Beating the bullies


  Beating the bullies

The effects of bullying can be profound and  even fatal. In this article Kidscape underline the extent of the problem and provide advice to schools on how it might be successfully tackled.


On many days, first thing in the morning, you’ll see a parade of children coming to a small office in central London. Travelling from Scotland, Wales, all corners of the UK, many are stoop -shouldered, clinging to a parent’s hand, eyes down. Some have long sleeves no matter the weather, trying to hide the marks of their self-harming. One might be disabled, another with learning challenges, another unable to sit still.


Upstairs, the staff prepare for another ZAP, an innovative workshop that helps severely bullied children, almost half of whom have considered or attempted suicide, turn their situation around, as they block the bullies. Though many have been affected by bullying that ranks with criminal assault—arms broken, concussed by a punch, tossed down a flight of stairs—we are as concerned with the invisible scars. Too many spend these years of school, when they should be learning, experimenting, mastering the art of friendship, as withdrawn and fearful young people who may simply stop trying. They isolate themselves, fall into depression, and label themselves as failures for the rest of their lives.


This is the sort of damage that Kidscape was set up to avoid. Twenty-five years ago, at Kidscape’s birth, attitudes towards bullying were off-hand—it was deemed part of childhood, maybe even good for a child to be roughed up a bit. Now we know that this is no trivial matter, that learning how to handle those who want to intimidate you is a vital part of growing up, and that a school where bullying is entrenched is bad for staff, students, even the bullies.


 The children we meet are 8-15 years old for the most part—and they report that much of what any of us experienced or remembered is still prevalent. The playground and the toilets remain places where violence can occur, aggressive groups and gangs can still range unnoticed by adults—every bully needs his followers and bystanders, who may not participate, but provide the audience. Children dubbed “different” still draw the bullies—that may be a physical difference, like red hair, or someone who’s a slow-learner or  academically talented. Bullies like to bring successful children down, but they also pick on the most vulnerable: young carers, children on the autism spectrum, even children who are being treated for cancer or with a dying parent.  

How does bullying occur?

Certain ages mean bullying may crop out. Girls at 7-8 may form impenetrable groups that exclude; by the time they are 10 and up, social bullying is subtle to onlookers but rules every moment for the targeted girl, who is taunted, excluded, duped. Boys can be more direct—and often physical. All kinds of  bullies we’ve interviewed say they can tell in a minute who might be an easy target; they’ll then try a few small attacks—the “wrong”    reaction—crying, blushing, an inability to meet a gaze, body language—and the bully knows there’s someone ripe for the picking. Many bullies were once bullied, which makes them particularly knowledgeable about what works.


Today, however, brings new technology, and new attitudes, that lead to increased opportunities for bullying. Real violence seems on the rise—and girls, too, are apt to physically attack, rather than rely on cutting language. Technology has brought extraordinary opportunities for round the clock abuse. Mobile phones are useful—but not when a child is targeted with hundreds of texts advising that he go kill himself. The internet is wonderful, but susceptible to severe misuse. Websites are set up just to target a young person, with hateful taunts and promised violence. Social networking sites have been the focus of some of the most insidious bullying. There, young people can create groups who make others miserable as the language and accusations strike at their core—in front of an invisible but jeering audience who join in.


Bullying thrives on secrecy, and internet and mobile based bullying has the added thrill for the bully, and danger for the bullied, in being unprotected, capable of being used twenty-four hours a day, deeply personal, and easy to hide. A parent who thinks a child is happily enjoying a game on the computer in his bedroom would be shocked to see a full-scale attack from virtually unknown schoolmates—anonymity leads to even harsher behaviour—and bullied children, who often blame themselves for their misfortunes, are even less likely to tell a parent about such incidents, and invite a parent into what had seemed a private world. Bullied children are very secretive, worried about what parents or school might do—a miserable situation that is known can seem more liveable with than the unknowns that might occur after informing. Depression and lack of self-esteem means they lack the will.


What schools can do

Kidscape works with schools to help them establish a climate where bullying is discouraged. We know it takes an entire community working together—teachers, heads, staff, parents, students—to make sure that the school is no place for bullying. A good anti-bullying statement which is worked out by students and staff is the starting point, outlining actions and consequences. (We have never advocated the no-blame approach; we have worked with many bullied children who come from such schools.)


From the very beginning of school life, an emphasis on friendship skills and classroom “rules”, drawn up with the whole class’s participation, can stem bullying. There are physical adaptations that will stop some bullying, such as structuring a playground to encourage different kinds of play, ensuring that no part of the school is unsupervised, especially in places like the toilet and changing room. Effective record keeping to track bullies is vital, as is cooperating with a child who should report attacks over a time period, to see where the patterns lie, in order to find solutions. There needs to be a way for children to communicate privately with adults, a sense that their privacy will be protected—secrecy fosters bullying, but many targets believe the bully who threatens great harm if they tell. We’ve found a box for suggestions, praise, as well as notes of alarm can be made a good part of the school’s procedures.


 And customs, too, can remove opportunities—mixing up the desks every week, rotating lunch partners can deter the cliques from ruling and may offer chances for new friendships. Circle time is effective from age 8, as a way for students to discuss issues they may be having. Helping children feel as if they have power to make things happen for themselves, and that no one deserves to be bullied are also good values. And schools are part of the responsibility that parents share, that children are taught how to stay safe while using all the new technology.


   Pupils will have their own good ideas—anti-bullying week in the autumn is a good time to start new projects and look for new goals. Launch a peer mentoring scheme in school, for instance, or have in-class discussions on such basic ideas as the harm secrecy can do.  If students feel a part of this community, and realize we all have a responsibility towards each other, and that there is a “telling” climate in school, they will be full participants. Bystanders may make the decision not to help the bully with their support and silence.


Do we think that all bullying can be stamped out? No-- but a united community can make it difficult for bullying to take hold—and would-be bullies would find help, rather than opportunity. There are many paths for schools, students, families that will make these years a time when the important lessons are learned, not those that aggression and power teach.


Kidscape offers a helpline for parents and carers, free ZAP workshops for bullied children, publications, DVDs, and training for professionals. Visit for a full list, as well as information.

July 2009



Every Child Update