What we need to know about helping children who are bullied

in News

National Centre Against Bullying member Dr Ken Rigby, Adjunct Professor, University of South Australia

In Australia, approximately one student in five is bullied at school every few weeks or more often.

Many of these students suffer serious emotional and psychological harm, such as persistent anxiety, depression and suicidal thinking, and are unable to concentrate on their school work. It is clear they need help. Teachers routinely inform students that if they are being bullied at school they should seek help from a trusted adult, such as a teacher or school counsellor. How many do so?

According to an Australian survey involving 1,510 students aged 8 to 16 years attending mainstream government schools, approximately 37 per cent of all students who reported being bullied over the last 12 months sought help from a teacher or school counsellor. They were more likely to seek help from another student or from a parent.

We need to ask ourselves why nearly two thirds of the bullied students did not seek help from the school, given that teachers are generally in the best position to intervene.

Various reasons can be suggested. One is that some bullying is relatively mild, consisting of occasional teasing or short-term exclusion by some other students. Another is that they may learn to handle the problem themselves or may find preferred help from some other students.  However, this still leaves many children who need help but do not ask the school to help them.

Given that school authorities are strategically placed to observe what happens between their students, and to work with students who may be involved – including perpetrators, victims, bystanders and others – it is surprising that they are not the first port of call for distressed students.

Here's a summary of the answers bullied students gave as to why they did not go to teachers for help, together with a few verbatim quotes from the students themselves:

  1.  Uncertainty about the role of teachers in addressing cases of bullying.

"It is none of their business."

"They are here to teach us."

  1. Bullying is a personal matter.

"I don't feel comfortable telling someone I don't really know."

"There is no one in the school I can trust."

  1. Lack of belief that they would take the bullying seriously.

"They might laugh. I have seen them brush off students' problems."

  1. Fear of repercussions.

"I don't want to be teased because I told a teacher."

  1. Not wishing to get others into trouble.

"The people [the bullies] were my friends and I don't want to lose them."

  1. A sense of personal inadequacy.

"I would feel weak and embarrassed."

  1. Having a preferred option.

"I can get help from friends and parents."

What do teachers do when students come to them for help? According to the students, they may do one or more of three things: They may give advice; decide no other action is needed; or intervene by meeting with the students involved in the case of bullying (including bystanders) and sometimes with their parents and attempt to resolve the problem. According to students, the school took action following 78 per cent of the times students asked for help.

How successful were the actions taken by school staff? The figures based on student responses were as follows:

The bullying stopped                 26%
The bullying reduced                 29%
There was no change                 29%
The bullying got worse              16%

These figures are about average when compared with reported outcomes from school interventions in other countries in which the same question was asked of students, namely, England, US, Netherlands and Finland. We may conclude that the effectiveness of school interventions to address cases of bullying is quite limited worldwide.

I think teachers would agree that the situation appears bleak. According to students, telling a parent or a friend has fewer potential drawbacks. Many students were not optimistic about the help they could get from the school if they are bullied. Stopping bullying is not easy. Not surprisingly, it has been urged that schools must increasingly be proactive rather than reactive, and help students to develop pro-social attitudes and skills that will prevent bullying from occurring, for example by encouraging social and emotional learning through class instruction and activities. Unfortunately, the evidence to date on the effectiveness of such an approach is mixed and can at this stage influence anti-social and bullying behaviour at best to only a quite small degree. This is not to decry such endeavours.  But actual cases of bullying needing to be addressed require much better methods of intervention.

The Australian survey provided striking evidence of the lack of training in methods of interventions in cases of bullying. For instance, two of the most effective methods of intervention, the Support Group Method and the Method of Shared Concern, are virtually unknown to most teachers. Training in these methods is largely absent.  Meanwhile, teachers report a high reliance on the use of direct sanctions, despite growing evidence that their use is inappropriate in most cases of bullying and often counterproductive.

Finally, it is clear that as well as improving the capacity of teachers and counsellors to intervene more effectively there needs to be greater trust among students in the ability of school personnel to really help. This can be brought about through the promotion of better relationships between members of the school community and especially with teachers, and the demonstration by schools that they can achieve much better outcomes through appropriate methods of intervention than the Australian research currently indicates.     

References

Rigby, K. & Johnson, K. (2016). The prevalence and effectiveness of anti-bullying strategies employed in Australian schools. Report for the Australian Department of Education, Canberra: ACT.

Rigby, K. (2014). How teachers address cases of bullying in schools: a comparison of five reactive approaches. Educational Psychology in Practice: theory, research and educational psychology. 30, 409-419.

Rigby, K. (2010, 2012). Bullying Interventions in schools: Six basic approaches. ACER 2010, Wiley, 2012.






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