October 2014: Predicting Bullying in Early Elementary Grades

Verlinden, M., Veenstra, R., Ghassabian, A., Jansen, P. W., Hofman, A., Jaddoe, V. W. V., . . . Tiemeier, H. (2014). Executive functioning and nonverbal intelligence as predictors of bullying in early elementary school. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 42, 953–966.

Summary by Dr. Michael Vaughn


Bullying, defined as aggressive behavior used to repeatedly harm or intimidate others with less power, often begins in childhood and affects approximately 30% of youth in the United States. Bullying involves an imbalance of power that manifests in acts of physical or relational aggression. Bullies may intimidate their victims overtly through physical aggression such as kicking, punching, slapping, or other dominance displays. Bullies may also use verbal threats, social exclusion, gossiping, and name-calling to assert their power over victims. Bullying also now occurs through social media and the Internet (i.e., cyberbullying). Bullying others during childhood is associated with conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, and attention deficit disorder. Longitudinal research has shown that there are emotional consequences for victims of bullying, including poor self-image, anxiety, and academic problems.

Although a plethora of studies have examined characteristics of bullies and the effect on victims, relatively little is known about the role of executive functioning (inhibition, shifting, emotional control, working memory, planning/organization) and nonverbal intelligence in the development of bullying in early elementary school. This topic is important because bullying as a behavioral strategy manifests itself early. Sampling from 37 elementary schools in the Netherlands, Verlinden and colleagues (2014) examined the extent to which poor executive functioning in preschool predicted peer- and self-reported bullying involvement in the first grades of elementary school, when the children were approximately age 7. These researchers also accounted for the influences of maternal demographics (income, national origin, educational level, marital status) and parenting stress, and considered whether child IQ and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are related to bullying.

Key Findings

First, problems with inhibition (the ability to control one’s impulses) were positively associated with bullying behavior in children, including being a bullying victim. Specifically, children with inhibition problems were 35% more likely to engage in bullying and 21% more likely to be a victim of a bully, even after controlling for the influence of maternal characteristics and parenting stress. However, other areas of executive functioning such as shifting and planning were not associated with bullying behavior, except for working memory, which was marginally significant. Children with higher nonverbal intelligence scores were significantly less likely to be a bully victim. Second, additional analyses revealed that the relationship between executive function (disinhibition) and bullying involvement was independent of child IQ and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder problems. In sum, being a bully and being a victim of a bully are tied directly to inhibition problems in early childhood.


In recognizing the serious consequences of bullying, several anti-bullying models have been developed to reduce or prevent bullying behavior during elementary and middle school. One of the more popular school-based programs is the Olweus model, which targets multiple systems in an effort to reduce bullying, including establishing schoolwide anti-bullying policies, training teachers to address incidents in the classroom, and offering informational workshops to parents. Findings from this particular study suggest that effective prevention efforts need to take into account early executive functioning, particularly in relation to poor impulse control and lack of restraint. For example, exercises that build behavioral self-control or reward self-control could be effective. It is also important to note that problems with emotional control were not associated with bullying involvement. Although, as the authors suggest, this finding may seem counterintuitive, results from other studies indicate that emotional outbursts or explosiveness are not associated with bullying because bullying is intended and repeated aggression.


Ttofi, M. M., Farrington, D. P., & Baldry, A. C. (2008) Effectiveness of programmes to reduce school bullying: A systematic review. Stockholm, Sweden: The National Council for Crime Prevention.

Olweus, D., Limber, S., & Mihalic, S. (1999). Blueprints for violence prevention, book nine: Bullying prevention program. Boulder, CO: Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence.