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Student Bullying, The Brain and Bonding

One of the myths of bullying is that it makes the youthful targets of bullying stronger. Instead, we now know that bullying leads to many negative effects that last long into adulthood. And recent research on how the brain learns and functions tells us that the stress of being bullied may actually decrease a student's ability to address strees later in life. 

One of the real enemies of the brain is stress. When a student feels stress, a substance in the brain called cortisol, a hormone, is released, and another substance, serotonin, a neurotransmitter that can calm the individual, is blocked.  We’re learning that high levels of cortisol damage the brain, affect memory, and prevent another part of the brain, the hippocampus, from developing fully. Recent studies indicate that an undeveloped hippocampus can lead to the decreased ability to manage stress in adulthood.

Bullying behaviors trigger stress in students, even if they are not bullied daily. They remain anxious because they are unsure when and where it will happen again. And many other students who witness bullying incidents, often referred to as bystanders, are also stressed because they worry it could happen to them. The education of all involved in bullying incidents is at risk. The school climate as a whole can become toxic.

To learn, young people need to be relaxed and open to new ideas, not stressed or anxious while in school. All of us in the field of education have the honor of being in a profession that literally shapes students’ brains.

We need to build on the new knowledge from brain research and accept that bullying in NOT child’s play. We adults cannot afford to ignore bullying when we see it. There’s too much at stake. A student’s brain development is at stake.

Together, let’s commit to find ways to improve the school climate overall. Young people thrive when they have at least one caring adult in their lives. NEA has built our national bullying prevention campaign around that well-researched fact. (See We can be that caring adult for the students engaged in bullying or for their targets. We can bond with them.

We can also help make connections among students, especially between those who might ordinarily not talk to each other. Some schools are starting the day with structured student talk time. Positive human connections change the neurons in the brain. Bonding matters. Researchers refer to this as school connectedness.

Let’s commit in this school year to bond with at least one student who has been bullying others, and with one of their targets, and with one of the bystanders to a bullying incident. Your actions and commitment can make a difference in the life – and brain – of a student.

(To learn more about brain research, read Bullying and the Brain by Gary R. Plaford and recent articles by Tracy Vaillancourt, University of Ottawa.)

Take the Pledge:

Take the pledge to change school climate and let’s make our schools Bully Free!

Key Facts Every Educator Should Know About Bullying

  • Bullyfree Poster in Spanish


If you haven't seen the documentary film Bully, view it online at through November 13, 2014.

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