Parent perspectives on how schools handle bullying

By Adjunct Professor Ken Rigby in Blogs

It is widely agreed that bullying in schools can be addressed more effectively when parents are well informed and supportive of what their children’s schools are doing about it. There is in fact little research on how parents evaluate the work of schools in this area. However, recently, as part of a Government-funded project on the Prevalence And Effectiveness Of Anti-Bullying Strategies Employed In Australian Schools, parents of children attending selected Government schools were asked to complete an online questionnaire in which they could provide their views on how their child’s school was handling bullying (Rigby & Johnson, 2015).

In this research project, parents were approached by their children's schools and invited to give permission for their children to take part in a survey at their school. They were also invited to participate themselves by independently completing a parent questionnaire. Altogether 1,688 students in Years 5 to 10 were enabled to complete a questionnaire online at the school, and 167 parents agreed to participate in answering their questionnaire.  One might suspect that parents opting to participate in this study would be unrepresentative in having a greater interest in the question of school bullying than most parents as a consequence of their children having been bullied at the school.  However, results from the parent and student questionnaires were similar:  both indicated that about 50 per cent of the children had not been bullied.

Many parents recognised that their children's school was taking action against bullying. This was evident in their appreciation of what was being done in classrooms to educate students about bullying.  A majority of parents acknowledged that teachers talked to students in the classroom about bullying; that teachers actively promoted positive relationships between students through exercises and/or discussions; that students were advised by the staff to seek help from a trusted adult if they were being bullied at school; and that the school encouraged students to help other students who were being bullied.  However, a significant number of the parents evidently lacked knowledge of what the school was doing about bullying or were unprepared to take steps to find out. Some 35 per cent of parents were unaware of the existence of a school anti-bullying policy. Only a small proportion (20 per cent) had responded to invitations from the school to attend a meeting to discuss bullying issues.  

Of particular interest were the views of parents who reported that their children (N =80) had been bullied at school. For the most part the bullying was reported as being non-physical. Being made fun of or teased in a mean way was the most common means of bullying, followed by having lies or nasty stories spread to make others not like them.  Around 12 per cent of parents reported that their child had had cruel things said about them online or on a social network, e.g. Facebook.   A large proportion (80 per cent) of parents indicated that their children were ‘upset’ or ‘very upset. Some 30 per cent believed that their children had stayed away from school at least once as a result of bullying at school.  

In nearly all cases the child had directly informed the parent about the bullying and the parents had discussed with the child what could be done. In four cases out of five the parent subsequently spoke with the school about it.   Surprisingly, 47.5 per cent of parents reported that no action was taken by the school and in 10 per cent of cases the parent was unsure what the school did.

There were 73 parents who reported on what happened next. Of these, 20 indicated that the bullying stopped, 24 that the situation improved; in 22 there was no change (i.e., the bullying continued); and in 7 cases the bullying got worse.   For comparison, 75 parents of children who had not been bullied gave their opinion on what outcomes they would have expected if their child had been bullied and sought the school’s help. All of them indicated that they believed the situation would have improved for their child.

These results indicate that around 40 per cent of parents believe that the school failed to take effective action when their child was bullied. Most parents believed that the school could have handled the bullying better; approximately one third of the parents of bullied children opined that the case had been handled ‘quite badly’ or ‘very badly.’ Of concern were the reports from parents that many parents were largely unaware of what teachers actually did in dealing with their child being bullied. For instance, 43 per cent did not know whether the parent of the suspected bully was contacted by the school. 

Among those who believed that the school had handled the bullying badly, suggestions were made about how the school could do better. These included the following:

  1. Provide better surveillance by staff and greater sensitivity to the hurt being experienced by a child, especially by indirect means, as in exclusion and isolating
  2. Identify problems more quickly and communicate more adequately with parents
  3. Avoid unfairness in dealing with cases, as in removing victims from classes they wished to stay in, rather than changing the behaviour of those who are bullying the child.
  4. Make greater use of punitive measures with children who bully, rather than putting an unrealistic emphasis upon the need for the child to be resilient.

Although it is clear that many parents were aware of the good work of schools especially in discussing the issue of bullying with students in class, it is evident that a substantial proportion of parents whose children had been bullied at the school were unhappy about how the school had handled cases of bullying or did not know what actions the school had taken.   These findings suggest a need for schools to improve their effectiveness in dealing with cases of bullying and also to ensure that parents are informed of the actions taken.  

Reference

Rigby, K. & Johnson, K (2015, submitted); The prevalence and Effectiveness of

Anti-bullying Strategies Employed in Australian Schools. Canberra: Australian Department of Education and Training.

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