Dealing with Bullying in Schools | Stop Pesten NU

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Dealing with Bullying in Schools

This essay has been accepted for publication by the Fabian Society Education Group and in due course will appear as part of a collection of essays on Education. Elizabeth Nassem, & Chris Kyriacou, 28th April 2020.

This essay presents a succinct overview of bullying in schools and how it can be dealt with more effectively. The bullying of pupils by pupils in schools has been a concern for many years. In recent years a major effort has been made to reduce bullying in schools. All schools are now required to have a policy on how it deals with bullying, and evidence-based intervention programmes have been introduced to reduce bullying and to guide how cases of bullying are dealt with. However, bullying in schools is still widespread. In this essay we argue that the key reasons for this lie with it being so common that it is viewed as a normal state of affairs which often goes unchallenged by teachers and pupils. In addition, schools too readily use punishment or generic intervention strategies, and, in the context of the pressure on schools to focus on pupils’ academic attainment, schools are often not able to devote sufficient time and resources to providing high quality pastoral care. In order to tackle bullying in schools more effectively, more time needs to be given to listening to what pupils have to say about bullying in order to enable teachers and pupils to work together to develop more effective intervention strategies. Moreover, rather than using generic intervention strategies, a more effective approach would include the use of counselling and mentoring of persistent bullies by teachers, in order to enable schools to tailor the intervention strategy to the precise circumstances within which the bullying occurs. In addition, the school needs to create a school climate within which bullying is viewed as unacceptable and where pupils can act collectively to tackle it.
 
Both authors are members of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Bullying, have published research on bullying in schools, and have conducted workshops to help schools deal with bullying. 
 

The Prevalence of Bullying in Schools

 
It seems hard to believe that despite all the research on bullying in schools, the development of school policies, the inclusion of teaching sessions about bullying in the school’s personal and social education programme, and the implementation of a wide range of evidence-based intervention strategies, the bullying of pupils by pupils in schools remains a major problem (DfE, 2017). Moreover, with the marked increase in recent years of online abuse through social media (and so called ‘cyberbullying’), the problem has now got a whole lot worse (Kyriacou & Zuin, 2016).
 
Interventions to combat bullying have only had modest success (Katz, 2019), which indicates there is still much to learn about making interventions more effective (Smith, 2019).   Bullying affects a wide range of children in schools, from those who experience it directly to those might be frightened of putting their hand up in class for fear of being ridiculed.  But why, after all the effort to understand and deal with bullying in schools, does it remain such a profound and prevalent problem?  
 
There are many reasons why this might be the case. However, one important reason is that bullying is a complex problem (Nassem, 2017), which permeates the whole of society, and which is generated and sustained by a host of different circumstances. A generalised approach to tackling bullying in schools often fails to take this complexity into account. It has become increasingly evident that tackling bullying needs to be tailored more closely to the specific circumstances in which it arises. 
 
It is argued in this essay that the very ways in which bullying are usually dealt with in schools can even contribute to the problem of bullying.  Alternative ways of addressing bullying are recommended, which focus on understanding and addressing the underlying reasons underpinning the bullying, whilst paying substantial attention to what pupils have to say about bullying (Nassem, 2019).
  

How is bullying dealt with in schools?  

Punishment

Bullying is often dealt with in schools by punishing children. This might be by telling children off, shouting at them, giving them a detention, making them miss their playtime and, in some secondary schools, placing children in isolation.  However, this does not address the underlying reasons behind the bullying, neither does it teach children how to behave more respectfully.  Often those who feel victimised also report that they are also punished, which means that many victims have felt targeted by both their peers and teachers when they are bullied.  
 
In one recent case we are aware of, a pupil had attempted suicide by taking an overdose, which he said was because he was being bullied at school, whilst at the same time his parents were getting divorced. He was subsequently punished by the school by being placed in isolation for retaliating to the bullying he was experiencing, without the school addressing his social, emotional and mental health needs.  
 
