Defeating bullying one child at a time
With tomorrow being the ‘National day of action against bullying and violence’, it is appropriate to take a look at the causes of bullying and the possible ways to take action that will bring real results.
The fight against bullying will not be won in the media, but at ground level where a cultural shift is needed.
School chaplains have a unique vantage point from which to view the effects of bullying in schoolyards. Our focus on pastoral care and the welfare of students puts us on the front line, supporting student victims and their families as well as helping bullies understand themselves and overcome their negative behaviour.
Across Australia, school chaplains have walked with students through their dark hours and helped them overcome the effects of bullying and regain their sense of self-worth and vigour for life.
Based on 2009 studies, 27 per cent of students in years four to nine are bullied regularly - let’s call it one in four students. That includes the traditional face-to-face physical bullying, but also the much more common verbal bullying (15 per cent) and cyber bullying (10 per cent). Intuitively, one might expect cyber bullying to increase with the ubiquitous use of texting and social media.
There’s no surprise about who is being bullied: students who are ‘different’ in some way; those new to a school; non-assertive or withdrawn children; those without a solid peer group; and those posing a threat to the social status of a bully. Some stages of schooling create greater risk than others, such as during transition years - particularly when moving from primary to high school, when social hierarchies are in flux and self-identity in a new environment is less certain.
What is surprising at first glance is how much the bully has in common with his or her target. Both feel unsafe at school. That is obvious for the bullied child, but the bully’s behaviour is often a reaction to his or her own hypersensitivity (“what are you looking at?”) or a sense their status is vulnerable and needs defending.
Both the bullied child and the frequent bully have an increased risk of depression. Some research suggests both groups are more likely to have suicidal thoughts.
Both groups also have lower academic achievement than could be expected in a world where the bullying behaviour is reduced. In part, this is because both groups are more likely to be absent from school and have negative attitudes towards school (perhaps for different reasons).
Those negative academic outcomes clearly impact the child’s potential after school, but the short and longer term negative psychological and social impacts of bullying are even more profound.
Although there are some things in common for the bully and the target of bullying, clearly there are some different outcomes too. Various studies demonstrate the increased likelihood for a bully to carry bullying behaviour forward to adulthood and to teach bullying to his or her children. They are also prone to excessive drinking and substance abuse, sexually or racially based aggression and various forms of criminality.
In later life, those who have been bullied are prone to lower self-esteem, higher anxiety, suicide attempts and feelings of vengefulness.
The humanitarian imperative to address bullying is obvious. Reducing bullying is one of the most important and achievable ways to lessen mental health impacts for children and adolescents.
The educational outcomes of a non-bullying culture are also well understood: a greater sense of safety and wellbeing means greater self-esteem and confidence, increased resilience and a greater ability to engage with peers, teachers and the subject matter of the curriculum.
Indeed, three of the seven general capabilities of the Australian curriculum are directed at developing skills that go towards addressing causes of bullying: ethical behaviour, personal and social competence and inter cultural understanding (the other four capabilities being literacy, numeracy, ICT competence and critical and creative thinking).
However, to succeed those elements need to form part of a developing culture of wellbeing in schools, beginning with school leadership and policy and ultimately implemented by teachers and the students themselves. The National Safe Schools Framework recognises this.
It also recognises that a well-resourced pastoral care team in schools is an essential element for anti-bullying success. Chaplains run a variety of programs that work proactively to build students’ self-esteem and strengthen their resilience. They also provide a safe place for students to confidentially discuss their fears and an avenue of referral to other care professionals.
The availability of school chaplains – with the support of parents and school communities – is only a step towards changing the bullying culture, but one of great importance that is bringing real results.
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