Responding to parent complaints about bullying
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Responding to parent complaints about bullying

School bullying is a sensitive issue, and conversations on this topic with parents can often be stressful for teachers and principals. It is common for school staff to feel attacked by parents who complain that their child is being bullied. It is common for parents and schools to have different views about whether a particular student is being bullied. Parents usually only know their own child’s version of events, which may not be the whole story.

They may also have a different definition of what is bullying than used by the school.

Despite the difficulties, there are important reasons why school staff members need to engage with parents on the topic of bullying. If parents are not satisfied with the way the school responds to their concerns, they might take matters into their own hands including directly reprimanding the other student, getting into conflict with the student’s parents or taking their story to the media – all of which risk making the situation much worse. If parents are not happy with the school’s response, they might also complain about the school to other parents, which damages the school’s reputation and may cause further problems down the track. Some parents resort to transferring their child out of the school, which may or may not be in the best interests of the child.

Apart from the risks of not managing parents’ complaints about bullying well, there is evidence that working with parents to address victimisation will achieve better results for students. A recent meta-analysis showed that school bullying interventions which actively involve parents are more effective (Ttofi & Farrington, 2010). Other research has found that warm, supportive parenting protects against victimisation (Lereya, Samara & Wolke, 2013) and provides a buffer against ongoing emotional distress caused by victimisation (Bowes et al., 2010). Parental coaching of social skills and support of children’s friendships affects children’s peer competence and acceptance by peers (McDowell & Parke, 2009). At the University of Queensland we have developed a program for families of children who are bullied at school called Resilience Triple P which teaches parents to support children’s peer skills and relationships and to work with the school to address bullying. The trial of this program found that students whose families participated in the program had significantly greater reductions in victimisation than control families who were relying mainly on school efforts alone to resolve the problems (Healy & Sanders, 2015). Schools are therefore likely to achieve better results for students when they work with parents concerned about bullying.

If the parent thinks there’s a problem, there’s a problem

So how can school staff work with parents who claim their child is being bullied at school? Firstly it’s important to understand that schools and parents have very different perspectives and priorities – but these can be complimentary in solving the problem. Teachers and principals are concerned with the safety and wellbeing of all students. Parents, on the other hand, are primarily concerned with the safety and wellbeing of their own child, and they are usually experts on this. If a parent says their child is distressed, then this is a concern. A large well-controlled study in the UK found that parents’ reports of their child being bullied at school predicted increased risk of ongoing mental health problems for children several years later (Arseneault et al, 2008). It is noteworthy that we don’t know whether the teachers of children involved in this study would have agreed with the parents’ conclusions about bullying: they weren’t asked. We do know, though, that if the parent says the child has been bullied, then the child is at-risk. It is therefore important, regardless of whether the school has evidence of bullying, and regardless of whether school staff agree with the assessment that the child is being bullied, that the school takes the parents concern seriously, investigates the issue further and seeks to improve the situation for that student.

Look past the emotional delivery to understand the issues
It is the parents’ job to advocate for their child, and there are few issues which make parents more defensive and emotional than their child being hurt or targeted. Unfortunately, school staff are usually first in the line of attack for an emotional parent. Parents may blame school staff for failing to keep their child safe, or sometimes school staff feel attacked simply because of the emotional delivery. Either way it is important to remember that emotionality comes with the territory: the parent is just trying to protect their child from danger. Most parents are able to calm down if they are listened to empathically without interruption. This means putting you own views on hold, even if you think the parent is mistaken. It also means agreeing with what you can. You don’t need to agree that the student is being bullied if you are not sure whether this is true. However you could still empathise with the child’s or parent’s distress. e.g. “I’m so sorry to hear that Sam is having such a hard time at school with others students. I didn’t realise and I appreciate your telling me.”

If you ask the right questions you can get a lot of useful information from the parent about what has been going on. You can find out what behaviour the student found distressing e.g. “Did Sam tell you exactly what the other students were doing that upset him?” You can also find out about the context (where, when, who, who else was present) and frequency of the problem. It is also useful to ask the parent what their child did before and after the problem. Although the parent may not know this information at the time, this might help them consider their own child’s behaviour as part of the relevant context. Giving the parent a chance to tell you what they know, before providing your information, will usually help the parent calm down enough to listen to you, and to work with your to devise a plan to solve the problem.

