The Problem of School Bullying

Bullying behaviour among school students is not unique to any one culture and unfortunately, has been in existence for a long time. As society progressed into the technological age of the 21st century, bullying behaviour shifted from consisting solely of ‘sticks and stones’.

The level of sophistication for bullying behaviour has grown to incorporate the world of cyber bullying. Research on bullying behaviour has been conducted worldwide since the late 1970’s and 1980’s, with some of the most well respected research conducted by Australian psychologist, Dr Ken Rigby and Dr Dan Olweus, a Scandinavian psychologist.

Bullying behaviour is not a simple, clean cut problem with an easy quick answer. In addressing the issue, it is limiting to only look at the guilty and the innocent when examining bullying behaviour. It is also important to view the situation more along the lines of a role the student is playing in just one scene in one act in a much larger play of life.

Students should not be defined through their bullying behaviour. Rather, students should be assisted to re-write their scripts to allow for healthier alternatives for all involved. Empowering students with choices is a tool they can use not only in bullying situations but in any difficult situation they find themselves in.

One in six students are bullied by their peers each week and about half of Australian school students have experienced some form of bullying behaviour (Rigby, 1999). Bullying behaviour in Australian school aged students tends to increase by the time students commence high school and then begins to decline after that (Rigby, 2002). According to the National Centre Against Bullying, bullying peaks at times of transition in a student’s school life. This is between pre-school and primary school, and then again between primary and high school.

The effects of bullying behaviour on school children have been reported as including a psychological effect on the student’s mental health as well as affecting the student’s physical health with an increase in stress, anxiety, depression, illness and an increased tendency to suicide (Rigby, 1999). Bullying behaviour is the fourth most common reason children phone the Kids Helpline. The National Crime Prevention Branch of the Attorney-General’s Department has identified bullying as a risk factor leading to antisocial and criminal behaviour.

In reviewing the methods and approaches to reduce bullying in Australian pre-schools and early primary schools, Rigby (2002) identified that bullying can be reduced by well-planned interventions that include:

  • Providing students with skills and strategies,
  • Incorporating an anti-bullying program within the school curriculum, empowering students by involvement in prevention activities (e.g. being a member of anti-bullying committees) and intervention activities (e.g. utilising conflict resolution skills).
  • Adopting a whole of school approach which combines supportive relationships between individual, class, school, parent and community.
  • Commencing interventions early: interventions carried out at pre secondary school level have an even greater chance of success,
  • A high level of commitment by staff to actively engage and implement an anti-bullying program.

Defining Bullying

There is no universal accepted definition of bullying. Olweus (1993) defines bullying as repeated, aggressive behaviour involving a power imbalance between the bully (perpetrator) and the intended bully victim (Olweus and Limber, 2010). Rigby (2010) defines bullying as a systematic and repeated abuse of power and identifies three aspects to bullying: 1) a desire to hurt/dominate; 2) an imbalance of power involving unfair action favouring the perpetrator and 3) the target of the action lacks appropriate defence therefore feeling oppressed and humiliated.

Generally bullying does consist of repeated encounters between the targeted person and the bully. However, this is not always the case. From the targeted person’s perspective, the effect from a single event can be just as damaging.

Disagreements/arguments/aggression with no imbalance of power, not liking someone, and hazing – “acting on behalf of a privileged group to systematically embarrass, humiliate, or degrade someone as a necessary precondition to their acceptance as a member of a group” are not considered bullying (Rigby, 2008).

Bullying may also sometimes not be intentional. A child may not realise their behaviour or words may hurt or upset another child. Once the child is made aware of the effect and ceases the behaviour, this is referred to as non-malign bullying (Rigby, 2008). Finally, bullying is prevalent in schools because they provide a physical place where children can congregate with opportunities of no adult supervision (Olweus, 1991).

Types of Bullying

There are several types of bullying – some are listed below.

Physical bullying: Where a person or group uses physical actions e.g.: hitting, poking and pushing, etc. This is usually the least common form of bullying and declines with age (Rigby and Slee, 1999; A.C.B.P.S., 2009).

Verbal bullying: Using systematic name calling, insults, racist remarks, etc. Name calling is generally the most common form of bullying (Rigby and Slee, 1999).

Covert bullying: Any form of aggressive behaviour that is repeated, intended to cause harm, characterised by an imbalance of power and is hidden, out of sight or unacknowledged by adults (A.C.B.P.S., 2009). As students get older, they tend to engage in more covert bullying over overt bullying behaviour (A.C.B.P.S., 2009).

