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Bullying's negative outcomes are documented for K-12 student absenteeism and academic achievement, as measured by GPA and assessments.

How bullying contributes to K-12 student absenteeism


Negative outcomes are documented for attendance and academic achievement, as measured by GPA and standardized assessments

Key points:

The National Center for Education Statistics released its findings from the school survey on crime and safety: 2021-2022 and reported that bullying occurs at least once a week in 28 percent of middle schools. Cyberbullying, increasingly more common, occurred at least once per week in 37 percent of middle schools, 25 percent of high schools, and 6 percent of elementary schools.

Bullying can happen throughout a lifetime but is most common in early adolescence (10-12 years old). Adolescents experience significant change, vulnerability, and impressionability during this formative developmental period. Previously thought to “diminish over time,” a review of longitudinal studies on bullying and subsequent outcomes revealed that the negative impacts could be experienced years later. From missing school to devastating psychological distress, the consequences of bullying are so detrimental that scholars refer to it as a public health problem.

A global health problem

Dan Olweus published significant findings on bullying in 1978, and the topic has received considerable attention in the academic literature since the late 90s. Decades of international research inform us that bullying is prevalent and harmful for “all involved.”

Authors Laith and Vaillancourt (2022) labeled bullying “a global health problem that often prevents children from achieving their fundamental right to education.” Barlett and colleagues (2024) also describe bullying, and cyberbullying specifically, “as a public health concern” due to its prevalence and detrimental outcomes, which include depression and anxiety, low life satisfaction and self-esteem, and loneliness. Individuals who victimize others are more likely than their non-bullying peers to engage in delinquency, substance abuse, and violence even into adulthood.  

In the immediate term, bullying negatively impacts school attendance and academic achievement–two factors that have lasting effects on whether students become healthy and happy thriving adults. Attendance and achievement predict students’ probability of graduating high school, which in turn predicts lifetime earnings. I reviewed recently published articles on the relationship between bullying and these academic factors. Here are a few takeaways.

Bullying and absenteeism

A 2021 study on high schoolers’ experience with bullying revealed that being a victim of cyber, physical, or relational bullying was associated with increased absences. Among students experiencing relational victimization (the most common form), perceiving “low levels of teacher attachment are associated with the most increases in absences.” High levels of perceived school safety and teacher support acted as a buffer against absences for those students experiencing relational bullying.

Alanko and colleagues analyzed time trends of biennial data collected in Finland between 2000 and 2019. The analysis revealed that any association with bullying increased the odds of school absences due to illness and truancy. The odds of illness and truant absences “increased by 45 percent if bullying victimization was reported several times a week.” Perpetrating bullying was also associated with absences. Moreover, bullies had higher odds of truancies (unexcused absences) compared to illness absences (victims’ rates of absences didn’t vary by absence type).

Another longitudinal study on bullying focused on 2,000 United States middle schoolers on their journey to high school. Again, “both bullying and victimization were negatively associated with achievement and attendance across time and positively related to disciplinary referrals.” The authors analyzed indirect paths in the data to see the interplay between variables. Particularly for girls, results indicated that bullying impacted attendance negatively by way of academic achievement. Feldman and researchers (2014) explain: “The more bullying was related to low GPA in middle school, the more it predicted decreases in school attendance for girls toward and during high school.”

Bullying and achievement

In this same study, Feldman and colleagues noted–again among girls–that high levels of bullying in the first review period were positively correlated with low attendance. This scenario was associated with increased disciplinary referrals over time. “That is, the more girls reported bullying in middle school, the less they attended school at this time and the more disciplinary referrals increased over time.” Importantly, initial levels of disciplinary referrals predicted lower academic achievement as measured by students’ GPAs.

Evans and colleagues (2019) studied the outcomes after cumulative experiences of being a bully, victim, or bystander among 8,000 rural North Carolina middle and high schoolers. The study focused on students’ academic achievement as measured by their most recent self-reported nine-week report card grades. This study found significant effects for cumulative bystander behavior and achievement.

Cumulative negative bystander behavior (e.g., cheering a bully) was negatively associated with grades whereas cumulative prosocial bystander behavior (e.g., comforting a victim) was positively associated with grades. Moreover, students who engage in negative bystander behavior “resemble children who bully others in their aggression and low future optimism; however, their adjustment is even poorer in manifesting low academic achievement and internalizing symptoms.”

In a Danish sample of 4th-6th graders, Clemmensen and scholars (2020) found that being a victim and a victim-bully was associated with lower academic performance as measured by the national math test. In the United States, Wright and Wachs (2021) found that victims of multiple forms of cyberbullying as 7th graders were likely to have poorer academic performance, measured by year-end GPA, in 8th grade compared to non-bullied peers. Responses from a large sample of 16- to 19-year-olds in Norway revealed bullies, bully-victims, and victims reported more sleep disruptions and lower GPA compared to non-involved peers.

In their meta-analysis of 114 independent studies focused on K-12 violence, Polanin and colleagues (2021) concluded that “any involvement in school violence as a perpetrator or victim was significantly associated” negatively with academic achievement. Torres et al., (2020) found that being a victim of social bullying decreases the chances a student will earn grades above failing. The “log odds of them earning any grade other than mostly Fs is 31 percent lower” for victims of relational bullying relative to victims of other bullying types.

Decades of international research, longitudinal studies, and more recent approaches that address different bullying types all point to the same conclusion: Bullying negatively impacts everyone involved. Negative outcomes are documented for school attendance and academic achievement, as measured by GPA and standardized assessments. Both direct and indirect effects are observed, meaning that bullying is harmful in and of itself; it also impacts academic outcomes indirectly, via other areas of life (i.e., sleep), negatively influencing grades and attendance. Moreover, the studies reviewed here illustrate longitudinal effects, with negative impacts detectable up to a year or more later. These negative effects have led scholars to label bullying a global health concern.


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