For the past several years, schools, colleges and other institutions have been marking National Anti-Bullying Week (the third week in November) with activities and events, aimed at raising awareness of bullying of children and young people. Bullying means children miss school, fail exams and drop out of sport and other extra curricular activities. It lowers self-esteem, damages motivation and enthusiasm and eventually destroys dreams and ambitions. In short, bullying ruins lives.
Every school has an anti-bullying policy and a good majority pride themselves on a zero tolerance approach, but results from survey after survey show that it is still an issue that most young people are personally aware of and encounter on a regular basis.
But why is bullying such an intractable issue in schools today, even after all the measures schools have taken to combat it? The problem is that there are so many reasons why children bully each other, and most of the time, the thought processes and the motivations behind the bullying are a lot more complex than we might expect. Bullies – as a group of people – have always been demonised and stereotyped. They are either cold hearted, psychopathic manipulators, or dim, thuggish and socially incompetent, and punishment is meted out accordingly, often without much thought towards a bully’s motivations. Of course, most children do not bully because they are psychopaths in the making, but because of some underlying problem or emotion, or perhaps even because of the social situation they’ve found themselves in.
In her article ’Relational aggression: The subtle art of bullying’, Deborah James suggests shaky parental relationships can sometimes be behind bullying. Neglect, overprotection or punitive parenting can lead to a child feeling trapped or helpless and yearning power. In a school environment too, children are under the authority of adults. A child who feels powerless and repressed may bully other children in an attempt to gain what they perceive to be power. Often, a bully is actually a highly intelligent child who has no outlet for these feelings except in bullying. To combat this kind of bullying, some schools have offered the bully – or a potential bully – responsibility, or an opportunity to use their skills in a positive way. Other schools involve children in making basic decisions perhaps getting them to draft out an anti-bullying policy, something suggested in the article ‘Empowering the bullied child: three case studies‘. Giving pupils a voice gives them an illusion of power and can help counter those feelings of oppression.
‘Relational aggression: The subtle art of bullying’ introduces a further motivation behind bullying – the reward of high status and popularity. Bullying can be used to establish social dominance in a group. This can be through physical aggression or through the subtler relational aggression, including social exclusion, eye rolling and spreading rumours. In Jon Sutton’s study on bullying psychology, ‘Bullies: Thugs or thinkers?’, he found that out of the five groups children can be divided into (bullies, followers, victims, defenders [those who stand up for the victim] and bystanders), the children that most fit into the category of ‘bullies’ were deemed the second most popular by other children – encouragingly, he adds, after defenders. Power and popularity, therefore, seem to have one of two effects on a child. Either the child feels secure enough in their popularity to stand up for weaker (or less popular) children who are being bullied or they are insecure and seek to maintain their popularity through bullying others.
In his article, Sutton goes on to say that to combat bullying for popularity, he ‘would be tempted to take the emphasis away from bullies and victims almost completely’ by involving the defenders, bystanders and followers. Instilling in all children that bullying is ‘uncool’ and that they need to speak out whenever they see it takes away the social aspect of a bullying situation, creating a positive peer pressure environment. The bully, on seeing that he/she has no supporters and is now considered ‘uncool’, will hopefully reconsider his/her actions and stop bullying. This peer support also serves another purpose – having other children stand up for them enhances a victim’s self esteem, which, considering bullies tend to pick on children with low self esteem, can be seen as a preventative measure.
The importance and effectiveness of peer support systems are clear themes across the articles linked below, and for a good reason. They seem to work. In fact, in ‘Using friends to combat bullying’, we learn that in the UK, over 50 per cent of primary and secondary schools are reported to have some kind of peer support system in place. One such school is Banwell Primary, whose story is available in ‘Empowering the bullied child: three case studies’. They established a ‘problem police’ – a group of older students who are trained to intervene in arguments between younger children in the playground – and now, more than 80 per cent of the disputes mediated by peers result in lasting agreements.