Persistent bullies: why some children can’t stop bullying

Bullying is a universal problem that affects individuals of all ages. To date, interventions in schools have achieved mixed results with some students engaging in persistent bullying throughout their schooling and into adulthood. Others are targeted with what at times appears relentless bullying.

Persistent bullies

A plethora of research has provided insight into this social phenomenon accompanied by a range of interventions aimed at reducing bullying in schools. Despite this, there are some bullies who persist: those who increase their behaviour over time and those who consistently bully at moderate or high levels. These individuals adversely affect the mental health, wellbeing and schooling experiences of their peers. Although we often focus on the impact on victims, persistent bullies themselves experience long-term negative outcomes as a result of their ongoing bullying behaviour. Such effects include academic difficulties, higher levels of criminal involvement and engagement in various risky behaviours.

Persistent bullies continue bullying in spite of interventions and sanctions employed by schools. Why they persist remains unclear. These students were the focus of our research. We believe understanding their behaviour and why they may be resistant to change will be gained by accessing their lived experiences.

Our research

Our project explored multiple perspectives of bullying in a quest to further understand this social phenomenon and why some individuals engage in persistent bullying.

We used a case study approach to collect narratives from several South Australian University and primary school students. A pictorial mindmap ‘About your life’ was used as a unique recall-trigger to gather data. The pictorial template consisted of few words and enabled participants to tell their stories in their own way with little or no questioning. This provided deeper insight into the lives of individuals who engaged in, or were the victim of, persistent bullying.

What we found

We found that participants, both the victims and the bullies, had a sound understanding of bullying. They identified characteristics of both typical (those who do not persist with bullying behaviour) and persistent bullies.

The perceived differences between these bullies related to their peer relationships, degree of empathy and the way that they attribute blame for things that have happened to them. Certain environmental influences such as negative home lives were also perceived as reinforcing persistent bullying. The relationship between adults in the school, particularly teachers, and those who bully, can affect the way the peer group views and treats these students.

Students reported the actions of persistent bullies as negative, intentional and malicious. The bullies are aware of such attributions. These attributions influenced the peer group’s reaction, which in turn affected the way the bully behaved, fulfilling earlier expectations.

Persistent bullies also developed a negative self-concept and looked to verify this by acting in a manner that was consistent with their negative self-view. We argue that the expectations of the school community coupled with self-verification may serve to reinforce persistent bullying.

Persistent bullies also reported differences in both the quality and quantity of their relationships at school and at home. Their actions were often motivated by a strong need to belong and be accepted by their peers, a basic human need. Often they engaged in bullying to gain some acceptance, albeit negative, from peers and teachers.

The stories from persistent bullies have highlighted the significance of belonging, together with the role that others, and their beliefs, have on determining and reinforcing persistent bullying behaviour.


Deborah Green is a Lecturer in Humanities and Social Science in the School of Education at the University of South Australia. Deborah holds a Bachelor of Education (Hons.) and Doctor of Philosophy, where her thesis focussed on students who persistently bully in spite of interventions and sanctions employed by schools to reduce this behaviour. Deborah’s research interests closely align with her teaching. She is particularly interested in areas of social justice, inclusive and special education, bullying, cyber-bullying, bystander behaviours and resilience.

Deborah Price is a Senior Lecturer in Inclusive Education and Wellbeing at the University of South Australia with research, teaching and scholarship which advocate a capabilities approach and valuing of the diversity of young people. As the School of Education, Program Director Master of Teaching, her vision is to work collaboratively to equip graduates with qualities that promote learner achievement and wellbeing which transfers to productive citizenship. Current research contributes to the broad themes of social sustainability and citizenship for young people, in particular wellbeing, relationships, identity and educational influence. Social justice, inclusion and wellbeing are integral priorities in teaching, scholarship and research.

 More in our book  Multiple Perspectives in Persistent Bullying: Capturing and listening to young people’s voices. Routledge, United Kingdom. ISBN: 1317335775, 9781317335771. Authors: Green D., & Price, D. (2017).


Bullying is considered a socially unacceptable form of aggression that is described as a ‘physical, verbal or psychological attack or intimidation that is intended to cause fear, distress or harm to the victim; an imbalance of power (psychological or physical) with a more powerful child (or children) oppressing less powerful ones; and repeated incidents between the same children over a prolonged period’.