The Bully and the Bullied- how to fix bullying in our schools
When I went to school it probably wasn’t called bullying, or I don’t remember it being called that. There were times, more than one, where I was mean more than once and, by definition, a bully. I made peers feel bad, less than, awful and probably worse sometimes on an ongoing basis. It wasn’t until I left an unhappy high school life that I was able to breathe again and feel happier in myself and surprise surprise, treat others better. I also spoke to another girl I went to high school with who confronted me about my behaviour. It was not an easy conversation to have, for her or for I. One can only apologise for behaviour that they did when they were young, know better, do better.
Equally, I was bullied by others. Later in high school, this escalated into going to court, assault and stalking charges against the bullies in multiple situations. From memory, it was frightening to be bullied, overwhelming and it makes you feel like you have no control over your external environment. I was fairly volatile, smart-mouthed and reactionary, all fairly big red flags to being on both sides of the fence. And I offer both sides, not for compassion but to demonstrate that it is never as simple as finding the bully and stopping them, although this obviously needs to be a priority in the short game.
I look back and ask why I bullied others and it’s fairly simple. I precede this by being very clear, as an adult I am not excusing what happened. It was awful. I was awful, and if I could go back with my adult empathy and adult emotional intelligence it wouldn’t have happened. But it did, and I own that. I wasn’t bullied at home although I can see how this would be a behaviour learnt. One size never fits all when we are talking about individual children. I know I certainly didn’t feel great about myself, that is for sure. I remember that clearly.
I remember going from primary school captain to a new school and found within a couple of weeks I was the target of a very intelligent and violent bully. So maybe I learnt it from that first moment, possibly so. The school was no longer safe, I knew that for sure and it was difficult to talk about to anyone except when there was violence – which obviously was dealt with because it was hard for a school to avoid. I learnt later this bully had a pretty awful home life and, while affluent, was definitely far from stable and loved. I can see and forgive her now because I understand as a child how this would impact her inability to be kind and confident.
Here are some things I know for sure.
I was not feeling great about myself. And there might be a facade, the guise of niche peer popularity masking the complexity of something happening outside of school. My mum did work a lot (being a single mum, she needed to), but she was loving and supportive and wonderful. Even so, I went home to an empty house most days and it was hard to unload the burden of the situations I was dealing with at school. There just wasn’t time and I imagine today there is even less time for kids to just casually work that conversation into the night routine without making a big deal out of it. I know for my kids, it is the conversations I have when the light is out and I am kissing them goodnight and have time to linger for a quick lie down that I get the most insight but this is not always practical in most families. Families today have even more pressure to work outside the home, it is tricky to juggle everything and sometimes kids go to multiple houses, deal with complex family dynamics and often after school care is not equipped (but should be) with the resources to offer this sort of support.
Parents aren’t responsible, it is not that easy. It is an easy statement to make but blaming parents won’t actually help anyone. It really won’t. We all have ideas on what we should and shouldn’t do as parents, and ideas on the perfect work-life balance. Put your kids in team sports, be at home when they get home. It is just not that simple. I could list 100 situations where life complexities would impact on the emotional wellbeing of a child and none of them could be prevented by the parents. That said, there is a growing lack of support for young families, parents working sooner, less village, less community, more pressure. It is what it is.
I also know that parents who were bullies don’t talk about it, there is a lot of push online from adults to end bullying but no one seems to want to talk about when they were mean during their schooling years. The denial is to the point where in 7 years online I have never heard any other adult admit they were which either suggests all the high school bullies are not online or there is a deep-seated shame around it. There is also a lot of shaming online, shaming of bullies and equally a lot of parent shaming which I find astonishingly hypocritical. Our children can learn a lot from our learnings and it is important for both the bully and bullied to know they aren’t alone and that there is a future beyond this situation particularly once they attach a label to their situation. My household has a zero bullying policy to the point where my kids know that it is the worst possible thing they could ever do but if they do to talk to me about it. One child in particular who came from a place of low self esteem told of a story where he did something and another child was upset. I knew my child did it because it was the first time he had felt the feeling of belonging but equally it presented an opportunity to reinforce kindness and understanding how this could be the first step to bullying. Always keep the conversation open.
Fixing the bullying issue
I have some ideas around how to tackle bullying in the school grounds but the burden it places on teachers is possibly insurmountable and it really will have to start with taking some of the academic pressures away from teachers. Teachers will need more time to evaluate the social structures of their classrooms and possibly have training to identify kids with tricky home lives and complex life situations because often this is a big indicator. Equally, those bullied need more support, not just to deal with being bullied but to make sure they don’t internalise and use other situations to reflect back the way they have been made to feel onto another child.
What schools are doing well now
Talking about it
In my day bullying wasn’t talked about as much as it is now. The conversation is constant and worthy of being constant. It should, however, be tempered equally with conversations about self-esteem confidence, differences and changing the ideals of society around what is considered to be cool and valued. The school my kids attend have awards that can be given for anything but a lot of the time they are given around kindness and friendship and good deeds. This is brilliant.
