Bullying Prevention

row of lockers
Bullying is frequently noted as an example of disrespectful and aggressive behavior. The majority of bullying and harmful behavior happens in order to get attention, praise, or social status from by-standers, peers, or even the victim. An effective social culture has a formal process for limiting the social rewards available for bullying, and harmful behavior. We call this bullying prevention.

What is Bullying Prevention

Bullying has many formal definitions, but typically it is when someone repeatedly uses threats, intimidation or aggression to obtain objects, activities or social gain from others. Bullying prevention focuses on the strategies for reducing bullying behavior by blending PBIS with explicit instruction and redefining the bullying construct. Teaching students to identify and respond effectively to the bullying and harmful behavior of others needs to match the students’ developmental level. The goal is the same – to reduce bullying behavior – but the process may look different across communities and across elementary, middle and high schools.

Foundational Elements

There are four foundational elements of bullying prevention.

School-Wide Expectations

Everyone in school should know what it means to be respectful. They should know what it looks like and how it feels to be respected. On the other side, they also should be able to identify if, when, and how someone else’s behavior is inappropriate. School-wide definitions help everyone stay consistent.

Signals and Routines for Unwanted Behavior

Building on the school-wide foundation of expected behavior, all students should know the signal and routine to let someone know their behavior is unacceptable and needs to stop. The signal is something anyone can use anywhere, anytime. It’s short, easy to remember, and easy to do.

Responses to the Stop Signal

When a student signals a behavior is unwanted and needs to stop, other students need to know how to respond. Students should be taught appropriate responses that are calm and responsible.

Recruiting Help

The last routine to teach is how students can recruit help from an adult when they experience bullying, harassment, or intimidation.

Why Address Bullying Prevention?

Bullying most often involves student-to-student interactions, and is noted by the National School Safety Center as the “most enduring and under-rated problem in U.S. schools.”[1] Over and over, the effects of bullying have been documented:

  • In multiple surveys, 25% to 30% of students report experiencing bullying behavior in schools[2]  
  • Both students who engage in bullying and students who experience bullying are more likely to experience school failure.
  • Bullying is not done by a small number of students who are socially and emotionally isolated, but is common across socio-economic status, gender, grade and class.

This means every school would benefit from strategies to prevent bullying in their building as a way to increase student safety, prevent problem behavior, and improve student outcomes.

Bullying Prevention in a Tiered Framework

Not all students respond equally to bullying prevention strategies, for lots of reasons. Schools implementing PBIS will find it to be an effective framework for preventing and reducing bullying behavior in schools. The strategies listed here come from the resource Reducing the Effectiveness of Bullying Behavior in Schools.

Tier 1

All students and school personnel are taught directly and formally how to behave in safe, respectful, and responsible ways in every school setting. The emphasis is on teaching and encouraging positive social skills and character traits. At this tier, all students may also learn how to respond to the problem behavior of others.

Tier 2

Students whose behaviors don’t respond to Tier 1 supports receive additional preventative strategies involving:

  • Targeted social skills instruction
  • Increased adult supervision and positive attention
  • Specific, daily feedback on their behavioral progress
  • Additional academic support, if necessary

Tier 3

Students who don’t respond to Tier 1 and 2 supports receive intensive preventative strategies. This might include:

  • Highly individualized academic and/or behavior intervention planning
  • More comprehensive, person-centered, function-based wraparound processes
  • School-family-community mental health supports.

Getting Started with Bullying Prevention

The first step to starting bullying prevention in your school is to identify whether bullying behavior is a major concern in your building. How often does bullying happen at your school? How many students are involved either as someone demonstrating bullying behavior or as a target of the behavior? Decide as a leadership team whether it is important to you to invest in prevention at your school.

Teaching students formal skills and routines for responding to the problem behavior of others is more than bullying prevention. Even if bullying is not a targeted priority for a school, your school’s Tier 1 PBIS systems should include:

  1. A school-wide approach for identifying if, when and how the behavior of others is inappropriate.  
  2. Specific routines for indicating someone’s inappropriate behavior should stop.
  3. Formalized strategies students can use to get help from adults when aggression, intimidation or harassment continues.

These procedures should be relevant in all school settings – formal and informal – and address expectations for online interactions, as well as rumors, and face-to-face interactions.


The best way to get started with bullying prevention is to take advantage of these online resources.

Bullying Prevention in Positive Behavior Support

This is a guide for elementary schools implementing Tier 1 supports and where school-wide expectations are taught and acknowledged. Inside, schools get:

  • A process for self-assessing the core features of effective bullying prevention
  • Step-by-step guidelines and lesson plans for selecting and teaching signals and routines for responding to bullying behavior
  • Procedures for teaching students to recruit adult assistance
  • Strategies for collecting and using data to determine if effective bullying prevention practices are in place, and how effective they are.

Bullying and Harassment Prevention in Positive Behavior Support: Expect Respect

This is a guide for middle schools implementing Tier 1 supports.  It provides the self-assessment tools, and lesson plans for teaching core bullying prevention skills.  It also includes procedures for conducting student surveys, and student focus groups to ensure that bullying prevention practices adopted by a school are not just technically consistent with research findings, but are culturally consistent with the students and families within the school.

Bullying Prevention Self-Assessment

This 12-item self-assessment may be used by school teams (typically with their coach) to determine if the core features of an effective bullying prevention system are in place.  The self-assessment may be used.

  • Proactively to identify what a school is already doing well
  • To select components that need to be adopted/added
  • As a way to assess/evaluate if implementation efforts result in the core features of bullying prevention being adopted and used successfully.

[1]Beale A.V. Bullybusters: Using drama to empower students to take a stand against bullying behavior. Professional School Counseling. 2001;4:300–306
[2]Cook, C., Williams, K., Guerra, N., Kim, T., & Sadek, S. (2010). Predictors of bullying and victimization in childhood and adolescence: A meta-analytic investigation. School Psychology Quarterly, 25(2), 65-83. doi: 10.1037/a0020149

See More/Less


Resources in this section include assessments, blueprints, examples, and materials to aid in implementing PBIS.


Publications listed below include every eBook, monograph, brief, and guide written by the PBIS Technical Assistance Center.


Presentations about their experiences, published research, and best practices from recent sessions, webinars, and trainings


Recordings here include keynotes and presentations about PBIS concepts as well tips for implementation.