Social/relational bullying: Lying about someone, spreading rumours, excluding someone, mimicking someone, etc.

Psychological bullying: Threatening, manipulating, and stalking someone.

Finally, cyber bullying: Using emails, mobile phones, social networking sites etc, to verbally, covertly, psychologically bully.

How often does bullying behaviour occur?

Approximately once a week for one in six children aged between 7 and 17 years of age (Rigby, 1997). General bullying (no specified type) is the highest (32%) among Year 5 students and (29%) among Year 8 students (A.C.B.P.S., 2009). There has not been any reported Australian statistics on bullying on children younger than 7 years of age. However based on overseas studies; it is estimated that 18% of kindergarten children are victims of aggressive behaviour (Kochenderfer and Ladd, 1996).

Covert bullying is the highest among Year 4 and Year 8 students with hurtful teasing the most prevalent. Covert bullying tends to start in late primary school for girls and early secondary school for boys. Girls more so than boys, tend to engage in covert bullying. Covert bullying tends to occur usually between same genders (A.C.B.P.S., 2009).

Cyber bullying occurs more through social networking sites than mobile phones. Older students engage in more cyber bullying than younger students. Students from non-government schools tend to engage more in cyber bullying than government school students (A.C.B.P.S., 2009).

Teacher Intervention

It is vital that teachers intervene in bullying situations – students look to teachers for guidance. This is particularly so for middle school children (Crothers, Kolbert and Barker, 2006). In seeking clarification of self-identity all children eventually merge from beyond the realms of the family to seeking guidance from peers and teachers.

There are a number of different intervention methods currently being implemented to address bullying behaviour. No one method or model has a 100% success rate. As schools and students are different, likewise bullying and methods used to deal with bullying are also different. Rigby (2008) discusses five different intervention methods from which a number of programs have been developed.

1. Rules and Consequences Method: This approach has set prescribed rules and consequences for bullying therefore it does not cater for the individualistic nature of the incident, nor does it really support the targeted student or assist the bully.

2. Restorative Justice Method: This approach involves the key players. This includes the bully, the targeted student and parents coming together in a meeting to reinforce the idea that bullying behaviour is wrong. Instead of the straight punitive approach as in Rules and Consequences, this approach supports both the bully and the targeted student with the aim to rehabilitate and to reintegrate the bully back into successful healthy relationships.

3. No Blame Approach Method: This is more of a problem solving approach which empowers students. The bully and selected other students who are sympathetic to the targeted student are informed of the plight of the targeted student. The group is then encouraged to find ways of solving the problem.

4. Method of Shared Concern: This is a multi-staged approach which commences with indirectly gathering information about the incident, followed by interviewing the suspected bully, then interviewing the targeted student and finally interviewing other students to culminate in a meeting with all relevant parties to arrive at an agreed solution.

5. Mediation Method: This approach attempts to take a neutral stance towards the problem of bullying with the focus on resolution without punishment. The mediator, usually the teacher, brings the two parties (bully and the targeted student) together seeking mediation.

Common to all methods is the need to bring bullying out of the silent world in which it thrives. There is a need to support the targeted student not only during the intervention but also ensuring the student is supported after the intervention to monitor any potential payback for the victim. Equally so, support is needed for the bully to allow opportunity for him/her to recognise their own behaviour and change it accordingly.

Imbalance of power in relationships is not restricted to bullying relationships in children. Power imbalances occur in adult relationships too. It is not necessarily the power that is the problem, it is the behaviour. Behaviour needs to change for the bully, the victim and the bystanders to help encourage future healthy adult relationships and behaviours.

Counsellor Intervention

There is a range of counselling skills and strategies which can enhance a victim of bullying’s ability to cope and stop the cycle of bullying. They include teaching a child how to build a healthy self-esteem, teaching a victim who generally has a passive communication style how to become more assertive and stand up for their own rights without violating others.

Conflict resolution skills are one of the more effective counselling techniques and interventions a counsellor can apply in an effort to reduce victimisation. Conflict resolution aims to create a win-win situation for everyone involved. By shifting attention away from those involved and onto the problem, creative problem solving can happen (Morrison, 2002). Teaching a child early on the skills of conflict resolution will empower, prepare and support students to deal successfully with conflict situations at school, at home and in later life. The range of conflict resolution skills also includes effective listening, negotiation skills, assertiveness skills training, problem solving and reflecting skills.

Conflict resolution skills are adaptable as they can be taught on an individual or group basis. More effectively they can be introduced, developed and reinforced as ongoing components of the all-curriculum areas (Morrison, 2002). Anti-bullying programs or a critically focused curriculum, which is informed by understandings of the role of power in relationships, can expand opportunities for all groups to explore their personal and social needs within a climate of respect and valuing of difference (Morrison, 2002).

