What constitutes bullying? Is it physical abuse? Verbal abuse? Silence? The difficulty in combating one of the oldest schoolroom problems is that bullying comes in various forms. There is no single definition, because a lot of bullying comes down to intention and perception. What might seem from the outside as harmless repartee, has the potential to impact a child’s long-term mental health if it is felt to be derogatory or excluding.
As a counsellor, I see first hand the damage it can do to a young person’s life. If left unchallenged, bullying can lead to self-harm, anxiety, depression, and in extreme cases, suicide. Dealing with it in schools is a mass undertaking and can feel daunting for staff who are already under pressure and over-stretched. However, if it’s handled appropriately, schools have the chance to make a huge difference, protecting vulnerable students and enhancing their life chances by making them more able to engage with school life. Only when schools are a safe space, can pupils relax, let down their guard and meet their full potential.
Working with young people affected by bullying
In my work at Mable Therapy’s children’s counselling service, I’m used to working with young people on both sides of the problem – the ‘victims’ and the ‘bullies’ (although I’ll talk more about those labels later). While some of the specifics may change depending on which one I’m working with, a lot of the themes are surprisingly similar:
There’s a good chance that both the perpetrator and their victim have low self-esteem. Young people brimming with self-confidence are less likely to be bullied as they lack the vulnerability that makes for an easy target. The person bullying is even more likely to lack self-esteem, the act of belittling those weaker than us is a classic move when we’re feeling down on ourselves. Perhaps the perpetrator has a difficult homelife, struggles academically or lacks social skills. Whatever the reason, they’re exerting their power over a weaker person to get validation from their peers, gaining either their approval or fear.
In the counselling room, promoting self-esteem is vital. When I’m working with a young person I do this by giving them my undivided attention, showing empathy and validating their feelings. Real change can often take a while, but as the trust builds and they begin to feel valued by me, they become more open to the idea that they have value in the outside world too. Only when they believe this, can they see a different path for themselves. Either as someone who doesn’t deserve to be bullied, or as someone who doesn’t need to intimidate others to get approval.
If self-esteem is about having belief in yourself, resilience is about having belief in the wider world. It’s having the optimism to know that difficulties can be overcome and hard times are temporary, so when we’re faced with challenges we’ve got the motivation to take them on. Resilience can be hard for the victims of bullying. To them the world is not a safe space, so why should they feel optimistic? This is why counselling can never be used to teach people how to cope with abuse or injustice. If the bullying is not being dealt with then it’s impossible to help them see beyond it.
For both the bully and the perpetrator, becoming more resilient is often about ‘reframing’ the problem, something counsellors are constantly helping their clients to do. We may lack resilience because we believe that we’re always getting things wrong, that nobody likes us and there’s nothing we can do about it. Counsellors will challenge these certainties and help the young person see the negative thought traps they’re creating. Once they start reframing their thoughts, they’re more likely to have the resilience to stand up to bullies or see an alternative option to using their fists.
I’ve worked with some schools that question the idea of making bullies more assertive. Assertiveness should not be confused with aggression, in fact it’s quite the opposite. It’s about engaging the rational part of your brain and communicating your needs clearly. Perhaps someone is bullying because they want approval from their peers. In counselling we’ll explore what they’re really trying to say with those actions. If they’re seeking friendship, perhaps they could simply ask the group if they can join them.
With the victims of bullying, the benefits of assertiveness are easier to understand. I may role play with a child how it would feel to take control of a situation, maybe by standing up for themselves or seeking help. By testing it out in a safe space, it feels more achievable in the outside world.
How can teachers help?
You may be thinking ‘well that’s easy enough in the therapy room, but try doing that when you have a class of 30’. It’s not easy. When I was a teacher I found it impossible to meet the mental health needs of all my pupils and give them all the validation that each person needed. There are, however, a few things that teachers can do to tackle bullying and improve their pupils’ wellbeing:
Psycho-educate the pupils
An interesting task can be to ask a class of children what a bully looks like, sounds like and acts like. Many will paint a picture of an oversized brute with big muscles and tiny intellect, giving black eyes and stealing lunch money. The portrayals we’ve seen for decades in movies and television often feed into this idea, creating a stereotypical ‘bully’ that can be listed alongside Cruella DeVil or Captain Hook as a mythical villain.
While this helps to spread the message that bullying is wrong, it makes it harder for a child to imagine that one of their friends – who has many nice qualities – could be a bully. Even harder to imagine that their own actions could fall into such villainous realms. In reality bullying behaviour is on a spectrum. If we’re unkind to someone, maybe we’re having a bad day. If we keep being unkind to that same person, this could be considered bullying. By psycho-educating them in this way, we help students to see that being ‘a bully’ is not a fixed state. Similarly, using the phrase ‘acting like a bully’ and ‘being victimised’ rather than the labels ‘bully’ and ‘victim’ will help students see that it’s not a permanent characteristic.
