Bullying expert, Associate Professor Barbara Spears, discusses the challenges of addressing bullying in schools and the role of the wider community in influencing behavioural change.
Primary school settings are wonderful places where children’s friendships and peer relationships can and do flourish. However, when those friendships and relationships falter, the power balance within those social contracts changes, and children and young people can find themselves involved in a bullying situation, often before they realise it. Then again, there are those children who are constantly involved in bullying situations, and they bring different challenges to teachers and principals. The salient point here, is that bullying is a relationship problem, enacted in the social dynamic of peer relationships and through the social architecture of the school and community which surrounds those relationships.
Bullying, as we widely recognise, is a unique form of intentional, and repeated social aggression, which can take many forms: physical, verbal, relational/social and most recently, cyber/online. Addressing it is complex, yet like all behaviours, it is learned behaviour, so it stands to reason that it can be unlearned, that these negative, socially aggressive behaviours can be modified.
As adults pass by situations in the schoolyard, and ask what is happening, we often hear such responses as “we are only messing around” and “we are just kidding”. Both of these replies serve to deflect any seriousness of what might be happening between peers, and also serve to deny that what is happening is deliberate or intentionally hurtful, harmful or intimidating.
We recognise as adults that schools reflect the communities in which they are situated. If the immediate community is used to employing violence or managing conflict through various physically, verbally or socially aggressive strategies, then that is what will be learnt and practised at the school by the children and young people who live and socialise in that community. If however other strategies and approaches to dealing with conflict are modelled by significant others such as teachers, school leaders, parents and contemporary media and sporting idols, and alternatives explicitly taught, then there are opportunities for changing the climate of the school community and achieving associated reductions in bullying behaviours. This of course is not an easy task, but it raises the issue that if we are to successfully address bullying in school settings, then this cannot be done without the community involved. If schools are microcosms of the community around it, the school alone cannot be expected to fix the problem.
Whilst we know that we should be employing a whole school, tiered approach, what does that look like in reality? It means that as a base, schools should be offering universal education and information about bullying to the whole community, including clear processes for how it intends to address it in the primary school setting. It also means that in addition, some students may require slightly more specific, targeted information, resources or explicit teaching to help them to deal with any bullying behaviours or experiences they may be having as a victim of bullying. Finally, there will be a few who require tailored interventions to meet their unique needs, either as a child who bullies others, or as the one being victimised.
What is important here, is that there is not a homogenous group of children and young people who bully others. Some are known to consistently aggress at higher levels than others; some also desist over time in response to either a prevention or intervention employed, or due to personal development or maturation; and some engage in bullying others at a very low and inconsistent level. It is necessary to identify these students so as to tailor strategies to their individual behaviours.
There are some strategies however, which apply to everyone and which are deceptively simple as starting points for teachers and principals who want to start to change the culture or climate of the school, from one where bullying and aggression thrives, to one where it is challenged and reduced. Students often report that teachers do nothing about the low-level behaviours which underpin negativity and allow a culture of bullying to thrive. One of these strategies concerns eliminating two small words from the vocabularies of adults, children and young people at school: just and only. These two words effectively allow the individual to trivialise any behaviours with which they are aligned. By challenging the use of these words you are bringing the individual to account for their actions. If you suspect someone is being targeted or victimised, ask: Are you all laughing? Who is laughing? Who is having fun?
Another strategy is to consider the role power plays in the school setting, as power misuse and abuse is a fundamental construct associated with bullying. Those who bully are learning to use power aggressively and to control and distress others. Those who are victimised, become trapped in this abusive relationship.
There are several well recognised bases of power in any organisation or social structure and schools bestow positional power on some students, through their roles on councils or committees. Other students bring personal power to the setting, through their peer status. How is that power being exercised by that student? How are adults modelling their status and use of power? Reflecting on who has the power and how that power operates within and across the school setting is one way of drawing attention to the trajectories of power in all relationships: from school bullying, to dating violence, to domestic violence, sexual harassment, workplace harassment and elder abuse.
To finish, bullying is likely to be influenced by many factors: the individual, the peer dynamic, and the socio-cultural contexts of the community in which the school operates. Teachers and principals are constantly seeking new ways of addressing this complex relationship problem, but starting small is as effective as introducing a whole new array of interventions. Be conscious of the low-level behaviours which are often ignored. Eliminate the ‘justs’ and ‘onlys’ and hold everyone to account for their actions at this level. Reflect on who has the power and if/how that power is used or misused when trying to identify bullying behaviour, and recognise that there will be a small percentage of students who engage in constant, persistent negative behaviours which will require specific, targeted approaches – they are the ongoing challenges. Finally, schools alone cannot resolve this issue, and effecting change at the community level is the long game, so start small, with the little things you can do in your school setting, to impact on most students and staff, and change will begin.