Risk and protective factors associated with the bullying involvement of students with emotional and behavioral disorders

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In previous reviews, we examined the complexities of bullying and social aggression within the context of social status (Faris and Felmlee 2011) and the 13 predictors of school bullying (Cook, Williams, Guerra, Kim, & Sadek, 2010) which include both individual student characteristics (externalizing and internalizing behaviors, social competence, self-related and other-related thoughts and perceptions, and academic performance) and contextual aspects (family and home environment, school climate, community factors, peer status, and peer influence).  Current educational research similarly illustrates that bullying is a dynamic process where individual students can play different roles in the bullying interactions based on both individual and contextual factors.

One of the constructive trends in the research is the move from viewing bullies and victims of bullies in a more fluid way:  all students are quite capable and often do play either of these roles.  Additionally,  researchers  (Farmer et al. 2010) have lengthened the scope of the so called typical “bully” into two broad types “socially marginalized” and “socially astute.”Education Week (February, 2011) cited research that is “bringing into focus an alternative to the stereotypical image of the dull, socially awkward, and physically aggressive schoolyard bully: a popular, socially astute student who uses rumors and social isolation to control enemies, rivals, and friends alike.” This positions bullying as an issue that should be addressed universally, schoolwide, with interventions designed to involve all students.  But as we move forward with the reconceptualization of this issue to include all students, we must remember that there are specific groups of students that still need support beyond those universal strategies.

Traditionally, students served in Special Education, especially students with chronic and persistent emotional and behavioral issues, are more often identified as either bully or victim of bullying than their cohorts.   As indicated in a missive released by the United States Department of Education last year, research still strongly suggests that students with disabilities are more likely to be bullied than their peers.  Research also indicates that these students are also more likely than their peers to bully other students. It is proposed that students with disabilities are significantly overrepresented within all aspects of the bullying dynamic.  In this article we will examine a research study, Rose and Espelage (2012), which investigates the fluid aspects of bullying within subgroups of students served in special education with a specific focus on students with emotional and behavioral disorders.  While the research they review indicated that students with disabilities are overrepresented  in the dynamic,  little attention has focused on the individual characteristics of students identified with various specific disabilities.  This is important because as recent data collected on the National Survey of Children’s Health indicates, that while children with mental health disorders were three times as likely to bully other children, children with externalizing disorders are six times as likely to bully their peers.  In their study, Rose and  Espelage (2012) apply a social-ecological framework to examine the predictive and protective factors found in the bullying dynamic.  The purpose of their study was to investigate the degree in which students with and without disabilities differ on bullying, fighting, victimization, and anger.  Moreover, the study also focused on reactive and proactive aggression in students with EBD in comparison with other students served in special education.  Participants included 163 middles school students, 60% were African American and 28% were white and approximately half of the students were identified as having specific learning disabilities and 14% were identified as having emotional or behavioral issues.  Observational and self-report measures of bullying, anger, victimization, conflict (aggression and fighting),  empathy, and problem behavior frequency were employed in the methodology as indicators of predictive and protective characteristics.

The study found that when looking at students as dichotomous groups (with or without disabilities) , students did not differ in the measures of reactive and proactive aggression (fighting and/or bullying) suggesting that the unique characteristics of student subgroups are more predictive of bullying than generalized assertions.  When the data across subgroups  of students with disabilities were analyzed, students identified with EBD reported higher levels of bullying than their special education cohorts.  The significance of bullying within the EBD group was accounted for by predictors of victimization, anger, and delinquency.  This provides some insight into some of the reasons why these students engage in proactive aggressive behavior.  The study also found that these factors played a role in the higher levels of reactive aggression (fighting) found in the EBD subgroup.   However, the analyses did not find a difference between subgroups in terms of rates of anger and victimization.  The authors concluded that while students with disabilities are overrepresented in each facet of the bullying dynamic, subgroup differences and social-ecological factors could be used to better focus in on interventions and support strategies.

Given the recent expansive focus on bullying by the media, students, parents, schools, educational  and government agencies, and the community in general , it is tempting to address bullying with widespread sweeping initiatives and reforms which focus their attentions and resource  solely on the bullying dynamic.  However, as the research above indicates the issue of bullying is not overly unique as it follows a course akin to other behavioral problems.  The features associated with bullying and victimization follow a continuum of behavior that does not fit in a dichotomous rubric.  Students regardless of their identified problems and issues can engage in varying degrees of the bullying dynamic. While universal interventions designed to address bullying for all students are important to educate students and staff about bullying, it does little to address the needs of those students whose bullying behaviors are linked to various other behavioral, emotional, or mental health related factors.  These conditions within the bullying dynamic make the use of a tiered behavioral support system (PBIS, RtI for Behavior, TMSS) ideal for providing individualized positive support for the students with the most need based on the issues they struggle with.  By including the bully dynamic related behaviors into an established system of care, we have the means to provide universal expectations and group and individualized supports which would already be aligned with school or district practices as well as have the infrastructure already presented to ensure the involvement of all stakeholder.



Rose, C. A. and Espelage, D. L.  (2012). Risk and protective factors associated with the bully involvement of students with emotional and behavioral disorders .  Behavioral Disorders, 37(3), 133–148.

Additional Sources

Cook, C.R. , Williams, K.R.,  Guerra, N.G., Kim, T. E., & Sadek, S. (2010). Predictors bullying and victimization in childhood and adolescence: A meta-analytic investigation.  School Psychology Quarterly, 25, 65-83.

Faris, R. and Felmlee, D. (2011) Status Struggles: Network Centrality and Gender Segregation in Same- and Cross-Gender Aggression. American Sociological Review, 76(1), 48-73.

Farmer, T. W., Petrin, R. A., Robertson, D. L., Fraser, M. W., Hall, C. M., Day, S. H., & Dadisman, K. (2010). Peer relations of bullies, bully-victims, and victims: The two social worlds of bullying in second-grade classrooms. Elementary School Journal, 110, 364–392.


About the Author
Chris Huzinec

Chris Huzinec

Chris Huzinec is an educational researcher, evaluator, and consultant with over 25 years of practical experience in public education. He is currently the Director of Research at Review360 in the Clinical Assessment division of Pearson. Previously, Chris was employed by the Houston Independent School District’s Department of Research and Accountability for 15 years, first as a Research and Evaluation Specialist, and then as the Manager of the Program Evaluation and the Performance Analysis Bureaus. He has produced publications and evaluation reports in the areas of Bilingual Education, Early Childhood Education, classroom and student behavior management, and Special Education.