Traditional forms of punishing bullies in school can cause more anger in the punished child, which contributes to them taking their anger out on others, and increases their engagement in bullying.  Placing bullies in detention rarely causes them to reflect on their behaviour; in fact, they usually feel unfairly accused and resentful. Being placed in isolation classrooms where they have to complete worksheets on their own and without assistance, often leads to frustration when they are unable to do the work and are not given any help. 
 

Lack of Voice 

Many schools do actively campaign against bullying.  They might provide assemblies for children about bullying, but children have reported that these assemblies are usually led by teachers and many children are disengaged from the message.  The plethora of anti-bullying posters on the walls in schools creates the impression that bullying is being taken seriously by schools.  However, children often report that whilst they are aware of the messages highlighted by these posters, it has little effect on their thinking or behaviour.
 
A major contributor to bullying is the significant lack of voice for children in school (Thornberg & Delby, 2018)  Despite attempts to harness the child’s voice in school, such as through having a student council, children are still not having a significant input into improving and developing their school culture, or contributing to how bullying is understood and dealt with. 
 
One problem in school is a blame culture. On the one hand, pupils feel teachers are to blame for not doing more to stop bullying occurring in the first place or to deal with cases of bullying effectively when it does occur. On the other hand, teachers feel they are already doing a lot to deal with bullying but do not have the time, training or support, to do more, particularly when there is so much pressure of schools to focus on pupils’ attainment targets. As such, teachers can feel distressed by knowing that more needs to be done, but that dealing with specific cases effectively, particularly those which are complex and nuanced, are beyond what they can achieve. This frustration can lead to some teachers on occasion feeling unsympathetic towards the victim, and feeling the victim is partly to blame for being bullied.
 
Bullying is usually a pathologised term and ‘bullies’ and ‘victims’ are usually seen as a pathologised minority. Instead, the different severities and forms of widespread bullying that children engage in and experience need to be considered. Moreover, bullying has become ‘normalised’ is the sense that it occurs so often, it is not seen as something unusual, and, as such, most bullying behaviour goes unchallenged by both teachers and pupils.  Furthermore, most research and interventions tend to focus on bullying between pupils and do not take into enough consideration how interactions between pupils and teachers might contribute to bullying relationships; for example, pupils who feel targeted by their teachers can become hostile towards their teachers. The normalisation of bullying behaviour is particularly evident in cases of cyberbullying, where the degree of abuse expressed online can be extremely excessive, and yet the bully often claims that the abuse they have expressed is not beyond the bounds of acceptability. 
 

How should bullying be dealt with in schools?  

Pupil Voice 

Pupils are a particularly useful resource to help us understand their experiences of bullying. Teachers and pupils can work together to develop strategies to resolve children’s specific experiences of bullying.  This is more helpful than developing a generic anti-bullying campaign which neglects children’s specific experiences of bullying.  Teachers should have conversations with pupils to find out what experiences of bullying their pupils have, why pupils engage in bullying, how bullying is dealt with in their school, and how bullying should be dealt with in their school. It is also important to recognise that more sophisticated forms of bullying, such as ostracising vulnerable children (e.g. children with learning difficulties) can appear to be accepted by pupils and teachers.  
 
We must bear in mind that bullies need help and support to understand why their bullying behaviour is unacceptable and how to develop strategies that will enable them to deal with the challenges they face in their lives in a socially acceptable manner. Schools too readily resort to punishment. Instead, bullies need to be given clear guidance on how to improve their behaviour and how to deal with others more respectfully.  One very effective approach is the use of mentoring and counselling by teachers, who can gain the bully’s trust as someone who understands their circumstances and is able to guide them towards better behaviour.
 
A mentoring programme (Nassem, 2019) can be used, which includes a session-by-session guide on how to mentor pupils who persistently engage in bullying.  Pupils can be mentored individually and/or in groups.  Through mentoring, teachers can learn about the underlying reasons why the bully is engaging in bullying, and help the bully to address these issues and learn how to behave more respectfully.  Role-play can be used to allow mentees to take on the perspective of the victim, and reflect on how the victim feels and might respond.  
 
