The way schools react is important
The most effective thing that a school can do to reduce bullying is to have a policy outlining how the issue is raised within the curriculum, and how incidents are dealt with after they have happened i.e. the policy must acknowledge the need for both pro-active and re-active strategies. But no school has the answer to every problem, and no single method can be used to deal with all bullying incidents.
The way in which adults react to bullying contributes to the ethos of the school and can help to make it more or less likely that bullying will happen in future. Ignoring the problem encourages it to flourish. A heavy-handed approach can drive it underground. However, a positive, open response will encourage young people to speak up about matters that concern them and will improve the learning environment by promoting more caring and responsible patterns of behaviour.
How should schools react?
This will depend upon:
- The circumstances – always assess the true nature of an incident before applying any strategy. Group bullying or “mobbing” needs to be handled differently from problems created by an individual who persistently bullies others. Such a person’s bullying may be merely one manifestation of a plethora of problems.
The existing practices and resources of the school – for example, there is no
point trying to encourage a counselling approach if potential counsellors are not given the training, time and support needed to fulfil the task.
Which strategies are best?
Schools are getting better at dealing with bullying but it will be some time before a quick resolution of all incidents can be guaranteed. Sometimes all that is needed is a simple word or two from a teacher to make children realise that what they are doing is wrong. At the other extreme some bullying remains intractable. The development of new ideas continues and all it is possible to do at the moment is to list some of the strategies for which success has been claimed and to provide a few words of commentary on each.
- Punishments such as suspension or expulsion can mark the seriousness with which an episode of bullying is viewed and can also help to provide a safer environment for victims. It also has to be recognised that some types of bullying are crimes. Schools are subject to the law of the land so the possibility of punishment in response to very serious incidents cannot be denied. However, the great majority of bullying goes unpunished so some new ways of helping the thousands of hidden victims of bullying are needed.
- Assertive discipline – a method developed the United States which involves a rigid system of rewards and sanctions consistently applied by all teachers in a school. It is claimed that this method helps to motivate learning and to reduce the level of classroom indiscipline, but its effectiveness in coping with bullying is not clear.
- Bully boxes – a simple method whereby youngsters can put their concerns on paper and post them in a “bully box”. What happens to these notes is the key to the success or failure of this technique. Can genuine comments be distinguished from frivolous or malicious ones?
- Bully courts – the idea that young people should play a part in making school rules and in deciding what should happen to those who break them is not new. Some progressive schools introduced councils to do this over fifty years ago. More recently a few schools have tried to establish courts or councils solely to deal with cases of bullying. However, the principle that young people should sit in judgement on their peers, and punish wrongdoers remains controversial. What is clear is that adults must play an active and guiding role in such proceedings in order to protect the welfare of all the young people involved.
- Counselling – a teacher or another adult may have the skills and time to offer support to young people involved in bullying. Both bullies and victims can benefit from this process. The main problems are that it is time consuming, the youngsters must take part voluntarily and there is a lack of trained counsellors in schools.
- Mediation – some schools have introduced schemes where two parties to a relationship problem agree that a third person, who may be either an adult or another young person, helps to negotiate a solution. This seems to be helpful in many situations, especially where there is not too large an imbalance of power between the protagonists – but not in all cases of bullying. A bully may refuse to take part because he or she has no interest in ending the bullying. A victim may feel that a negotiated solution is not appropriate when it is the other person who is entirely in the wrong.
- Peer counselling – a small number of secondary schools have used older teenagers as peer counsellors. Good training and continuing support is vital if these young volunteers are to be able to help victims who may be quite seriously distressed.
- The ‘no blame’ approach – a step by step technique which allows early intervention because it does not require that anyone should be proved to be at fault. A group of young people, which includes bystanders as well as possible bullies, is made aware of a victim’s distress and is asked to suggest solutions. This approach is particularly useful in dealing with group bullying and name-calling, when it may be difficult to use more traditional remedies.
- The ‘shared concern’ method – a Swedish technique which has much in common with the “No blame” approach, although it has not been widely used in Britain, perhaps because it is more elaborate and time consuming. Both of these methods have been criticised for failing to allocate blame but both aim to encourage bullies to accept responsibility for their actions as well as bringing the bullying to an end.
- “Solution focused approaches” share much of the philosophy of the previous two strategies but can be applied to problems other than bullying. This is helpful because the task of finding out the facts of an incident and then of making a judgement about whether it should be called bullying or not is sometimes impossible. Relationship problems amongst a group of children can be very complicated indeed. They can also be very damaging to the personal development and education of some of the individuals involved. Being able to intervene without wasting too much time trying to untangle emotional knots has obvious attractions for busy teachers.
- Reporting systems – it is most important that schools should have efficient ways of recording reports of serious bullying so that a check can be kept of patterns of behaviour. This can also help to ensure that incidents are not overlooked.
- “Safe rooms” have been set up in some schools at break and lunch times as a refuge for bullied children. Although this may provide safety in the short term, it could have the effect of making the rest of the school seem even more hostile to the children who use it.
- Telephone help lines – services such as ChildLine provide valuable support to children who are afraid to speak out about bullying. However, the fact that they exist is a signal that some schools are failing to provide conditions in which children are able to discuss their problems openly. One or two schools have set up their own internal help lines in an attempt to increase the opportunities for worried children to seek help.