National News

Are Australian teachers underestimating bullying?

A new study, covering almost 1700 Australian students and their teachers, has challenged the prevalent idea that teachers underestimate the extent and seriousness of bullying in the schools at which they work.

Every parent whose child has been tormented by bullies has probably been tempted to ask the teachers whether they are really paying attention to how much bullying goes on at their school. Indeed, extensive research has suggested that teachers in Australia and elsewhere aren’t always aware of the bullying individual students face.

However, Professor Ken Rigby, of the Hawke Research Institute and the University of South Australia (UniSA), has released a study which provides strong evidence that on the school level, Australian teachers are keenly aware of bullying as a problem, and may even tend to overestimate its prevalence.

Professor Rigby surveyed 1700 students and 63 teachers from 36 schools on how often they thought nine types of bullying were inflicted on students in their school. For five of these nine types, teachers’ estimates were higher than students.

For instance, teachers thought physical hitting happened almost three times as often as students did, teachers’ estimates of the prevalence of hurtful teasing were almost double students. For another three – being purposefully ignored, being made afraid, and having malicious stories spread about you – teacher estimates were close to one and a half times those of students.

On the remaining four forms of bullying – harassing text messages, online cruelty, and harassment, based on race and on gender – teacher and student estimates closely agreed.

The tendency for teachers to give higher estimates of bullying by peers applied to 13 of the 16 schools from which comparative data was available. Hence, in most but not all schools, teachers estimate bullying prevalence higher than do students.   

These results may be more consistent with previous research than meets the eye. Earlier studies have shown that teachers underestimate bullying compared to students. But these studies compared students’ reports of the bullying they faced personally with teacher perceptions of how often each student was bullied. In contrast, this study compared teacher and student estimates of bullying at the school level. So, while teachers aren’t always aware of individual cases of bullying, they are aware of bullying as a serious issue in their schools.

This is important, because the anti-bullying efforts of teachers, school counsellors, and administrators all depend on how realistic their perceptions of this issue are. Schools employ multiple strategies to prevent bullying, varying from programs to build student capacities for prosocial behaviour, to case-by-case interventions. But all rely on accurate perceptions of the problem.

“In order to have trust in these strategies,” Dr Rigby says, “it is important not to assume that teachers underplay bullying. Generally, they do not.”

As part of the study, Professor Rigby found that 38% of the teachers reported their primary source of information about bullying as being either the media or the internet. The effect of such communications may have been to sensitise teachers to the prevalence of bullying at their schools.

“The results from this study show that teachers are generally aware of how serious a problem school bullying is,” said Professor Rigby.

Ken Rigby.


“Do teachers really underestimate the prevalence of bullying in schools?” Social Psychology of Education (2020).