The act of bullying usually does not just happen. A child is not bully-free one day and then a victim of full-blown bullying the next. If this was the case, victims of bullying would be more likely able to react more proactively against the bullying behaviour. It is believed that bullying involves a gradual and deliberate process. Keith Sullivan (2000) describes this process as The Downward Spiral of Bullying. Sullivan uses the following case study to identify the five steps in this spiral.

The Downward Spiral of Bullying


It is the beginning of a school year, and students are in the process of re-forming old alliances and starting new ones. The groups students belong to are defined as much by determining who is ‘out’ and who is ‘in’. Those who are ‘out’ can be subjected to bullying.

A new boy has arrived at the school. He is academically able but quiet and unaggressive. He becomes the victim of serious bullying and this occurs through a five-stage process. The following describes what happens and how the events affect the bully/ies, the victim and the bystanders.

Stage One: Watching and Waiting

At the beginning of the year, the pupils settle into the school culture. During this early stage, the students are quietly gaining a sense of the characteristics of their classmates and the dynamics of the class room. Those who will bully are observing and gathering information, picking who will be easy to bully and who will be bully-proof. Those who are prone to be bullied may have no idea that they are being targeted.

Those who may become bystanders in acts of bullying may have given signs that they are not easy targets. Research indicates that early in the school year, single acts with bullying potential are visited on a large number of individuals, but that the frequency of these acts decreases as students who may succumb to being bullied and those who are resistant are identified.

Stage Two: Testing the waters

If, after stage one, a child is perceived as being a potential victim, the next move is for the bully (or part of a bully group) to activate the bullying in a minor way. He may walk past the potential victim’s desk and knock off a pencil case. This is a small but symbolic act that tests the response of the potential victim. If the child is embarrassed and seems nonplussed, and responds weakly or not at all, he gives the message that he is a potential victim. (If he retaliates successfully, he may move out of the potential victim group and may be accepted by the main group.)

Stage Three: Something more substantial occurs

Stage two confirms the existence of a potential victim. When he arrives at school the next day, four boys walk very close to him and jostle him, one grabs his bag, and then they throw it around. He runs from boy to boy, felling panicky and they laugh. A teacher comes over and asks what is going on. “Just having some fun” the leader says. The victimised boy does not contradict him. He hopes that if he says nothing he will be seen as a good sport.

Stage Four: The bullying escalates

More often than not, the bullying goes unchecked and gets worse because there is nothing to stop it. If the boys see they can get away with their behaviour, they may beat their victim up or degrade him in various ways. They can also subject him to bullying outside school by an orchestrated campaign of intimidation. The peer group does nothings but watches passively, united in their complicity.

Stage Five: Bullying is the status quo

The boy who is being bullied is losing confidence, failing academically, truanting, and, in a worse case scenario, may eventually attempt suicide. Those who are bullying get unrealistic sense of their own power and, as they get older, commit other antisocial acts that are not tolerated by the adult world. Crime and imprisonment can be the results.

The bystanders are now immobilised by their inaction and have a negative sense of the world as an unsafe and frightening place in which they are essentially powerless.

Why did we include this scenario?

We have not included this scenario to anger or upset parents. ‘The Downward Spiral of Bullying’ demonstrates a number of points:

  1. The bullying act can be a gradual process, were it develops outside the victim’s control.
  2. Victims should not be blamed or seen as weak. Instead they need to be protected and supported.
  3. Victims should not be expected to tough it out or solve the problem themselves.
  4. Negative outcomes can occur for everyone involved.