Reducing Bullying in schools is vital to achieving favorable learning environment for all. Bullying in schools continues to be a considerable problem in many educational environments and even in non-educational communities. It has even become a common phenomenon on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Allegations of bullying, harassment, and intimidation have also become common topics in news platform. Elsewhere, in the fields of education, psychology, and law, scholars have increasingly pointed their attention to bullying due to its destructive effects on individuals, and communities.

Design and implementation of interventions to reduce bullying have permeated into many schools, homes, and communities as parents, teachers, and education policymakers strive for a lasting solution. Since bullying has been regarded as a social relationship problem, many of the interventions aiming to reduce bullying base possible solutions on behavioral and cognitive theories. Accordingly, social cognitive theory (SCT) helps in understanding the complexity of bullying behaviors and how to reduce involvement in such behavioral misconducts.

Social cognitive theory

Albert Bandura founded the theory in 1977. It is an updated version of the social learning theory conceptualized by Miller and Dollard in 1941. The social learning theory proposed that individuals learn not only through direct instruction but also by observing the behaviors of other people in their environment (Swearer, Wang, Berry & Myers, 2014). Social cognitive theory is hinged on similar principles of learning via interactions with the social environment. However, it goes further to emphasize on cognitions as integral in determining people’s behavior. SCT proposes that individuals’ behaviors are a result of interactions between the social environment and internal stimuli (Bandura, 1989). The triadic relationship of the social environment, internal stimuli, and behaviors is referred to as reciprocal determinism. Individuals make cognitive evaluations of the behaviors of others in their social settings and the consequences of such behaviors that follow (Swearer et al., 2014).  Witnessing other people’s behaviors and cognitively evaluating the benefits and drawbacks of those behavior determines whether or not an individual adopts them.

Social cognitive theory is instrumental in explaining aggressive behavior such as bullying. It allows for understanding how individuals learn to bully through observing other individuals in their social environment and reinforcements that makes observers actualize bullying.  According to Swearer et al. (2014), “cognitions regarding support for bullying and beliefs regarding the likelihood of positive versus negative consequences affect the likelihood that youths will bully others.” Researchers have carried out extensive studies that reveal a relationship between observing bullying or other aggressive behaviors and perpetrating similar behavior as a consequence witnessing it in the social environment. For instance, young people who grow up in an environment with frequent domestic violence are more likely to bully fellow youths compared to those who are never exposed to such violent behavior (Swearer et al., 2014). Swearer & Hymel (2015) affirms that family, peers, schools, and cultural influences can reinforce bullying behavior.

Observational learning remains one of the most influential factors to children and adolescents becoming bullies. Evidence suggests that individuals who become bullies are exposed to aggressive behavior such as bullying, endorse pro-bullying and other pro-aggressive behavior and interact with individuals who promote bullying as an acceptable or rewarding behavior (Swearer et al., 2014). The social cognitive theory emphasizes that children and adolescents will avoid behaviors that they believe are unrewarding and punishable and adopt those that will give them rewards such as social status or access to particular resources (Swearer et al., 2014). Besides, for the behavior to happen over and over again, it needs reinforcements such as praise and acceptance.

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Understanding bullying behavior

Bullying is a problem in many social environments. Swearer & Hymel (2015) describes bullying as “a unique but complex form of interpersonal aggression” that can manifest in many forms, serving different purposes and expressed in different relationship patterns. It is not just a dyadic exchange between a bully and a victim but also a group problem that occurs in a social context and promoted, maintained, or suppressed by a variety of factors. Bullying behavior is influenced by multiple relationships such as family, peers, school teachers, neighborhoods, and the overall society in which an individual lives (Swearer & Hymel, 2015).  Internal stimuli and cognitive distortions, particularly those that endorse bullying, lead to bullying (Swearer et al., 2014). Understanding bullying is a social phenomenon that affects not only individuals but also society is essential in conceptualizing and implementing effective interventions to reduce bullying.

Bullying is a social problem worth looking into due to the adverse effects it causes not only not the victims but also the perpetrators and the entire society. According to a UNESCO study in 2018, at least 30% of all students annually experience some form of aggression in school (Salimi et al., 2019). Aggressive behavior, especially bullying causes anxiety and depression to both the victims and the bullies (Swearer & Hymel, 2015). It also leads to social withdrawal, delinquent behavior, and poor academic performance for the victim, bully-victim, and the bully (Swearer & Hymel, 2015). Bullying in schools also results in adults being diagnosed with an antisocial personality disorder.

In many cases, stakeholders in schools have advocated for suspension, expulsion, and incarceration of bullies. However, research shows that bully perpetrators, like victims, experience psychosocial consequences that render expelling, suspending, or incarcerating bullies ineffective in solving the problem (Swearer et al., 2014). Consequently, infusing the principles of social cognitive theory in interventions targeting to reduce bullying is a step in the right direction to rid of society from bullies while helping perpetrators and victims return to healthy lives.

Applying social cognitive theory to Reducing Bullying in schools

Social cognitive theory influences the design and implementation of cognitive-behavioral interventions (CBI). Since bullying has been, through scientific research, conceptualized as a cognitive-behavioral problem, SCT provides an ideal approach to reduce bullying behavior in any social environment. Swearer et al. (2014) argue that CBI emphasizes on how an individual’s thoughts and beliefs impact behavior.

Further, cognitive-behavioral intervention holds that any modification of a person’s dysfunctional beliefs leads to a positive effect on their behavior (Swearer et al., 2014). Scholars of CBI also argue that internal stimuli and cognitive distortions, particularly those justifying aggressive behavior are related to perpetration of bullying (Swearer et al., 2014). By using bullying attitudes, one can predict bullying behaviors. Students who hold pro-bullying attitudes are more likely to bully others compared to those who endorse anti-bullying emotions and cognition (Swearer et al., 2014).  Such details reveal that social cognitive theory is applicable in reducing bullying, and CBI is an effective solution to aggressive behavior.

A considerable number of CBIs have proved effective in reducing aggressive behavior. The Coping Power Program that targeted children’s cognitive processes and their parents’ behaviors reduced the participants’ aggressive, delinquent, and disruptive behaviors (Swearer et al., 2014).  Problem-Solving Skills Training (PSST) also provided similar results when implemented alone, or concurrently with Parent Management Training (PMT) and parent problem-solving training (PPS) (Swearer et al., 2014). Cognitive-behavioral interventions can, therefore, effectively reduce bullying behavior, whether used alone or conjunction with other approaches that employ other than social cognitive theory.

Pros and cons of employing SCT in Reducing Bullying in schools

Unlike other approaches that target either social or cognitive factors that influence bullying behavior, interventions based on social cognitive theory target both social and cognitive processes that individuals live, providing a holistic solution to the social-behavioral phenomenon. A comprehensive cognitive-behavioral intervention is an individualized solution that also includes parents, teachers and other school stakeholders to eliminate bullying reinforcements and identify the mental health factors and cognitive processes associated with bullying, solve them and also replace aggressive behavior with alternative ways to resolve social conflicts.

Nevertheless, interventions relying on SCT application are limited to where the influences on bullying are social and cognitive (Swearer et al., 2014). Solving clinical consequences of bullying and victimization such as stress and depression requires the application of other theoretical frameworks such as Social-Ecological Diathesis–Stress Model of Bullying (Swearer & Hymel, 2015).

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Bullying behavior can be prevented and reduced through the articulate application of social cognitive theory. Cognitive-behavioral interventions rely on SCT to target cognitive processes and mental health factors as well as social environment influences to solve the aggressive behavior. It is highly vital to rely on all stakeholders, including psychologists, teachers, parents, and peers, to reduce bullying in schools and other social environments. The consequences of aggressive behavior affect not only bullies and their victims but also other members of the society who bear the cost psycho-social problems associated with bullying behavior.


Bandura, A. (1989). Social cognitive theory. In Six theories of child development: Revised formulations and current issues (pp. 1-60). Greenwich, CT: Jai Press.

Salimi, N., Karimi-Shahanjarini, A., Rezapur-Shahkolai, F., Hamzeh, B., Roshanaei, G., & Babamiri, M. (2019). Aggression and its predictors among elementary students. Journal of Injury and Violence Research, 11(2), 159-170. doi:10.5249/jivr.v11i2.1102

Swearer, S. M., & Hymel, S. (2015). Understanding the psychology of bullying: Moving toward a social-ecological diathesis-stress model. American Psychologist, 70(4), 344-353. doi:10.1037/a0038929

Swearer, S. M., Wang, C., Berry, B., & Myers, Z. R. (2014). Reducing bullying: Application of social cognitive theory. Theory Into Practice, 53(4), 271-277. doi:10.1080/00405841.2014.947221


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