Involve pupils in the solution
If the pupils have been educated on what motivates bullying behaviour, they’re more likely to report incidents. This is because they’ll understand that they’re not only helping the victim, but the bully as well. However, they’ll only do so if they have faith in the school’s anti-bullying policy. This is especially important with the rise of cyber-bullying. It can be impossible for teachers to monitor what is happening online and out of school, so they’re more reliant than ever on the eyes and ears of their pupils.
A great way to get young people onside is by giving them ownership. Anti-bullying projects and campaigns will get pupils passionate on the subject. A report box in the classroom is also a great way to encourage pupils to anonymously pass on their concerns, without the fear of recrimination. On a wider school level, the formation of school councils – with elected pupils working with staff on policy decisions – will make students more likely to engage with the bullying problem.
Deal with incidents firmly and fairly
As a teacher I always felt a slight sense of panic when dealing with bullying. The balance between being seen to ‘come down hard’ so the victim felt supported, while still trying to help – rather than demonise – the perpetrator was exhausting. The ways school staff communicate in these moments is vital. When dealing with the victim, we need to give them the space to talk about what’s happened, without being interrupted or having their perception challenged. With the person bullying they also need this space to talk and feel heard. When talking to them, it’s important we talk about their actions and not them. For example, telling them we’re shocked they used such cruel words, rather than saying we’re shocked at how cruel they are, will help them view their actions as uncharacteristic. This will make them feel less ostracised and more empowered to choose different behaviour in future.
Any disciplinary approach which involves shame or ridicule will not eliminate bullying – it will fuel poor self-esteem and low resilience, leading to more incidents of bullying. More and more schools are using restorative justice approaches to deal with conflicts, and when there’s appropriate training in place, it can be incredibly powerful. By working in this solution-focused way, everyone feels heard and understood and the agreed sanction (which is required if the victim is to get justice), will be perceived by all involved parties as firm but fair.
The whole-school responsibility
While It’s important that school staff respond appropriately to bullying, it will never be eradicated unless there’s a whole school approach, led by SLT. There’s three key strategies to tackling bullying in schools. The first is to understand the scale of the problem, the second is to write an effective policy and the third is to ensure the whole school community is on board.
Understand the scale of the problem
Only by knowing the extent of their problem can a school successfully eliminate bullying. A proactive investigation is needed before an effective policy can be created and there are various ways to do this. None are infallible, but together they create what is considered to be a fairly accurate picture:
- Self-report – This is data gathered anonymously through a questionnaire or online survey, such as the Health Behaviour of School-Aged Children Survey (HBSC). It asks children about their own bullying experiences, including whether they’ve been bullied, or whether they have partaken in bullying.
- Peer nominations – This is the process of discussing bullying with children and asking them who they perceive as being bullied in their class and which children they consider to be bullies.
- Teacher nomination – Thought to be the most valuable method for gathering data in the younger age groups, teacher nomination is based upon classroom observations. The obvious flaw with this methodology is that most bullying happens away from the teacher’s watchful eye.
- Parent and carer nomination – Parent and carer nomination is necessarily limited, but it can provide in-depth insight on the individual level.
An effective anti-bullying policy
Once the scale of the problem is understood, a proactive anti-bullying policy can be created. It needs to be a functional framework; teaching staff how to respond to bullying incidents, put in place preventative measures, and provide pupil support where needed.
The policy should include a commitment to CPD for all staff. It’s important that SLT and those dealing with bullying incidents are trained in restorative practice, or whichever approach the school is taking. However, it’s equally important to train supportstaff in how to deal with incidents in a constructive way. Lunchtime supervisors should be first in the queue for this training, as they are most likely to be on the frontline when it comes to tackling incidents.
Involve the the whole school community
Alongside lunchtime supervisors, the others most likely to witness bullying are the parents, pupils and the local community, so it’s vital that they are on board with the school’s approach. It can be hard engaging parents, but educating them on the warning signs (particularly of cyber-bullying, which is more likely to happen in the home) can be key to getting the issue under control. As with the pupils, they need to have faith that the school will deal with bullying effectively if they’re going to report it, so it’s important that they know the school’s anti-bullying policy.
People in the community are also the eyes and ears of the school and many bullying incidents come to light because they’re reported by local residents or business-owners. By building a relationship with these people, it makes everyone feel they’re a part of solving the problem.
Bullying can have a lifelong effect on a child’s mental health. By the time they’ve reached the counselling room, the psychological damage can run so deep it can feel impossible to overcome. Combating the problem proactively begins with recognising bullying in the classroom and supporting the most vulnerable children, helping them to build their self-esteem, resilience and assertiveness. It needs a whole school community approach to tackle the problem. With SLT, staff, pupils and parents all feeling that they play a part in dealing with bullying. Only then does a school have a chance at eradicating it for good.
- In 2019, the Ditch the Label Annual Bullying Survey found that 45% of pupils had been bullied once a month or more, and 31%, once a week or more.
- In 2018, the HBSC produced figures stating that around 14% of children had been bullied, and 4% had taken part in bullying others at least twice in the previous two-month period.
- In 2017, Public Health England reported that about 18% of 11 to 15-year olds related to being cyber bullied in the previous two months.