Bullying in schools is not a new phenomenon, but it is only recently that it has become recognised as a major problem for schools. Fortunately, effective methods have now been developed and are being employed in some schools in Australia to reduce its incidence and mitigate the effects.
We must begin by being clear about what bullying is and what it is not. It can be usefully defined as repeated oppression, physical or psychological, of a less powerful individual by a more powerful individual or group. It is not the same thing as conflict, violence or disagreement – although it may, of course, involve all these things. With bullying there is always a power imbalance which makes the ill-treatment of a victim possible.
The phenomena of bullying are often described using such terms as harassment, teasing and peer abuse. Bullying is the most general term available to us as it can include a wide range of hurtful behaviours, encompassing physically injurious actions, such as hitting and kicking as well as verbal forms of harassment, such as name-calling, and indirect means of hurting others. Examples of the latter include deliberately excluding people from groups, hiding their belongings and spreading malicious rumours. In schools verbal harassment is the most commonly observed form of bullying; physical bullying the least. Although boys and girls may engage in all these behaviours, indirect bullying is more commonly found among girls; physical bullying among boys.
Increasing awareness of bullying and its effects
Schools are unlikely to adopt useful policies and practices against bullying unless there is a general recognition first among staff that it can constitute a serious problem for a substantial minority of students. We now know that in Australian schools at least one child in six is bullied by peers on a weekly basis. Among these, some are not greatly troubled, but others do become seriously depressed, have few (if any) friends, stay home from school because of bullying, and may become quite ill because of it.
A person's self-esteem may remain low for a lifetime if bullied continually at school. Sometimes teachers concede that it may be a problem in some schools, but not theirs. In such cases a carefully conducted survey is needed to test student opinion. Such inquiries invariably show that bullying is prevalent and that some children are being badly harmed. There are now carefully developed and validated questionnaires available for use with students; for example the Peer Relations Questionnaire (Rigby and Slee, 1993,1997, Rigby 1997).
An effective anti-bullying policy
Many schools are now recognising that a specific anti-bullying policy is needed if a school is to significantly reduce bullying. This is distinct from a general behaviour management plan, although in some respects it may overlap with it.
These elements are commonly included in anti-bullying policies:
A statement of the school policy which is to promote positive interpersonal relations between members of the school community and specifically to prevent bullying and harassment at school, which is seen as unacceptable. The policy must be seen as applying not only between students but as involving school staff as well. Teachers sometimes bully, and may be bullied by, students.
A clear definition of bullying with examples.
A description of how the school proposes to deal with bully/victim problems.
Encouragement for both students and parents with concerns about bullying to speak with school personnel about them.
The process by which the policy is developed is crucial. It should begin with a program designed to raise awareness among staff of the problem of bullying generally, and then seek to discover exactly what is happening in one's own school. There are useful videos for raising staff and student awareness and both research and popular literature on the subject (see list of resources). Subsequently, the policy should be developed with the active cooperation of all the interested parties: teachers, students and parents. The policy should be widely disseminated and re-evaluated in the light of subsequent developments.
Links with the curriculum
Links with the curriculum can strongly reinforce the anti-bullying policy. Content relevant to problems of abuses of power can be included in a variety of subjects including Social Studies, English and History. Questions focussing upon aspects of interpersonal behaviour such as prejudice, discrimination and violence can be examined; basic skills underlying the practice of pro-social behaviour may be usefully developed.
Staff interaction with students
How staff interact with students has important consequences for the level of bullying in a school. Teachers may have a significant impact in a number of ways:
By expressing disapproval of bullying whenever it occurs, not only in the classroom but also in the school playground.
By listening sympathetically to students who need support when they are victimised. Teachers may then initiate or take action, when requested to do so by victimised children, according to procedures approved by the school.
By encouraging cooperative learning in the class room and by not setting a bad example by their own dominating or authoritarian behaviour.
By talking with groups of students about bullying and mobilising student support for action to reduce bullying, for example, by including victimised students in their activities.
(Most students are in fact against bullying, and, given the chance, can provide not only active support for the school policy but also make positive proposals and undertake constructive actions to counter bullying).
