Understanding bullying


Bullying can happen at school, at home or online. It is never okay and it is not a normal part of growing up.

There is a nationally agreed definition of bullying which all Australian schools now use:

Bullying is an ongoing and deliberate misuse of power in relationships through repeated verbal, physical and/or social behaviour that intends to cause physical, social and/or psychological harm. It can involve an individual or a group misusing their power, or perceived power, over one or more persons who feel unable to stop it from happening.

Bullying can happen in person or online, via various digital platforms and devices and it can be obvious (overt) or hidden (covert). Bullying behaviour is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time (for example, through sharing of digital records).

Bullying of any form or for any reason can have immediate, medium and long-term effects on those involved, including bystanders. Single incidents and conflict or fights between equals, whether in person or online, are not defined as bullying.

Bullying has three key features. It:

  1. involves a misuse of power in a relationship
  2. is intentional, ongoing and repeated
  3. involves behaviours that can cause harm.

Bullying can be physical, verbal, or social. Bullying can be easy to see (overt), or hidden (covert), such as spreading rumours about another person or excluding them.

Bullying can also happen online using technology such as the internet or mobile devices. This is known as online bullying or cyberbullying.

A person can be bullied about many different things such as ​how they look, sound or speak; their background, religion, race or culture including Aboriginality; having a disability; their sex; their size or body shape or any other ways they may be different.

Some students are bullied about their academic or sporting achievements or hobbies.

Types of bullying behaviour

There are four main types of bullying behaviour:

  • physical – examples include: hitting, pushing, shoving or intimidating or otherwise physically hurting another person, damaging or stealing their belongings. It includes threats of violence
  • verbal/written – examples include: name-calling or insulting someone about an attribute, quality or personal characteristic
  • social (sometimes called relational or emotional bullying) – examples include: deliberately excluding someone, spreading rumours, and sharing information that will have a harmful effect on the other person and/or damaging a person’s social reputation or social acceptance
  • cyberbullying – any form of bullying behaviour that occurs online or via a mobile device. It can be verbal or written, and can include threats of violence as well as images, videos and/or audio.

Overt or covert bullying

Bullying can be easy to see and detect (overt) or hidden, subtle and hard to detect (covert). This means that schools need to be alert to possible subtle signs of bullying and check in regularly with students.

  • Overt bullying involves physical actions such as punching or kicking or observable verbal actions such as name-calling and insulting.
  • Covert bullying can be very difficult for someone outside of the interaction to identify. It can include hand gestures and threatening looks, whispering, excluding or turning your back on a person, and restricting where a person can sit and who they can talk with. Social bullying (spreading rumours, manipulation of relationships, excluding, isolating) is often covert bullying.

Some behaviours can appear to be bullying but are actually harassment. Harassment is language or actions that are demeaning, offensive or intimidating to a person. It can take many forms, including sexual harassment, disability harassment or racial discrimination. For instance, sexual harassment is unwelcome or unreciprocated conduct of a sexual nature, which could reasonably be expected to cause offence, humiliation or intimidation.

What is not bullying?

There are also some behaviours, which, although they might be unpleasant or distressing, are not bullying:

  • mutual conflict that involves a disagreement, but not an imbalance of power. Unresolved mutual conflict can develop into bullying if one of the parties targets the other repeatedly in retaliation
  • single-episode acts of nastiness or physical aggression, or aggression directed towards many different people, is not bullying
  • social rejection or dislike is not bullying unless it involves deliberate and repeated attempts to cause distress, exclude or create dislike by others.

Further information

Further information is available on the eSafety Commissioner website on the educators webpage.

Information about this resource

This resource supports schools to define, understand and build awareness of bullying.

This resource supports teachers and schools to define and understand bullying. It provides classroom activities and resources for teachers to support students to build connections, develop positive classroom relationships and climate, and build awareness of bullying. Having an accurate understanding of bullying supports schools to respond in an effective, evidence-informed way.


This resource addresses a need identified through the three key areas of practice, support and ongoing improvement. This provides schools and teachers with supports and resources to: 

  • Implement teaching and behaviour management approaches and practices aimed at building positive behaviours and learning environments 

  • Reduce the occurrence of challenging and unsafe behaviours through proactive and preventive approaches  

  • Provide better options for managing challenging behaviours when they do occur. 

Professional audience

School leaders and teachers across all school settings.

This resource can be used without assistance, as a stand-alone resource and/or linked to professional learning. Optional support is available through activities and resources on the website.

Student audience

All students P-12.

When to use

When schools are seeking to better understand and build awareness of bullying.  


Can be used at any time in the school year.

System priorities and/or needs

This resource aligns with:

  • the Premier’s Priorities to improve outcomes in literacy and numeracy and HSC attainment
  • Our Plan for NSW Public Education’s direction and priorities of strengthening student wellbeing and development and advancing equitable outcomes, opportunities and experiences
  • need identified by Delivery Support to build teacher capacity in understanding and addressing bullying.

School Excellence Framework

  • Learning domain – Wellbeing (Caring for students, A planned approach to wellbeing, Individual learning needs, Behaviour)
  • Leading domain: Educational leadership (Instructional leadership, High expectations culture, Community engagement) and School planning, implementation and reporting (Continuous improvement, School plan, Annual report)
  • Teaching domain - Effective classroom practice (Classroom management). 

Relevant frameworks

Existing resources


Consulted with: The information in this resource was developed as part of the NSW Government’s Anti-Bullying Strategy (2017-2020) in consultation with world-leading academic expert advisors Professor Donna Cross, Professor Rosemary Johnston, and Professor Ian Hickie. The Advocate for Children and Young People assisted with consultation with students.

The Department partnered with the NSW Association of Independent Schools, Catholic Schools NSW, eSafety Commissioner, Bullying No Way!, and the Kids Helpline in consultation with principal and parent groups to create an evidence-based resource package for students, teachers, parents and carers to identify, prevent and respond effectively to student bullying behaviours.

Professor Donna Cross, Professor Rosemary Johnston, and Professor Ian Hickie reviewed and endorsed all the materials for the website.

Reviewed by: Behaviour Services

Last updated: January 2024 


Australia’s Safe and Supportive School Communities Working Group. (2015). A review of literature (2010–2014) on student bullying. https://bullyingnoway.gov.au/understanding-bullying/bullying-research

Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation. (2017). Anti-bullying interventions in schools - what works? Literature review. Department of Education. https://education.nsw.gov.au/about-us/educational-data/cese/publications/literature-reviews/anti-bullying-interventions-in-schools.

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  • DoE


  • Behaviour
  • Curriculum and learning activities
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Health, safety and wellbeing
  • Inclusive practice

Business Unit:

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