By Amreen Pathan
Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.
Typically used as a comeback in an attempt to hide the pain experienced by an onslaught of words, how very far from the truth is this old-age idiom, as those who have ever experienced bullying will corroborate. In fact, bullying, when executed with words, requires victims to disarm such attacks with even more mental fortitude than compared to some forms of physical bullying. Nonetheless, bullying is bullying: behaviour that is “repeated over time (and) intentionally hurts another…either physically or emotionally” as defined by the DfE in guidance published to help schools intercept and prevent bullying.
The statistics are discerning. The OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) conducted in 2018 with the intention of highlighting the prevalence rates of bullying found England with a 29.0% average of principals reporting weekly bullying incidents in their schools. This is a perturbing figure in comparison to the overall average of 14% of the remaining surveyed EU nation. Nevertheless, statistics high or low, bullying is present. Statistics high or low, bullying is prevalent. Statistics high or low, bullying when left unaddressed can have devastating repercussions on the life of a child even when they enter adulthood. So what can be done to prevent bullying and tackle the problem head-on? There is no single solution that can unanimously work to suit all schools but there are definitely certain strategies that every school should try.
- Acknowledge the presence of bullying
Bullying is not a figment of the child’s imagination. Like every road to recovery, acknowledgement of the problem is critical. How? Listen. In fact, the most important thing a school can do is listen. Listening will alleviate a child’s fears about remaining unheard. The 29% rate of bullying prevalence in England is high but its accuracy is limited in that head-teachers were only able to put forward figures of incidents actually reported. This means there are many children who will not disclose out of fear or shame and therefore their numbers are left unaccounted for. Listening therefore will provide a safe place for the child to voice their experiences. Listening will substantiate the child’s worth: your victimhood is valid and we are here to validate. Finally yet importantly, listening will inspire proactivity.
- Proactively create an anti-bullying culture
This is the very sentiment under which the DfE produced its document titled ‘Preventing and tackling bullying’ to aid prevention of bullying as part of behaviour policy. A reactive school will at the very least only ever respond to bullying. However, a proactive school will prevent bullying from occurring in the first place. What should this culture entail and how can it be created?
- Arm with information
This first step is quite simple really. Information. Information about bullying should be presented to staff, pupils and parents with an uncompromisable message of zero tolerance. This information should comprise of what bullying looks like, what bullying can do long-term, what to do if being bullied and how bullying will be dealt with. This information should bolster victims to come forward, passive stand-byers – teachers, parents and peers alike – to speak up and with any luck, for bullies to apprehend that such conduct will not go unnoticed. In short, arming the school-community with information will generate a powerful watchdog committee of its own ready to take the next steps in disarming any form of bullying. DfE research report of 2013 which investigated the effectiveness of anti-bullying strategies in schools found PSHCE to have an overall positive effect in preventing bullying. This proves that knowledge is power.
- Social-emotional learning
However, knowledge and information alone is not sufficient. Information could be interpreted as merely hosting an annual assembly. Solely relying on such solutions could be dangerously counter-productive with pupils being led to believe that bullying is not important and thus will not be dealt with. However, coupled with the relevant knowledge about bullying, social-emotional learning or social skills would be an operative strategy. This could include:
- Engaging bullies in conversation in a bid to tackle root causes of their bullying.
- Giving all pupils a voice via a Student Council in which adults and pupils can work together to discuss bullying and find viable solutions to respond and prevent.
- Mindfulness sessions during tutor time in which staff: a) guide pupils to pause, ponder and process before acting rashly; b) teach pupils how to contend with their feelings and regulate their emotions when being bullied.
- Adult modelling of positive relationships and communication.
- Interweaving social-emotional learning in the whole school curriculum rather than confining it to PSHEE/Citizenship. For example, when studying Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah, I directed pupils to look at the treatment of Adeline by her sister and the possible reasons surrounding her unjust assertions of power over Adeline as well as the effect of the passivity demonstrated by Adeline’s brothers.
- Cooperative group work to promote social skills within a collaborative environment.
- Playground strategies which could involve pro-social playground policies and pupil consultation in terms of mapping bullying hot spots, mapping existing use, creative play opportunities etc.
- Formal and informal buddy schemes in which responsible pupils are paired with vulnerable pupils to report bullying concerns, offer support in the playground transport and organise activities.
A one-off solution like one assembly or a program dedicated to anti-bullying week cannot seriously prevent bullying. Further, reactive strategies such as sanctions, while important to deal with incidents of bullying in the present, do not necessarily lead to prevention. Proactivity however can. It is important to note that nothing can be taught overnight, be it math, or art. Well, neither can the learning associated with bullying: social-emotional learning. To prevent bullying in schools then, a combination of strategies must be woven into the fabric of the school, a tapestry beginning with listening and a tapestry constantly developing to ensure a duty of care to pupils; the bullied and the bullies alike.
 Further informed guidance and relevant data on the aforementioned bullying prevention strategies can be found in the DfE 2013 research document titled: Useful effective anti-bullying strategies at: https://www.anti-bullyingalliance.org.uk/sites/default/files/field/attachment/DFE-RR098.pdf