Incidents of bullying can be found everywhere and in all walks of life, and schools are no exception to this. Also, this should not be surprising or shocking. Schools are places where young people are developing and growing in experiences and attitudes and where they experiment with who they are and how they interact with others. This experimentation will lead to some poor decision making across a variety of areas, and relationships with others is not exempt. Natural competitiveness has the potential to spill over into a desire to dominate and to gain the upper hand and may lead to bullying or being bullied. This is not an acceptance of inevitability and a statement that nothing can be done, but rather a recognition that, strategies must be in place to help guide young people to make good decisions and develop positive, healthy relationships with each other where competition does not lead to dominion.
All schools are required to have an ‘anti bullying policy’, an important requirement but rather than a start (and sometimes an end!) of the process, the policy should, in best practice environments be not only a set of guidelines for operation but a reflection and development of organisational culture.
I am not an expert at all in social policy or relationship management, but I am a teacher who has worked in a variety of schools in the UK and internationally for over 30 years and I have observed a number of factors and attitudes that have promoted excellent practice in the field of bullying/anti-bullying. These can be distilled down to a very few important points:
A culture of positivity
Schools which have a strong vision, clear missions and a sense of positive purpose understood by all stakeholders appear to take charge of their environments, leading to a uniformity of direction and social cohesion. If these schools then promote positivity, a happiness agenda, respect and tolerance, the cohesion of the community delivers the promoted characteristics as a matter of course. As a matter of expectation. Discussions and expectations surrounding positive behaviours and a focus on what is good and beneficial to individuals appears to lead to a whole school community that naturally veers away from bullying without possibly, ever mentioning the term.
Perfectly compliant education institutions can have policies that tick all boxes but can lead to a culture of negativity where discussion and learning about relationships focuses heavily on bullying and its treatment as a problem to be expunged, along with a sanctions system that lists it and the consequences for all to see. So much time spent on the negative, and the avoidance of poor behaviour rather than on the positive, and the promotion of positive behaviour. No wonder then, that when asked about bullying, pupils can list endless examples of how it occurs and the punishments that are likely but not be so eloquent when it comes to what makes a positive, healthy pupil and the rewards that come with it in their school context.
To create a culture of positivity, it is not just about learning and teaching that is delivered to pupils and students in the classrooms. It is about the whole organisation and how staff and students relate to each other and to their peers. Modelled behaviour is such a powerful tool in social norming that it is a surprise that it is so often forgotten by staff within education institutions. However, this statement in itself is unacceptable. There must also be a recognition that definitions of and attitudes towards bullying have changed enormously over time and most markedly in the most recent past. Therefore, experienced, valuable and valued employees in schools are themselves products of an education that treated the topic in a different way historically and who do not necessarily have the skills or even understanding to model positive behaviour in the way that is required by current thinking. Their education must also be a priority.
This must then come down to leadership, and we are back to vision and mission. Including a culture of positivity in these most basic of drivers for excellence in education, staff and students alike are educated and expectations are set for full school involvement rather than merely pupil and student education.
A community approach
Schools and particularly day schools or schools with limited age ranges requiring pupil/student transfer to and from other institutions seem to shoulder the burden of responsibility for all facets of education. Time spent in a school is often only a very small part of a child’s life and the influence of family and home environment must be considered and brought into the culture of positivity. Children and young people are enormously influenced by those in authority and who is more in authority, particularly in the early years, than parents? Schools which engage with their whole stakeholder community, including parents, collaborating with and expecting positivity of culture see a far greater appreciation of positive characteristics and patterns of repeated behaviour that can effectively reduce bullying.
In schools where this has been most effective, parental engagement and involvement have been at the most positive with an acceptance that schools do not bear sole responsibility for education surrounding socially acceptable behaviour, but that parents, have a key ‘bookend’ role in reinforcing core positivity of culture.
Personal responsibility and resilience
The concept of schools as facilitators of learning rather than purely deliverers of knowledge is key to an understanding that all individuals in the school are responsible for their own actions and attitudes. Whilst this is an area of progressive development as pupils/students grow and move upwards through the age range, it is essential that the foundations of responsibility are laid at the earliest of stages. Understanding who we are, how we manage ourselves, the effect we have on others and how to make good situational choices are cornerstones of education that can act as building blocks throughout schooling. Obviously, it can be seen that the earlier the foundations are built and solidified, the better the construction of the character and therefore, for students at the end of their school education that have not grown up in a culture of positivity, the harder it is to develop a sense of personal responsibility.
Resilience is also a key concept which is increasingly undermined by a culture that seems to blame others for situations that negatively impact upon us. Understanding that not everyone will adhere to the positive culture that we wish to belong to and that occasionally we will experience behaviours which are unpleasant, and situations which are intolerable and cause us unhappiness, we bear some responsibility for the effects of the behaviour of others on us. Choosing to be positive and choosing to be resilient to the actions of others, whilst challenging and questioning behaviour within a framework of tolerance and respect is an important part of growth and development. Schools and institutions cannot solve bullying alone, without the buy in from the entire community and without an acceptance of responsibility of all stakeholders, including the pupils/students themselves.
As mentioned previously, I have no scientific or data driven analysis to back up my observations and impressions but plenty of anecdotal examples of good and bad practice which fall into line with the ideas I present. It is hard to argue with a mantra that says: ‘Be positive, be tolerant and respectful, be responsible and be resilient’.
Gareth Collier – Principal, Cardiff Sixth Form CollegeCategories: Articles