Buddying up older and younger kids is a gold standard at schools and it is a brilliant way to help connect the community together and give older students a feeling of esteem and worth. I feel there could be value in offering feedback to the older students on how well they did, to offer positive validation in behaviours sitting the opposite to what a bully looks like and including this evaluation on their report card.
The idea of chairs being installed around schools for kids who need a friend is an awesome concept. I think it is unlikely to stop bullying by itself but they provide a strong visual tool, a constant reminder of the importance of being kind and being a friend. I wonder if kids without friends will feel strong enough to sit at these places, I don’t know about that yet. I would like to see teachers or counsellors sit there as a way to encourage lone students to approach for a chat. I see that as being a more practical way these could offer value but time will tell and I could be wrong. Either way, I think they are a great idea, and finally something more than just “talking about it”.
“You Can Sit With Me” Wristbands
Have you heard of this wonderful initiative that was born out of a desire to help children who feel isolated, alone or without a lunchtime friend to easily recognise those peers who are willing and want to reach out? Rather than being an easy target alone on a buddy chair, children who need a friend are able to clearly see other peers who are happy for them to join them by a wristband the child can nominate to wear. The simple words on it, You Can Sit With Me, is a simple invitation with no expectation or explanation required, just an understanding that you are welcome to do just that. It may not be the whole answer, but its a step in the right direction and is already proving to be successful in those schools who have adopted it.
Ideas to curb bullying
The friend system
I read about a teacher who would ask kids each week to write down who they wanted to sit next to the following week. They can pick 4 other students. She is able to identify a couple of things from this. Social structures, who is friends with who. Who never gets chosen and equally who always got chosen and suddenly doesn’t. The idea is not to share this information with the students but to use the information to identify problems in the class before it happens, students who might need more support of friendship scaffolding. This is BY FAR the best positive implementable activity I have ever heard. Its real, it actionable and it is even something that can be evaluated at the end of each term. It’s not too time-consuming for the teacher but they will need support to take students aside to talk to them as issues arise. You can read more about this teacher here http://nationswell.com/teacher-method-stop-bullying-momastery-glennon-doyle-melton/
Assess the school anti-bullying message
A mum at my school spoke to me about an idea that really made me think. Most of the anti-bullying campaigns suggest that when you are being bullied to take several actions and often this includes telling a friend. She was confused as to how this would help a child who already felt like they had no friends and equally placing the burden on another child ill-equipped emotionally to manage the situation seems like misplaced pressure.
Don’t shame the bullies
Little bullies grow into adult bullies unless they are built up to a place where they feel confident in themselves, loving who they are and those around them. There is no alternative to this approach as far as I can see. The short game is obviously to cease the behaviour happening and protect the victim. Full stop. However, the long game should always be to support the child who is displaying bullying traits as much as, if not more than, the bully as this approach can have positive impacts that span lifetimes and literally change generations. Remembering that this is a child, and intervention, education, support and counselling above all else is essential along with a priority of dealing with the seriousness of the situation while still protecting whatever self-esteem they have. Parents likely should be involved but not as a blame exercise but as a way to assess the entire family situation to allow teachers to get a real picture of what is happening and how they might support the child.
Validate the bullied
Let the bullied child understand what is happening but don’t give them specifics about the punishment. Children will never understand the complexity enough to feel like any punishment is worthy of the crime and this can lead to detachment and resentment. Support the bullied, check in on them often, let the parents know, keep an eye on their friendships within the class and playground to ensure they recover from the situation with esteem intact. Equally the parents need to be equipped with skills to support such recovery. Validate them, let them know what happened is never ok, but equally, don’t run into the classroom and make an awful one-on-one situation into a whole class situation unless it is necessary. This won’t help the situation and can lead to supporters of the bully taking over the role and the bullied feeling like a “dibadobber” and further disempowered. It is the difference between shaming and counselling.
The curriculum is packed and I know that, but maybe its time to look at the curriculum and see what no longer serves any value to our kids in the future. I don’t want to give my thoughts on what that is but I can see there are some traditional educational practices that could be removed to make way for a curriculum offering help with interpersonal relationships, resilience and everything else that goes along with growing up. I have no doubt that this would be of value every single year of school until the very end. As an example; resilience is misunderstood and flippantly offered as a solution to kids being bullied far too often when in truth it is a skill that would benefit all kids on all sides, of every type, for their whole life. And it is less about “water of a duck’s back” and more about “getting to know yourself and feeling strong in who you are”. Its complex and important and is one of the biggest indicators of life success and happiness but is valued less than algebra.
