach your child and might encourage them to open up. 
  • Gently ask about bullying – try to gather information from your child about what’s happened. Be calm and patient they might not want to reveal the names of their bullies right away.
  • Gather evidence – if your child is being cyberbullied, take screenshots of the evidence and help them report the bully to the school. This can also be used as evidence if the bullying escalates or continues. 
  • Offer reassurance and support – tell your child that it was the right thing to do to tell you about the bullying. Assure them that the bullying isn’t their fault and that you’re there to talk and offer support.
  • Encourage social activities – help your child form bonds outside of school and make new friends. This will help build their confidence back up. 
  • Find out what your child wants to happen – discuss the options with your child and ask whether they want you to speak to parents or the school.
  • Speak to the teacher – if your child is happy for you to speak to their teacher, do so discreetly. Schedule a meeting and explain the situation. Make it clear that you don’t want the bully to find out that you spoke to the teacher as this could make the situation worse.

The don’ts:

  • Cause a scene – rushing off to talk to the headteacher or the bully’s parents will only make things worse. This is likely the outcome your child was dreading and can increase the bullying.
  • Encourage your child to retaliate – telling your child to fight the bully or call them names back won’t solve the problem. It could result in your child being labelled the bully.
  • Dismiss the situation – never downplay or dismiss your child’s experience. Telling them to ignore it will only teach them that bullying is to be tolerated. It takes courage for a child to open up about bullying, so make sure that you’re there to help. 

Could any child be a bully – and a target?

Any child can be a bully or a victim. It’s not always simple to see why a child is bullying someone and it can be due to problems at home or peer pressure. If a child is bullied, it could be due to a number of factors.

For children that are being bullied, it’s important to remember the following:

  • Don’t react to the bully, always try to walk away.
  • Stay with a group of children as bullies are less likely to approach.
  • Keep a diary to help manage your emotions.
  • Tell your teacher and parents about the bullying.
  • Consider joining clubs outside of school to make friends.
  • Remember that bullies are often jealous and are the ones at fault, not you. 

If a child is bullying someone, it can just seem like harmless fun to them, but it can seriously impact a child’s life for years to come. For children who are bullies, think about the following:

  • Why are you bullying others? Problems at home, anger issues, peer pressure and the need for control can all lead to bullying.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of your victim, how would it feel if it was the other way around?
  • If your friends are scared of you, they aren’t true friends. Having people frightened of you isn’t a good thing.
  • Bullying is a terrible thing that can even lead to children taking their own lives.

As a parent, bear in mind that your child could be a bully or a victim. Looking out for warning signs of both is key to putting a stop to it. Having empathy and understanding the reasons behind the actions is important in solving the issue.

What initiatives should schools put in place to stop bullying?

Preventing bullying from happening in the first place is a powerful way to help both the victims and the bullies. There are several initiatives schools can put in place to prevent bullying and perhaps improve any existing measures.

Train teachers on bullying 

Creating a safe environment for children and teachers alike will provide a strong foundation for a bully-free school. This starts with educating teachers on the harmful lifelong effects of bullying and how it’s not a “normal rite of childhood”. Teachers should be trained on how to deal with bullying and what preventative measures are currently in place. 

Teachers should be trained to recognise ‘gateway behaviours’ that can lead to bullying:

  • Eye-rolling
  • Staring
  • Back-turning
  • Laughing at a classmate
  • Name-calling
  • Excluding a child
  • Spying
  • Stalking

Teach kindness and empathy

Encourage children to put themselves in other people’s shoes and have empathy for those who are different. Plan activities where children can get together and discuss their differences. Practise conflict resolution and what to do in certain situations.

Teach children how to spot a bully

Teaching children about the “gateway behaviours” mentioned above and the harmful effects of bullying can encourage children to speak out. Make it clear to children that bullying isn’t “cool” and that bullies are often jealous. Encourage the class to stand up and speak about what they perceive to be bullying to broaden their knowledge and understand when a bullying situation is taking place.

School-wide events should be carried out, such as participating in Anti-Bullying Week. This will only make bullying a less desirable behaviour to students.

Have a support system in place for victims of bullying

There should be a system in place where a child can anonymously report bullying. A school counsellor can act as a third party. Counselling should be an option for both bullies and victims. They talk through why something is happening and this will help the child in the long run.

If you’re being bullied or suspect a child is, here are some organisations you can contact for help:

  • Childline – call 0800 1111 
  • EACH – for homophobic, biphobic or transphobic bullying, call 0808 1000 143
    • Gov UK – if a school doesn’t resolve a bullying issue, you can report to Ofsted on the government website


    • ONS – one in five children is bullied at school. 10% of children aged 10 to 15 years experienced common bullying types.
    • Mind – 7 in 10 young people reported being absent from school at least once due to mental health difficulties.
    • L. Arseneault study – children that already suffer from anxiety or depression have an increased risk of being bullied. 
    • National Child Development Study – victims of childhood bullying have higher rates of depression, anxiety, panic disorder and suicidality in their 20s. 

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