By Adam Collins, PhD
June 04, 2024

Bullying is an alarming issue in schools. In fact, one in five high school students reported being bullied and nearly half of teens report being cyberbullied. Fortunately, schools can leverage MTSS to address bullying within their sites. MTSS is a prevention-based framework that brings together academic and social-emotional-behavioral supports. Bullying prevention is one such social-emotional-behavioral need that can be addressed with MTSS. Bullying is different from other forms of aggression. Often, this means that students who are the target or victim of bullying experience more severe outcomes than when they’re involved in a conflict or a fight. 

What is Bullying?

For a behavior to be classified as bullying, it needs to have three features:

  1. it is unwanted,  
  2. it is repeated or likely to be repeated, and
  3. it is marked by an imbalance of power (see Collins & Harlacher, 2023).  

What are some ways schools can integrate bullying prevention into MTSS? 

Screen for Indicators of Bullying  

Schools can screen for indicators of bullying through approaches that are already in place. For example, asking questions about bullying on school climate surveys, interviewing students during other screening activities, or administering anonymous surveys. It only takes two questions to get actionable data for decision making:

  1. Were you the target of bullying this school year?
  2. If yes, where did the bullying happen (select all that apply)
    1. Bathroom/Locker room
    2. Cafeteria
    3. Classroom
    4. Hallway
    5. On the school bus
    6. Online
    7. Recess (for elementary schools)
    8. Other

By including these two items within your screening process, you’ll be able to understand the degree to which bullying is a problem in your school. It may be a bigger issue than you realize. Research has consistently demonstrated that educators underestimate the frequency of bullying in their school (see Collins & Harlacher, 2023). When a school determines that bullying has occurred, it is important to follow your district’s policy and State’s laws regarding how to respond. Additionally, if the bullying is based on a student’s real or perceived inclusion in a federally protected class (e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation) then the behavior may also be considered discriminatory harassment.

Use Data-Based Decision Making for Schoolwide Bullying Prevention Efforts at Tier 1

After adding the questions above to the behavioral screening process at your school, you have data for making decisions about bullying prevention at Tier 1. For example, you can determine the grade level where bullying is most frequent, if a specific gender or race experiences more bullying compared to others, and the location where bullying most often occurs. Educators can use these data to strategically allocate resources to target interventions where they will have the greatest impact.  

As an example, your data may indicate that bullying is most severe for seventh grade boys in the bathroom. With this knowledge, the team may intervene by having a male administrator or other staff member make periodic checks of the seventh-grade boys’ bathroom. Another intervention could be to have seventh-grade students sign out and back in when they go to the bathroom. This provides a sense that the students are being monitored even if they are alone in the bathroom. By making decisions based on your screening data, you can be more strategic about your approaches to reduce bullying (and avoid wasting limited resources on efforts that may not be impactful). 

Implement Bullying Prevention Strategies at Tier 1

MTSS is defined by its multi-level prevention system and bullying prevention fits easily within this framework. Strategies that schools can use include:  

  • Using an evidence-based curriculum for bullying prevention at Tier 1. Staff members can use the curriculum to teach students about prosocial norms, the different types of bullying, what makes bullying different than other forms of aggression or teasing, and how to spot and respond to bullying.
  • Teaching students a strategy or response to bullying. One effective method at Tier 1 is to teach students a strategy or provide them language to respond to bullying, such as “Stop-Walk-Talk.”  

    • Stop: Tell the bullying student to stop.
    • Walk: Walk away if the student does not stop.
    • Talk: Tell an adult if the bullying behavior continues. 

    For older students, they can be included in the creation of the “stop phrase” so that it is in their own language and more likely to be used. The use of a standard curriculum also contributes to a positive school climate, which is foundational to stopping bullying. Students learn positive ways to interact to each other, and they can create an overall safe and supportive school environment.

  • Including families and the community in prevention efforts at Tier 1. When families understand the difference between bullying and other forms of aggression, know how to properly report bullying, and can spot the warning signs that their child is involved in bullying, they become allies with the school in preventing and stopping bullying. A district and school policy on bullying serves as a first-line of defense. Policies should clearly define and forbid bullying, describe how to report bullying, and inform families on the supports they may receive if their child is involved in bullying.
  • Intervening and reporting when you see it. The majority of the time, all it takes to interrupt an incident of bullying is to make the students aware of your presence and say one or two sentences. What are one or two things you can say to stop bullying if you see it? It doesn’t have to be anything revolutionary. It just needs to happen. For example, if you see bullying, you could walk towards the students and say, “Stop. We use respectful language in our school.” You will obviously want to check on the targeted student to make sure they are safe after the incident, but the key is to first interrupt the incident. Staff should then document and report the incidents of bullying. 

If Tier 1 supports do not prevent all bullying concerns, schools can use Tier 2 supports. For perpetrators of bullying, one common approach at Tier 2 is to use Check-In/Check-Out (CICO). By using CICO, staff members can provide additional supervision and practice with prosocial skills for perpetrators. For victims of bullying, Tier 2 interventions may consist of small group lessons on assertiveness training or social and emotional learning (SEL) competencies. At Tier 3, students, regardless of their role, may access individual counseling or additional SEL.  

MTSS and Bullying Prevention

MTSS is a schoolwide framework that can be used to support bullying prevention. Schools can include bullying prevention as part of their screening processes to effectively measure rates of bullying. In doing so, school teams will have access to data to problem solve areas of need related to bullying prevention (e.g., targeting areas where bullying may occur). They will also have data to identify groups or individual students who need additional support. Finally, schools can integrate bullying prevention strategies within their tiers of support, including using an effective curriculum and teaching students methods to respond to bullying.  


Adam Collins

About the Author

Adam Collins, PhD, is the founder of Envision Zero Bullying and a board member and the Co-Vice Chair of Programming for the non-profit Act to Change.