Teachers need training in helping to manage these situations. They are complex and they are frequent and it is essential our teachers are given the support to help all kids through their schooling. Teachers have a crucial role in being able to prevent and turn situations around for kids if only they are given the support and knowledge and space to do so. A friend of mine recently attended some management training and her comment afterwards was “I wish I knew now what I did then and I would have handled these situations so differently”. I know the burden is always on teachers, I know, it’s a job that should offer far more monetary compensation and social recognition that it does but there is no way around this. The idea that teachers are there just to teach our kids maths is just not true. It is true that their salaries and the value society often places on them suggests this is all they do but it is just not true and we need to not only accept this but pay and value and support them accordingly to allow them to participate fully as part of our village. They do their best, with the time and resources they have, but we don’t give them enough money, credit, space or time to do what we need them to do. Laughably we even suggest it’s not their job, and then reasonably so, teacher say they aren’t being paid to parent our kids. The fact is, teachers are valued by our kids in ways we never will be as parents and school communities provide a foundational societal structure that will play a part in shaping their personalities and outcomes in life.
Chappies and Counsellors
There is a lot of for and against the chappies in schools and I get the religious issues some parents have despite the immense value I see them offering in schools. If not chappies then there need to be counsellors and the government would do well to invest in this sort of school support for every single school. They need training, they need compassion, and it should be about seeking the right people to fit with both the students, teachers and parents even if the knowledge and training are provided after. The right person will be everything.
Their sole role at the school should be in supporting the teachers first and when possible the students and parents second. Right now they often focus on the students, which is fine and valuable but also a big ask for one person vs supporting teachers on complex situations that they need help with. The idea behind this would be that the teachers are all supported by the same person who in turn is offering consistent advice that is passed on. Equally, it means for the bully and the bullied even in the early stages of a situation, that escalation is avoided. This only works if the other idea I mentioned earlier is adopted and teachers are given more support. MORE MORE MORE! So much more its hard not to say it again MORE SUPPORT.
Teachers are obviously a big part of this conversation and it is impossible to emphasise enough the importance of their role in managing the social behaviours of the students. In my schooling, I had teachers who could make the most volatile class into a happily engaged community but it takes more than one, it takes them ALL. For example, It means protecting the kids that aren’t good at sport knowing that this will open them to possible ridicule. In my schooling, I remember kids being revered for their sporting talent in these classes and equally non-sporting kids by default being made to feel pretty ordinary about their lack of sporting ability. The “give it a go” approach is fine but this is always contradicted by a winner takes all mentality engrained in our culture.
There is an opportunity to educate parents at a school level, to offer triple P programs, though ideally there would be opportunities before kids start school. It’s a part of the equation that needs much thought, but pre natal classes, education and even family counselling and mediation could all play a part.
Then helping parents understand how to navigate social media instead of shaming parents about letting kids have phones. Teach them how to monitor their kids social media, why some apps are potentially dangerous and how to make them safer. Help them understand tricks teens might use to get around monitoring like having fake profiles as decoys and also common ways to tell if children are being bullied as they get older and less obvious. This section requires it’s own roadmap because its equally about parents working three jobs, and domestic violence and split families and new babies and mental health, poverty and social media pressure and so much more.
Social Media and bullying
Social Media is one of the most important landscapes for parents to understand but little is offered to them and yet it impacts kids and school communities everyday. So much of what allows bullying to escalate to a point where a child feels there is no way out is via social media. There is just no denying that. Even loving and attentive parents can’t know all of what happens once the bedroom door is shut and a child is left alone, in the dark, with just a mobile phone and a stream of hate. What a way to go to sleep at night. Parents can try to be vigilant with phones but the truth is kids don’t tell their parents everything. It’s embarrassing and hard for them to think we could understand. By eliminating the cause you won’t need to find so many solutions. I personally think social media is no place for anyone of school age. It’s just too open and they are just too immature / hormonal / emotional to deal with its negative side properly. That said, parents will still make this choice available for their children, and that’s ok, but many do so without being truly informed and understanding what can happen and that is can happen to their child. At least through education parents will know about the dangers of social media, what can happen, what public accounts mean, how predators can engage and how bullies can often passively aggressively infiltrate what should be a safe space.
Focussing on prevention and avoiding escalation should always be the focus. Starting as it is always expected to go on, with a zero tolerance for any level of self-depreciation or devaluing of another individual from day one, at any level. The prep years seem to have the right idea with a constant focus on social interactions. I know it gets harder to fit this in as school grades go up but the education department and government need to think bigger.
Anti-bullying resources for parents and teachers
- The Bullying. No Way! website for Australian schools is managed by the Safe and Supportive School Communities Working Group which has representatives from all states and territories, including the Catholic and independent schooling sectors. https://bullyingnoway.gov.au/
- Lifeline—phone 13 11 14
- Kids Helpline—phone 1800 551 800
- Parentline—phone 1300 301 300 for support, counselling and parent education
- Building Resilience by Maggie Dent
- commonsensemedia.org has information on social media platforms and advice and recommendations for parents. Instead of simply shaming and denying they show parents how they might make platforms safer if they choose to provide the children with access, also giving age recommendations and other tips. Very sensible website with easy to follow advice.