Other approaches, such as restorative justice, which involve bullies and victims having conversations with each other and exploring together how to repair the harm caused, may be useful, but often fail to adequately address the underlying problems behind the bullying. Furthermore, it has been found that it can be difficult for those individuals involved to seek agreement on how to move forwards and resolve the issues concerned with bullying. 
 
We need to be aware that the school and classroom climate can have an effect on the amount of bullying that occurs within the school. If the school has an aggressive focus on meeting attainment targets, it can very easily under-resource the time being spent on pastoral care issues, and take a hostile attitude towards children who are interfering with the learning of other pupils and/or are likely to perform poorly in attainment tests. Indeed, there is an increasing tendency for schools to off-roll (viz. remove from the roll of the school) misbehaving and poorly-performing children, in order to make the school’s overall level of attainment look better than it really is. Persistent bullies are often included amongst those who are off-rolled. Instead of an aggressive focus on attainment, schools need to address their duty of care to all pupils, including bullies, and to do more to offer the pastoral care they need. 
 
Another important aspect of the school and classroom climate is boredom. Boredom is one of the most common reasons why children engage in bullying.  Boredom creates a sense of entrapment, emptiness and lack of control, to the point where a child can bully someone for entertainment to escape from their boredom. Providing learning experiences which can engage all children and which can enable all children to feel they are making progress, can have a marked impact on reducing the level of bullying in a school.
 

A System of Dialogue 

To improve school practices which aim to address bullying, a ‘system of dialogue’ should be implemented whereby a nominated teacher has discussions with children who engage in problematic behaviour, to discuss, and reflect upon, how to improve school behavioural policies.  A ‘system of dialogue’ could be extended to include discussions with all children about the impact and effectiveness of school behavioural policies and how to improve these. Schools should also involve parents in these discussions, which aim to better understand pupil misbehaviour and how to deal with it effectively. To thoroughly address bullying, schools need to reflect on their own culture and pre-conceptions (Woolley, 2019) and seek to redress aspects of schooling which are perpetuating bullying.  These areas include hierarchical practices such as streaming, where there is a top set and bottom set which contributes to a group of children who feel they are perceived by others as ‘thick’ and can come to see themselves as ‘thick’.  Children placed in such a stigmatised position can become angry and take their anger out on others. 
Replace Bullying with Positive Behaviours  
 
In one case we are aware of, a popular child who persistently engaged in bullying told his mentor that he was reluctant to stop being aggressive to pupils and staff because he was concerned that he would lose his ‘mates’.  He had their respect and he was afraid that if he were to stop engaging in bullying, he would lose their admiration and friendship.  It is important to consider what positive behaviours pupils can develop to replace their bullying. If pupils stop bullying others, then they may experience a sense of loss, for example, in terms of friendship and their sense of connectedness to their peers.  Pupils who previously engaged in bullying could be encouraged to gain status from their peers by encouraging their peers to refrain from bullying and help victimised children.   It is also important to understand what sacrifices are at stake for children in terms of their family background.  If children belong to a family who engage in criminal activity and aggressive behaviour then they may experience a sense of loss and alienation from their own family if they disengage from such activity.  It is therefore important to teach children about how to behave better when the temptation to behave badly is being influenced by their peer and family circumstances and expectations.
 
Dealing with bullying is not a one-off annual event which can be showcased in anti-bullying week.  Children need to be taught how to effectively exercise their agency, and how they can make informed choices on a daily basis, which can have a positive impact on their lives.  The mentoring sessions with children need to be provided over a period of several weeks, in order to establish the pupil’s trust in their mentor and for an honest dialogue to develop.
 
