The serious effects of bullying on our children’s mental health are well documented in research and are being taken more seriously - the most recent ‘Keeping Children Safe in Education’ document states that schools are expected to have policies and procedures in place to prevent bullying. While some instances of aggression meet the threshold for safeguarding concerns, many children tell us that everyday nasty behaviours get them down (for instance, when other children in school leave them out, call them names or tease them). It can be easy to overlook the fact that when these behaviours are repeated, they clearly meet the definition of bullying.
Bullying refers to intentional behaviours that are hurtful or harmful to another person, are repeated over time and where there is a power imbalance, so it is difficult for the victim to defend themselves. The hurt or harm can be physical, psychological, financial - or it can be child’s relationships with others. Children who want to hurt other children may also use social media (so-called cyberbullying).
It is important to recognise that research suggests that most instances of bullying happen away from staff members, making it hard for caring adults to know it is happening and to act to get it to stop.
So what can we do as adults to put a stop to bullying?
In conversations about bullying, we often don’t recognise that the majority of the time other children are there (Craig et al., 2000). These children could be seen as a rich resource of people who could help… but other children only seem to intervene about a fifth of the time.
Hawkins et al. (2001) researched what happens during incidents of physical bullying and name-calling in primary aged children, reporting that onlookers spend about half their time watching what is happening and a fifth of their time copying the bullying behaviour. That’s about the same amount of time that they spend trying to stop the bullying behaviour!
Importantly, when children intervened to try and stop someone picking on someone else, the research found that they tended to use aggressive tactics themselves. This made it very hard for anyone who had not observed the whole thing to be sure what was going on. We can all think of situations that we have been involved in as children or as adults who are trying to help that take on this ‘he did, she did, no he did!’ quality. An important take-away from this research was that these attempts to intervene were successful about 2/3 of the time. So from this, you could conclude that standing up to a bully ‘just takes guts’ and the bully will instantly fold because they are secretly a coward - or alternatively, that ‘there’s no point, the bully always wins’. But none of these ideas seem to capture the complexity of what is going on. The observational studies suggest that if someone tries to stand up to the person being picked on, there is a risk it won’t work out, but also a good chance that acting will have a positive impact.
What does this mean for practice in schools?
Well, the idea of bystander intervention was taken seriously in Finland. Alongside asking children to seek out support from key adults in school, they developed an intervention that specifically taught all children how to recognise bullying and how to stand up for someone when they saw them being bullied. The approach in Britain is generally quite different. We teach the child being picked on to say they don’t like what the other person is doing or saying, and we encourage them to tell an adult.
Research into the KiVa programme suggests that it had a big impact on reducing bullying in Finland, and there is growing research that suggests it works in other countries too.
If you want to know more about how Learning & Wellbeing Psychology can help you develop effective anti-bullying policies as part of your whole-school approach to mental health and your safeguarding responsibilities, do get in touch via email@example.com, 0300 303 5197 or through booking a free 30 minute initial discussion.
Craig, W. M., Pepler, D. & Atlas, R. (2000). Observations of bullying in the playground and in the classroom, School Psychology International, 21, 22-26.
Hawkins, D. L., Pepler, D. J., Craig, W. M. (2001). Naturalistic Observations of Peer Interventions in Bullying, Social Development, 10, 512-527.