Avoid an argument about whether it’s bullying

All Australian schools have a school bullying policy, which specifically defines what bullying is and what bullying isn’t. This is very important as a guide for unacceptable behaviour, especially as bullying can take different forms: physical, verbal, technological and social, and may include behaviour which is very subtle. However many parents describe getting into arguments with school staff about whether behaviour constitutes bullying, according to the school bullying policy. It is not helpful to use the school bullying policy as grounds to dismiss parental concerns about their child. It is common for parents and school staff to have initially different views at first on whether behaviour is bullying. It is not necessary for parents and school staff to agree that the behaviour is bullying to be able to start working on the issue.

Sometime it is not clear until you start dealing with the problem whether it really is bullying or not. For instance, in the situation of name-calling, it is not a concern if the student does not mind being called that name. Although it may be hurtful, it is also not bullying if the perpetrator is not aware the other student does not like being called the name. In this instance we will not really know whether the perpetrator is bullying or not until we are sure they are aware that the name-calling is not acceptable to the recipient. If they continue with name-calling when they know it is hurtful, we might then conclude it is bullying.
If the parent believes the behaviour is bullying and you do not, it is also worthwhile considering the possibility that there may be some information that you do not have. Students are often very good at bullying when adults are not around, and very often school staff see what students want them to see. For instance teachers might see a student lashing out angrily and not realise that the outburst is a reaction to controlled, sustained, subtle provocation. Although teachers and school staff think they know when bullying is happening, research shows they only know a fraction of what goes on, and that students tell their parents more often than teachers (Fekkes, Pijpers, & Verloove-Vanhorick, 2005). If you do not have enough information about whether the behaviour is bullying or not, or you have a different opinion to the parent, it is worthwhile collecting more information. This will not stop you from starting to do something to address the issue. You can say something like “Look I’m very concerned that Jamie has been so unhappy at school, and I’m keen to find out more about what’s going on so we can improve things for him.”

If the parent insists it is bullying and demands a punishment, and you do not have enough information, simply say this to the parent. “Look I’m very concerned that Jamie is upset. We will investigate it immediately, and deal with any misbehaviour decisively according to our behaviour policy. In the meantime, let’s come up with a plan to keep Jamie safe at school.”

Give the parent information that may clarify the situation

Sometimes in listening to the parents’ concerns, it is apparent that there is some relevant information they are not aware of. For instance, the matter may have already been dealt with by yourself or someone else, but the family may not be aware of this. You may also know of something that the parent’s child did that may have exacerbated the situation. This is not unusual, and can be helpful for the parent to know. Regardless of whether the student did something to exacerbate the situation, it is worthwhile making a plan to prevent and manage further incidents.

Involve the parent in making a plan

Involving the parent in making a plan enables the parent to see that something is happening and can also encourage the parent to support the plan. The plan can include monitoring and strategies for the student, teachers and parent. Monitoring involves collecting information about the peer behaviour that is distressing for the student. Incidents of serious physical aggression are usually captured on school systems. However information about minor physical incidents, verbal or social behaviour affecting a particular student are unlikely to already be represented on school data systems. Teachers can keep a record of incidents they are aware of. Parents are also in an excellent position to keep a record by checking with their child at the end of the day. Records will usually include exactly what happened, the context (including what happened beforehand) and how the student responded. Parents can balance this by first asking the child some good things that happened in their day, then asking if there were any concerns.

For issues in which the student is in physical danger, keeping them safe is the immediate priority. This might mean ensure the student avoids situations that may be dangerous until school staff are confident the issues have been resolved. For instance if the student has been threatened with physical aggression, they might avoid walking home alone until the situation has been dealt with. Sometimes keeping a student safe involves educating the parent and student about how the student’s own behaviour might provoke the situation. To avoid defensiveness on the part of the parent, this can be done by using questions “When Jamie threatens the other boy back, do you think that makes it better or worse?”

Any effective plan to address victimisation will need to involve the child’s teachers. In a high school setting, this involves communicating with all of the teachers who take classes in which the problem occurs. It is helpful if one staff member, such as the Form Class teacher, Year Coordinator or Special Education Teacher takes responsibility for communicating with the relevant teachers. Drawing the teachers’ attention to the behaviour of concern will help them notice, and respond to, incidents. If the behaviour occurs mainly in the playground, duty teachers may need to be informed. The coordinating teacher may be able to have a quiet talk to the other children involved. Techniques like the “Method of Shared Concern” provide a process for the teacher to address concerns through a series of low-key conversations with individual children involved (Rigby & Griffiths, 2009).