It is not unusual for bullies to be quite popular amongst the pupil community and to have many friends. Indeed, the bully can often be admired by other pupils because of their stature as a bully. This is a reflection of the way bullying has become normalised in schools. One key challenge facing schools is to create a culture amongst the pupil community that bullying is unacceptable. Personal and social education lessons and anti-bullying workshops, can help pupils who are aware of bullying and/or witness bullying in progress, to intervene in order to make clear to the bully that their behaviour is unacceptable and/or to give support and comfort to the victim of bullying. Doing so will then deprive the bully of the admiration they seek. Many pupils who witness bullying (so called ‘bystanders’) (Mazzonne, 2020) are reluctant to get involved in case they then become a victim of the bully’s attention. However, if schools can help bystanders to use intervention strategies, and to act as a mutually-supportive group in doing so, then effective intervention by bystanders can become ‘the new norm’.
 

Advisory Groups on Bullying 

Advisory groups on bullying can be established in each school in which a panel of pupils and staff participate.  Advisory groups will aim to understand children’s specific experiences of bullying and regularly reflect upon, discuss and debate how to effectively deal with children’s specific experiences of bullying.  This will be particularly helpful for complex cases of bullying.  For teachers to successfully prevent children from engaging in bullying, they need to set a good example by consistently interacting respectfully with pupils.  
 
Teachers can also be vulnerable to bullying by pupils.  Teachers who are particularly vulnerable to bullying by pupils are teachers who are perceived as ‘soft’ and who pupils might try to push over the edge.  When softness is constructed as weakness, teachers might feel the need to act hard and tough.  To support pupils and teachers to interact respectfully with one another, pupils and teachers should be involved in developing a ‘healthy relationships’ policy which supports individuals to develop positive relationships rather than learn to normalise and accept relationships which have become abusive. 
 
Schools need to consider what support teachers feel they need to address bullying between pupils, and to effectively perform their role in dealing with bullying. Such support should be incorporated into anti-bullying interventions and strategies. Finally, an expert on bullying schools should be appointed to each school, who will continually liaise with the school as and when advice and support is needed. This should be built into the school’s policy on safeguarding, to ensure that children are safe from the harm that bullying can cause.
 
Contact
Dr Elizabeth Nassem: elizabeth.nassem@bulliedvoices.com
Professor Chris Kyriacou: chris.kyriacou@york.ac.uk
 
References 
 
Department for Education. (2017). Preventing and tackling bullying: Advice for headteachers, staff and governing bodies. London: Department for Education.https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/623895/Preventing_and_tackling_bullying_advice.pdf
Katz, A. (2019). Evaluation of the implementation of an anti-bullying programme in schools. Presentation to a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Bullying, House of Commons, London, U.K. 17th January 2019.  
Kyriacou, C., & Zuin, A. (2016). Cyberbullying and moral disengagement: An analysis based on a social pedagogy of pastoral care in schools. Pastoral Care in Education, 34(1), 34-42. https://doi.org/10.1080/02643944.2015.1134631
Mazzonne, A. (2020). Bystanders to bullying: An introduction to the special issue. International Journal of Bullying Prevention, online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42380-020-00061-8
Nassem, E.M. (2017). The complexity of children's involvement in school bullying.  Journal of Children's Services, 12(4), 288-301. https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/JCS-03-2017-0009/full/html
Nassem, E. (2019). The teacher's guide to resolving school bullying: Evidence-based strategies and pupil-led interventions.  London: Jessica Kingsley.
Ofsted. (2019). Ofsted’s new inspection arrangements to focus on curriculum, behaviour and development. London: Ofsted. Press release published 14th May 2019.
Smith, P.K. (ed.). (2019). Making an impact on school bullying. Abingdon: Routledge.
Thornberg, R., & Delby, H. (2018). How do secondary school students explain bullying? Educational Research, 61(2), 142-160. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00131881.2019.1600376  
Woolley, R. (2019). Towards an inclusive understanding of bullying. Identifying conceptions and practice in the primary school workforce. Educational Review, 71(6), 730-747. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00131911.2018.1471666v
 

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