Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date


Department 1




This chapter examines the definitions of bullying used by students and adults in elementary schools and the effects that these definitions had within the broader school culture.


I combine interviews with 53 students and 10 adults and over 430 hours of participant observation with fifth grade students at two rural elementary schools.


Definitions of bullying held by those in these schools typically differed from those used by researchers. Even when individuals held definitions that were in line with those used by researchers, however, a focus on identifying bullies rather than on behaviors that fit definitions of bullying contributed to a school culture in which negative interactions were normalized and student reports of these behaviors were discouraged.

Research limitations/implications

This study is limited to two elementary schools in the rural Midwest and cannot be seen as representative of all schools. Support for my findings from other research combined with similar definitions and school cultures in both schools, however, suggest that these definitions and practices are part of a broader cultural context of bullying in the United States.

Practical implications

These findings suggest that schools might be better served by focusing less on labels like "bully" and more on particular behaviors that are to be taken seriously by students, teachers, staff members, and principals.


Although other researchers have studied definitions of bullying, none have combined these definitions with observational data on the broader school contexts in which those definitions are created and used.


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