Plan to involve the student in learning skills to handle the situation themselves

It is important that the student has an opportunity to learn how to prevent problems, and to deal with the problems themselves. Having good friends at school is an important protective factor against bullying (Bollmer, Milich, Harris & Maras, 2005) and can also help students cope with emotional consequences of unkind behaviour of peers (Hodges, Boivin, Vitaro & Bukowski, 1999). So one proactive strategy is to check that the student has friends and something to do at lunchtime, or when the problems occur. Parents can help support friendships by allowing their child to catch up with school friends outside school hours and encouraging them to participate in extra-curricular activities offered at the school.

It is important to ensure that the student knows how to deal with minor incidents themselves. Very often children need coaching and practise to respond effectively to problem behaviours of peers. Parents can help children practice strategies. Staff like Guidance Counsellors or School Chaplains can work with students and parents to help them develop and practice effective strategies to address minor behaviour from peers. For instance, rather than lashing out emotionally in response to teasing, teenagers can learn just to shrug and give eye contact or to say “yeah whatever” in a neutral voice. Achieving calm body language often requires some practice.

It is reasonable for parents to expect the school to deliver consequences for serious behaviour

At some stage of tackling the issue, it may become apparent that there has been deliberate harmful behaviour perpetuated. This is usually easiest to prove when the behaviour is physical or there is a record such is sometimes the case with cyber-bullying. In these circumstances it is reasonable for a parent to expect that the school will deliver reasonable consequences. Even if cyber-bullying occurs outside school, if it involves relationships between students who attend the school, school staff are in an excellent position to help. It is the job of the school to keep the child safe, and part of this is delivering consequences. It is reasonable and important for a school to take into account a student’s cultural background, family circumstances and disabilities in determining an appropriate consequence. However, none of these reasons should prevent the school from imposing a reasonable consequence for serious harmful behaviour.
Plan a follow-up meeting to review progress

Sometimes plans work immediately, and a misunderstanding is resolved, or students taught more appropriate social behaviour. More often, plans need to be worked on over time, to successfully solve a problem involving students’ peer relationships. Although your initial plan may not succeed in solving the problem, it will probably help you better understand the nature of the challenge. It is important to plan a follow-up meeting with the parent and with the student (separately or together). This will enable you to find out if the initial concern has been dealt with, and whether there have been any new developments which require further action. It will also enable you to communicate with the parent what the school has done to address the issue. Very often parents assume that if they hear nothing from the school, nothing has been done. Equally often, school staff assume that if they hear nothing more from a parent, the issue is sorted. Neither of these assumptions is necessarily true. Communication, and working together, is central to resolving parents’ concerns about bullying.


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About the Author

Karyn L. Healy is a psychologist with extensive practical experience in supporting schools, parents and students in preventing and addressing bullying, and resolving conflict. She worked as Principal Project Coordinator with Queensland Department of Education for many years leading a major initiative implementing conflict resolution in schools in South East Queensland, and through this role developed several whole-school programs and teaching resources to address bullying and promote social and emotional skills of students, staff and families. Karyn is co-author of the Resilience Triple P program which is an evidence-based family intervention for children chronically bullied at school. She has a Master’s degree in organisational psychology specialising in social consultancy, conflict resolution and group facilitation. She has a PhD in intervening with families of children bullied at school. Karyn is an Associate Editor with the Journal of Child and Family Studies. She has ongoing roles in staff wellbeing for Queensland Department of Education and in program development at the Parenting and Family Support Centre of The University of Queensland.

Disclosure Statement about Author’s Involvement in Resilience Triple P

The Triple P – Positive Parenting Program is developed and owned by The University of Queensland. The university, through its main technology transfer company Uniquest Pty Ltd, has licensed Triple P International (TPI) Pty Ltd to publish and disseminate Triple P worldwide. Royalties stemming from published Triple P resources are distributed to the Faculty of Health and Behavioural Sciences, School of Psychology, Parenting and Family Support Centre and contributory authors. Karyn L. Healy is a contributory author of Resilience Triple P and may in future receive royalties from TPI. TPI is a private company and no author has any share or ownership of it. TPI had no involvement in the writing of this report.

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