Roles undertaken by students
Because students who are victimised are much more likely to seek help from students rather than teachers, there is much to be said for selecting and helping to train students to provide assistance to peers in need of help. Roles may be specially created for interested students to help with problems of peer relations, such as in orienting students prior to and when they start their new school; supporting students who are rejected or isolated by their peers; providing a peer counselling service; and resolving conflicts between peers through peer mediation. Such work can have a transforming effect on the school ethos. It also provides students with the opportunity to experience success in helping relationships. Normally the lead in such developments will be taken by the School Counsellor who would undertake to provide appropriate training and guidance.
Dealing with cases of bullying
Despite the preventative measures that can be taken in schools, instances of bullying will occur and require a systematic approach in dealing with them. Each school must devise its preferred method. But here are some suggestions based upon an examination of the effectiveness of alternative approaches used by schools in Australia and overseas.
It is generally agreed that some form of counselling or discussion with students involved in bully/victim incidents should occur before sanctions are even considered. Depending on the nature and seriousness of the bullying, changes in relationships between students involved in bullying can often be effected without the use of intensive interrogation, blame and punishment. Indeed, because subtle forms of bullying can often be practised without detection, it is extremely difficult to control bullying by strictly disciplinary means.
The method of shared concern
One of the most effective methods of resolving bully/victim problems has been proposed by the Swedish psychologist, Anatol Pikas (1989). This method involves preliminary talks, first with students who have engaged in bullying, then with their victims; subsequently, if more than one person has participated in the bullying (which is frequently the case), the entire group is brought together for final mediation and resolution with the person who has been victimised.
For maximum effectiveness, intensive training by staff in this method is needed, but the principles are clear and can be used to guide interviews with bullies. It is generally best to see bullies on their own, without their supporters. Alone, they are often prepared to share the teacher's or counsellor's expressed concern for the victim and accept some responsibility for the distress that has been reported, more especially if they are shown respect as persons and not interrogated as criminals and severely blamed.
The role of the teacher is largely to elicit suggestions and concrete proposals from the bully that will help the situation. The implementation of the proposals and the outcome for the victim need to be carefully monitored and contact maintained with the bullies until the situation has definitely improved. In most, if not all cases, the problem can be solved in this way.
The use of sanctions
Despite counselling and efforts to encourage the bully to feel concern for the victim and undertake responsible action to improve relationships, the problem may still remain unsolved and the victim needs protecting. Serious talks with the bully and his or her parents will then be necessary, non-physical sanctions may be imposed and in the most serious cases suspension, exclusion or expulsion may be justified (see Olweus, 1993).
Support for victimised students
Whilst it is quite unacceptable to blame victims for their plight, there are students who can be encouraged and helped to become more resilient and to develop assertiveness skills in order to reduce the likelihood of being bullied by others.
In some schools, training for such students is being provided in groups, and positive results have been reported in terms of decreased vulnerability and enhanced self-esteem (see Rigby and Sharp, 1993). Finally, although the responsibility of schools is for student behaviour at school, it must be appreciated that much bullying occurs when students are between home and school. Students can be helped by being informed about Safety Houses in the neighbourhood, which they may be able to enter if seriously threatened. Police officers can be invited to schools to provide this information.
Bullying is presently seen as a serious problem for all schools. We must think not simply and only of directly suppressing bullying but more positively of promoting among students cooperative and pro-social ways of thinking and behaving. In this way the school ethos which contains elements that often foster intimidatory behaviour can be changed.
The gains are most notable for the well-being of students who are particularly vulnerable to bullying. But all students benefit in the process of bringing about a happier and more constructive school climate in which every students has the opportunity to achieve success, socially as well as academically.
The changes that are needed are not beyond the resources of schools. They do however require concerted attention from members of the school community, both teachers and students. There are now available abundant resources (which are detailed at the end of this article) for those who can lead the way in reducing bullying and improving the quality of life for this generation of students now.
From The Professional Reading Guide for Educational Administrators, Vol. 17, No. 1