“We cannot expect a child to succeed in an environment in which they are ridiculed,
harassed, or even physically harmed.”
– Allison Seale (2004, p. 5)

One of the most significant and far-reaching consequences of bullying is its negative impact on the educational environment and academic success of students. School stress that is associated with bullying and/or violence hurts achievement, impairs test scores and impedes a child’s attention span and ability to concentrate. (Hoffman, 1996) In more severe cases, it can forever alter a student’s trajectory for success, causing an otherwise gifted student to avoid college or drop out of school altogether. For example, one survey found that 40% of adults who had been bullied in school said that the bullying had altered their plans for continuing education. (Kidscape, 1999, p. 2)

How bullying impacts a child’s schoolwork

There are many ways by which bullying causes academic problems that will adversely effect schooling:

A) Bullying causes concentration problems

When a child is being bullied at school, it makes it very difficult to concentrate. Stress of any kind has a tendency to preoccupy one’s thoughts, but we have a tendency to especially ruminate over social stress that involves our peers or relationships. In fact, when nothing else is going on, the brain’s default mode of thinking is to revert to mulling over our social encounters. So a child who is being bullied will have a brain that easily shifts towards thinking about this unresolved source of stress. Thus, students who have to worry too much, particularly over peer problems or personal safety concerns, will underperform academically. (Pratt, Tallis & Eysenck, 1997)

B) Stress hormones from bullying impede learning & diminish cognitive capacity

Being bullied leads to a spike in stress hormones in the brain, and these elevated cortisol levels actually produce physical changes in the brain that impede the growth of new neurons and interfere with memory formation. Too much stress can even cause parts of the hippocampus area of the brain involved in memory and learning to shrink. (This is why severely abused or neglected children tend to have IQ’s that average 7-15 points lower than their peers.) “Cells always are either protecting themselves from danger (in a threat-distress mode) or in a growth mode,” says educational specialist Eric Jensen. “You can’t run from a forest fire and at the same time take a piano lesson. Cells can not be under the attack of distress and simultaneously grow and reproduce.” (Jensen, 2006, p. 70) When a child does not feel safe and secure, learning is severely hampered. Their mental energy is devoted towards surviving the environment in the here and now, with little ability to learn or focus on the future. As one high school girl replies when asked about her plans for next year, “I can’t think about that now.” (Garbarino & deLara, 2002, p.135)

C) Bullied children learn to associate school with torment

Bullied children tend to hate school, since their torment and the school environment are usually one and the same. Sadly, this disgust tends to carry over into their perception of knowledge or academics in general. Our brains are association machines by nature, and it’s hard to enjoy academic pursuits or come to associate knowledge with positive qualities when learning occurs alongside a painful environment. It’s sort of like how your perception of the food at a restaurant might change if the last time you were there you were beaten to within an inch of your life. It’s not that the food was bad, it’s that this negative experience tainted your ability to enjoy the food there. Bullying can poison the well that feeds a child’s thirst for knowledge, forever altering their attitude towards academics.

D) Bullying increases tardiness/absenteeism and creates school dropouts

Bullying increases rates of absenteeism and tardiness (Hoffman, 1996), as bullied children often try to avoid the torment by skipping school or even dropping out entirely. It’s estimated that 160,000 students around the country skip school on any given weekday to avoid bullying. Aside from the immediate impact this has on their education, it often sets in motion a self-reinforcing cycle: The more they skip school, the farther they fall behind…and the farther they fall behind, the more difficult keeping pace with their peers becomes, which is why many bullied children end up dropping out of high school.

E) Bullies may target a child for excelling academically

For many kids, bullying can revolve around their academic pursuits. In one school a gang of kids hangs out around the library, taunting anyone who goes into it as geeks and nerds. In another case, a smart child who gets good grades is taunted every time she exhibits her intelligence. Raising her hand to answer questions or participate in classroom discussions may make her a vulnerable target.

When being smart or being a good student earns you the ire of your peers, even the best and brightest of students will experience a subconscious pull away from these activities. Thus, “kids who are ridiculed by peers for their attempts academically may begin to make choices that result in lower grades or reduced academic interest.” (Garbarino & deLara, 2002, p. 25)

F) The academic effects of a cold, uncaring environment

Beyond the individual student being bullied, bullying can impact the academic success of other students who aren’t directly involved, by promoting an uncaring environment. When a bully culture is allowed to thrive in school, children absorb the implicit message that teachers and adults “just don’t care” about the welfare of students. (Garbarino & deLara, 2002) This is problematic, since research has documented the importance of a caring environment within the school in helping students feel attached to the school and to realize their academic potential. (Noddings, 1992; Lomer, 1993) A high-conflict environment where bullying takes place unchecked can impact the academic success of all students. At a time when the U.S. is looking for ways to rescue its schools, which are steadily declining into the level of educational-quality typical of third-world nations, the role of bullying as it pertains to school success cannot be overlooked.

“The primary thing that adults set out for kids to do and
accomplish is success at school. If we then abandon them to a
socially toxic environment while they are trying to accomplish their task, they are not going to get as far with it as they could otherwise.”
– Garbarino & deLara (2002, pp. 145-146)