Dealing with Childhood Bullying

Sadly, bullying seems to be more commonplace in our schools, with increasing numbers of incidents reported in the media.

Dan Olweus, creator of the renowned Olweus Bullying Prevention Programme  (Norway) defines bullying in his book, Bullying at School: What We Know and What We Can Do:

“A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself.”

Bullying can take many forms, both direct and indirect. Some of the common recognized forms are:

  1. Verbal bullying, eg taunts, derogatory comments
  2. Physical bullying, eg hitting, punching, kicking.
  3. Relational bullying – damaging to one’s self-esteem, for example by social exclusion, rumour spreading.
  4. Cyber-bullying, using social media, texts or the internet as a means to bully.

Dr Olweus states that there are 3 main reasons why students bully:

1. They have a strong need for power and dominance.
2. They find satisfaction in causing injury and suffering to other students.
3. They are often rewarded in some way for their behavior with material or psychological reward.

In the US, states that up to 1 in 3 students has been bullied at some point. Locally, Mala Ramdass et al in the 2017 paper Addressing Bullying in Schools – A study of selected primary schools in Trinidad and Tobago, suggested that social, verbal and physical forms of bullying are perceived to be more prevalent in local schools, with varying degrees of support available.

It has been heartening to see local initiatives like the recent implementation of the revised National School Code of Conduct in 2018, resources like ChildLine, and prominent public-private partnerships driving Safe School initiatives and antibullying campaigns. However, bullying in schools is an issue that ultimately has far-reaching consequences. A comprehensive approach that engages all parties and aims to tackle root causes as well as the effects of bullying is needed.

If school bullying is not managed effectively, it can adversely affect student motivation and achievement. UNESCO (International Symposium on school violence and bullying: from Evidence to Action, global status report 2017) stated that children exposed to bullying can experience both immediate and long term adverse effects. For example, school violence and bullying can affect health and well-being, causing physical effects like abdominal pains, headaches and difficulty eating or sleeping. Physical bullying can also cause significant injuries. Those who are bullied are also more likely to experience interpersonal difficulties, to be depressed, lonely or anxious, to have low self-esteem and to have suicidal thoughts.

The educational  and socio-economic impact on victims of school violence and bullying is also significant. Young people who are bullied, and bystanders, may be afraid to go to school and this may interfere with their ability to concentrate in class or participate in school activities. This negatively impacts on academic achievement and future employment prospects.

Evidence shows that a comprehensive approach that focuses on transforming the culture of schools, taking a strong stance against violence and supporting teachers to use alternative ways of disciplining children and managing the classroom have proven to be particularly effective.

For example, the Olweus programme and highlight established evidence-based approaches to dealing with bullying. They emphasise that it requires partnership, strong leadership and long-term commitment. The key approaches are:

  1. Focus on the whole school environment. It’s important to address the culture of the whole school, creating a sense of empathy, community and caring.
  2. Assess bullying at school. Students should be able to report incidents safely and confidentially, and can also be surveyed anonymously.
  3. Form a group to coordinate and maintain ongoing bullying prevention activities. This group should receive comprehensive training tailored to their school’s needs, and meet regularly.
  4. Train all staff in bullying prevention. Ideally staff should be trained in how to identify bullying and its effects, and practise how to intervene.
  5. Establish and enforce school rules and policies related to bullying. For example, the school’s ethos can be reflected in statements like: ‘We will not bully others’, or ‘ We will include anyone who feels left out.’
  6. Let young people have a say. Involve youth in regular discussions about bullying.
  7. Increase adult supervision in locations where bullying is identified to occur. This could be in the form of monitors to complement teachers during break periods and outside of school hours.
  8. Intervene consistently and appropriately in bullying situations. Ideally staff should be prepared to intervene both on the spot but also with follow-up focused intervention as needed (eg practising assertiveness). Additional focused responses may include a safety plan, family or school intervention.
  9. Involve parents, keeping lines of communication open between parents and the school.

Lastly, dealing with bullying comprehensively requires sustained collaborative effort, ideally with a range of stakeholders (eg TTUTA, Ministry of Education,  the National Parent Teachers Association, student representatives, national school principals associations, ChildLine, school psychologists, and social workers to name a few).  It’s important not to give up, and continue efforts over time.

 Useful resources: