Drawing the line at bullying

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The Key’s specialist researcher for pupil behaviour, Sarah Goodman, outlines how you can define and identify incidents of bullying. She gives examples of how you can try to support victims and make bullies aware of the consequences of their actions.

I remember being told that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me’. Growing up, you discover that simply isn’t true. Children can be cruel and the consequences of bullying can last for years.

Working in a school, it can be hard to distinguish between good-natured boisterousness and more worrying behaviour. How do you and your colleagues tell the difference between playful teasing and bullying? Children’s relationships can be every bit as complicated as those between adults so it’s important to understand what is going on in your classroom.

Defining bullying

According to the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), bullying is behaviour that ‘intentionally hurts another individual or group either physically or emotionally’. 

A one-off misunderstanding or an argument between friends needs to be distinguished from the sustained, deliberate bullying some children experience. The intention makes all the difference. Is the child being wound up on purpose? Is the behaviour vindictive? Does it involve picking on weaker or shy pupils?

At the same time, the victim’s feelings are very important. If they are upset, do you treat the incident as bullying, whatever the intention? Pupils need to be aware of the consequences of their actions; but accidents do happen.

It’s a fine line to tread, but one that teachers and support staff negotiate every day. The DCSF suggests involving the whole school community in devising your anti-bullying procedures. This helps to ensure that staff, pupils and parents are personally engaged in the process and later, in stamping out bullying.

Anti-bullying policies

Every school should have an anti-bullying policy. It will often be set out as part of a wider pupil discipline policy. Most start by defining bullying. The DCSF recommends getting the whole school community involved in agreeing your definition. In a primary school, this will need to be especially child-friendly and easily understood by even the youngest pupils. You could invite contributions in assembly or discuss friendships and bullying during circle time in class.

An agreed definition will help staff decide how to respond to behaviour incidents and when to implement anti-bullying procedures. From their involvement in helping to define bullying, children will be better equipped to recognise when they are being bullied or when they might be bullying someone else.

You can find examples of anti-bullying policies if you search online, or linked to on http://www .usethekey.org.uk.

Types of bullying

You might like to set out specific sanctions for pupils that tease or bully other children. Bottisham Community Primary School in Cambridgeshire differentiates between types of bullying. It considers low level bullying, like name calling, to be a serious matter. Measures include referral to a senior teacher; notifying the bullying pupil’s parents; ‘time out’ of class; or some kind of reparation. The school has a separate procedure for ‘irreconcilable friendship issues’.

Using this distinction relies on staff understanding pupils’ temperaments and relationships. It acknowledges that children will fall out, but that real bullying needs to be taken seriously.

No blame approaches

Other schools use a ‘no blame’ approach as the first port of call. Also known as the Support Group Method, this centres on an interactive session with the victim, the victim’s friends and the pupil doing the bullying.

Led by a trained member of staff, the discussion focuses on building empathy between students. The bully is not identified, and the victim is encouraged to assert themselves. The other pupils try to think of practical ways to support them.

Anti-bullying charity Kidscape isn’t keen on the ‘no blame’ method. It points out that, while it might work in less serious cases or where the bully and victim used to be friends, it assumes that the bully wants to stop bullying. Other critics suggest that this kind of group discussion might humiliate the victim and empower the bully by giving them ‘useful’ information on the victim’s ordeal.

Some schools argue that ‘restorative justice’ has a part to play in preventing low level bullying. This allows both parties to discuss their feelings about the bullying incident with a peer or staff mediator present or in more serious cases, in front of senior members of staff. It is meant to be a chance for the bully to understand the impact of their behaviour on the victim, and offer closure for both.

Charity Bullying UK calls restorative justice a ’no-blame bullying policy by another name‘. They remark:  “Sadly, bullies don't always have a better nature and don't want to make amends”.

Use of data

You can use data to monitor the effectiveness of anti-bullying strategies. Currently, the DCSF recommends that schools record all bullying incidents and report this data to their local authority. The government intends to make reporting incidents of bullying a statutory duty early next year.  The data can also contribute to your self-evaluation and to achieving National Healthy Schools Status.

However, it can be difficult to get bullied children to come forward in the first place, and bystanders who witness bullying can also be too scared to report an incident.
The DCSF’s Teachernet website suggests a range of confidential reporting systems. You could set up a ‘help me’ or bully box for pupils to post notes into. You could use a contact form on the school website or set up an email address to which children can send messages.

What about stationing ‘befrienders’ or ‘buddies’ at the same location every day, so pupils always have someone friendly to talk to? You might initiate a peer mentoring system. This is one way to boost younger pupils’ confidence and motivation.

Teachernet stresses that reporting systems work best when everyone understands the process and what action to expect in response. Pupils and parents are more likely to report their concerns if they are confident that they will be dealt with promptly and that they will be kept up to date with progress.

Know your pupils

Whether or not you adopt any or all of these measures, you will always be challenged to make tricky decisions - often within highly tense situations. A good knowledge of your pupils, their relationships and personal challenges will be the best foundation for making the right call.

Tips for tackling low level bullying:

  • Involve the whole school in creating a definition of bullying
  • Make sure staff, pupils and parents know about and understand your anti-bullying policy
  • Consider how you help resolve arguments between friends
  • Review the effectiveness of your current practice using data about bullying incidents
  • Establish easy ways for children and parents to report any concerns about bullying

The Key is a national information and guidance service for school leaders in maintained schools in England. Subscribe to The Key and receive tailor-made practical answers to questions on bullying or any other aspect of running your school. http://www .usethekey.org.uk

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