Bullying within the school context has gained much recognition and response over the last decade. As teachers, parents and students have become more aware of the nature and definition of bullying, namely, repeated aggression that is intended to cause harm, distress and/or fear to another in a position of less power, there has been a call for a greater response from schools and the wider community to address this serious and pervasive issue.
Australian research suggests that one in four children will experience bullying at some time in the schooling, with the transition years between primary and high school seeing the highest incidences of bullying. While we know the pathways to bullying behaviour can be complex and varied, there are a number of factors, which addressed in the early years of a child’s schooling, can help minimise the incidences of bullying within a school and build children’s resilience in the face of difficult and aggressive peer interactions. Interestingly, longitudinal research is showing us that behaviours such as aggression and dominance in a child’s early years can develop into serious and persistent bullying behaviour as the child grows and points to the necessity of early intervention and skills training for children in their preschool and primary school years.
Sense of connectedness
One of the most significant factors which is common to children that both bully and fall victim to bullying, is a reported lack of significant connection and positive feelings towards their school, teachers and peers. Having meaningful and supportive relationships with others in the school appears to build children’s resilience and ability to cope, even when difficulties occur within their school-based relationships. Interestingly, children at the Quirky Kid Clinic most commonly talk about a significant teacher when asked about what they enjoy at school, rather than a favourite subject. It is the relationship and positive experiences derived from the relationship that children derive most value from. Schools need to consider how to develop children’s sense of connectedness to their school, whether it be through fostering child-teacher mentoring relationships, shared child-teacher projects or peer-led initiatives within the school.
Friendships play an integral part in bullying experiences. We know that bullies derive reinforcement through onlookers who do not act to stop their bullying behaviour and that children who have at least one meaningful, reciprocated friendship are less likely to be bullied. Selecting, making and maintaining friendships is a skill that needs to be modelled and supported in children, teaching them basic skills such as how to start a conversation through to more complex skills of managing peer conflict and using humour in peer relationships. Children at the Quirky Kid Clinic enjoy role playing friendship skills, giving them room to learn and test out how their friendship skills might play out, in a fun and safe environment. Helping children learn how to help their friends if they see they are being bullied is essential to promote bystander intervention, with strategies such as seeking a teachers support and telling the bully that they are being mean and need to stop, commonly used strategies at the Clinic.
Whole School environment
The most common answer given when children are asked why they bully, is that their peer was in some way different, whether it be in looks, in their family structure, sexaulity or cultural identity. In Australia, differences in cultural identity remains one of the most significant reasons children choose to bully another. Although the development of attitudes and beliefs is a very complex process, children’s attitudes towards cultural tolerance are very much shaped close to home via parents, peers and the media. Recent research suggests that one in ten Australians believe some races are naturally superior or inferior and advocate segregation.
Teachers’ attitudes in the classroom are also key. Having limited knowledge of the cultural details of students can result in a stereotypical view of students, which may then negatively influence teacher’s behavior and expectations of students. Because children’s attitudes develop and flourish from very early experiences, the kindergarten and primary school years are ideal focal points for addressing the cultural attitudes of children and reinforcing the importance of inclusion and acceptance.
Community members have indicated that schools are a top priority in terms of converting ideas into action. Positive outcomes have been found with the utilisation of projects within schools that celebrate and embrace cultural differences. Some suggestions for fostering an inclusive, positive, accepting attitudes in schools include:
Talking positively about people as a whole and including books and materials which contain pictures and stories of culturally and linguistically diverse people, people from a wide range of family structures and with different physical appearances, for example.
- Discussing difference and cultural diversity openly
- Embracing opportunities to engage with many diverse cultures and backgrounds, particularly from families within the school environment
- Improving professional development opportunities for teachers and staff, for example through the ‘School Days Project’ by Quirky Kid
- Actively participating in Harmony Day
In addition to promoting and encouraging the acceptance of diversity and difference within the school setting is also the necessity of promoting a safe and predictable environment for children. Children need to understand the rules and expectations in their environment and understand the predictable consequences of their behaviour. Keep expectations visible and accessible through discussion and practice and ensure consistency among the staff.
Address the individual child
Some children may need more focused and individual support to help them develop prosocial behaviour and positive coping strategies to manage difficult peer relationships. While children who bully and children who become victims to bullying may present with very different individual and familial characteristics, supporting these children with the development of their social skills appears to be a necessary area of intervention. The Best of Friends Program, developed by the Quirky Kid Clinic, addresses social skills in children and can be conducted in a school setting with children from 3-13 years. The Best of Friends Program is designed to support children in developing and integrating social skills important to developing positive and effective peer relationships, such as conversational, empathy building and conflict resolution skills.
What we know from the literature and our experiences at the Quirky Kid Clinic, is that if children do not have the skills and strategies to develop positive peer relationships, that they are more likely to engage in unhelpful conflict resolution skills such as violence, submission and emotional dysregulation which have been demonstrated to maintain conflict and bullying. Directing, modelling and practicing social skills is an important component in fostering positive relationships in the school environment.
NATIONAL SAFE SCHOOLS FRAMEWORK RESOURCE MANUAL 18 March 2011 www.safeschools.deewr.gov.au
Bradshaw C. P., Koth C. W., Thornton L. A., and Leaf P. J. (2009a) ‘Altering school climate through school-wide positive behavioural interventions and supports: Findings from a group randomized effectiveness trial’. Prevention Science, Vol.10, No.2, pp.100-115.
Bradshaw, C. P., Mitchell, M. M., & Leaf, P. J. (2009b). ‘Examining the effects of School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports on student outcomes: Results from a randomized controlled effectiveness trial in elementary schools’. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, Vol.12, No.3, pp.133-148
Bradshaw, C.P., Reinke, W.M., Brown, L. D., Bevans, K.B., & Leaf, P.J. (2008). ‘Implementation of school-wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) in elementary schools: Observations from a randomized trial’. Education & Treatment of Children, No. 31, 1-26.
Espelage, D. L. and Swearer, S. M. (2003) ‘Research on school bullying and victimization: What have we learned and where do we go from here?’ School Psychology Review, Vol.32, No.2, pp.365-383.
Farrington, D.P. and Ttofi, M.M. (2009); School-based programs to reduce bullying and victimization. Campbell Systematic Reviews, No.6
Ferguson, C. J., Miguel, C. S., Kilburn, J. C. and Sanchez, P. (2007) ‘The effectiveness of school based anti-bullying programs’. Criminal Justice Review, Vol.32, 401 – 414.