Combatting bullying in schools

by Tracey Burns and Andrew Macintyre
Directorate for Education and Skills

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me”. So goes the English nursery rhyme taught to children to console them if they have been called names, or teased by their friends or classmates. But no matter how often you repeat it as a child, it doesn’t really make you feel better. Why? Because it’s not true.

Being called names does hurt. A lot. So does being picked on, being pushed around, being excluded from groups – in short, being bullied. Bullying is not new – Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, wrote about it in 1847 and Tom Brown’s School Days (1857) brought the issue widespread attention. It has been the subject of countless  teenage coming of age books. And it regularly makes national headlines with stories of teens being pushed into desperate situations, even suicide, as a result of relentless bullying.

While bullying has been around for a long time, it has recently taken on a new form: cyber bullying. Cyber bullying includes many different forms of online bullying such as sending threatening emails, copying personal conversations and sending them to others, creating derogatory websites about a person or humiliating them repeatedly on social networks. A recent Trends Shaping Education Spotlight looked at this issue and found that estimates of the prevalence of cyber bullying vary widely but an EU-wide study indicates that on average, 6% to 9% of 16-year-olds report being bullied online.

So what can be done? First, it is important to emphasise that although cyber bullying is often represented in the media as something new, it is an extension of traditional face to face bullying. Certainly there are differences – for example, it can be especially hurtful because it can be witnessed by a much larger audience than face-to-face bullying, such as when pictures of a humiliating event or abuse are circulated and recirculated among an entire school or village. Cyber bullying is also not confined to school hours and can happen anywhere, anytime.

However these differences should not blind us to the similarities with face-to-face bullying in the damage it can cause. Bullying, in all of its forms, is no laughing matter. Bullies, motivated to enhance their status among their peers, bully in front of witnesses, whose approval (or at least tacit silence) is crucial. They tend to choose their victims from those who sit in the bottom line of the social ledger, those least able to fight back. And it works, both to raise the popularity of the bully and to hurt the victim: the research to date shows that victims of bullying do worse at school, tend to have lower self-esteem, and are more likely to attempt suicide – both during childhood and later on in life.

There is one interesting finding that also emerges from the research: the bully and victim roles can be interchangeable and related. Of the young internet users surveyed in the EU Kids Online Survey quoted above, only 4% of those who reported not bullying others had been the victim of cyber bullying themselves. For self-confessed online bullies, 47% reported being bullied in turn.

This finding is key. It shatters the myth that the bully is always an evil, swaggering strongman (or woman) who ruthlessly attacks the weaker, more vulnerable peer, so popular in comic books and superhero films. While this may be true in many circumstances, it is not uncommon that those who bully are also bullied, and vice versa. This is a useful reminder for us that the dynamics of human behaviour are complex, and not given to easy solutions. So what can be done?

Luckily, we know quite a bit about what can be done to fight bullying, both face-to-face and online. A recent systematic review of the literature has demonstrated that school-based anti-bullying programmes are often effective. The most successful interventions were in-depth work in parent trainings, improved playground supervision, use of disciplinary methods (both punitive and non-punitive), and work on classroom management and in teacher training. Programmes were also more effective when addressed to older children (age 11 or more). However, and this is important – one type of programme was associated with an increase in victimisation, and that was work with peers, for example peer mediation and peer mentoring.

These results and work on bullying more generally give policy makers a number of good options for addressing the issue in their schools and systems. Parents and teachers can and should intervene in suspect incidents. In all aspects of bullying an important role is played by the bystanders whom, by saying nothing, silently condone the practice. Schools can therefore take action both by raising awareness and by educating students and parents about their role and responsibility in its prevention. As Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace prize winner and South African inspiration put it: If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.

Trends Shaping Education
Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)
Related blog posts:
2much 2handle? Schools, social networks, and cyber bullying
Making bullying prevention a priority in Finnish schools
Photo credit: Schoolyard bullies, boy walks away with head down / @Shutterstock

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