Teaching conflict resolution skills to children:

Discuss and assess their communication style (i.e. passive, assertive or aggressive). Pitch your language according to the child’s age and developmental stage. Explain the importance to them of being able to stand up for themselves and that conflict resolution skills will assist them in reducing the incidence and effect of the bullying. Discuss, role-play and teach assertive communication techniques. Below are the skills relevant to assertive communication:

Stating: When you do…, when I see you …, I feel
Checking: Can you tell me what you think I said?
Insisting: Yes, I understand that you are angry at me. Can we talk about why you keep hurting me?
Compromise: Can’t we just be friends?
Goalsetting: What if we decided to play with other kids and not together?
Goal inviting: What do you think we can do to make this situation better?
Reflecting: Do you feel… when I…  I can see that you are really angry.
Accepting: Now I understand why you think that…
Inquiring: Were you upset by…?

It is important that to assist a child’s understanding by utilising other therapy techniques such as play therapy, sand tray, role play and drawing to facilitate self-expression. The use of I statements can be positive and powerful. Teaching a child to be able to say “I don’t like it when…” can be useful.

Check the level of a child’s self-esteem by asking them questions about “how they see themselves”, what’s good and not so good about themselves?” It is important that children have a positive self-concept and self-worth in order to confidently apply conflict resolution skills. Confidence building strategies may, therefore, form part of the intervention package for developing conflict resolution skills in children.

Encourage children to speak about their feelings openly and not to withdraw or retreat as this may exacerbate feelings of sadness and isolation. Below are a series of questions you can use to teach a child how to effectively manage their feelings:

Questions to ask when you are angry, hurt, or frightened:

  1. Why am I feeling this way?
  2. What do I want to change?
  3. What do I need to do to let go of this feeling?
  4. Whose problem is this really? How much is mine? How much is theirs?
  5. What is the unspoken “message” I interpret from this situation? e.g. They don’t like me, they don’t respect me.

Goals in communicating emotions:

  1. To communicate your feelings of anger, hurt, or fear.
  2. To change the situation.
  3. To prevent the recurrence of the same anger, hurt, or fear.
  4. To improve the relationship and increase communication.

Involving parents in the counselling intervention: Parents are usually the first people to notice the negative and dysfunctional changes in their children as a response that their child is being bullied. As such, counsellors need to be aware that they will be not only working with the child victim or bully but their concerned parents. So, a counsellor will need to be able to impart skills training and knowledge to both child and parent/s.

Parents cannot ‘bully-proof’ a child. However, the risk of their child being bullied can be reduced by parents who are responsive to a child’s needs, employ an authoritative (not authoritarian) style of parenting, have open communication, are involved in the child’s education and life and encourage and teach their child to develop into a friendly and cooperative individual. If bullying occurs it is best tackled collaboratively by parents, counsellors and teachers working together (Clover, 1998).

Teaching parents the skills of how they can help their child: Rigby (1996) states a number of ways in which parents can be taught through the counselling process how they can play a vital role in reducing the impact of bullying on their child as well as increasing their child’s resilience and resistance to bullying behaviours. These are described below:

  • Through reducing the risk that their children will be bullied through responsive and responsible, non-authoritarian parenting.
  • Through teaching their child to acquire good interpersonal and social skills, especially making friends and acting assertively when necessary.
  • Role modelling by displaying non-aggressive behaviours in their own relationships and interactions so that their child is able to learn by example.
  • Being prepared to share the problem and work collaboratively with the school to solve it.
  • By assisting schools as much as possible in the development of enlightened policies and practices to address the problem. Attending to the issue as soon as a change is noticed rather than ‘waiting’ for the bullying behaviour to escalate.

Increasingly, there is an array of resources available to help parents, children, counsellors and educators who are concerned about bullying in schools.

Collaborative interventions: Whilst it is important to work with the child and their parents it is also important (where possible) for a counsellor to work collaboratively with the school, including the child’s classroom teacher. When working with the school, the counsellor should be aware of and attempt to…

  1. Make sure that the concept of bullying is defined clearly and sensibly. (I still find schools that have not reached any agreement on what bullying is, for example some think it is any sort of aggression; some limit it to physical means; some do not include indirect bullying).
  2. Collect relevant information (i.e. what is the school’s policy on bullying, are there any bullying programs in place, is bullying a school culture, what has the client told you?).
  3. If the school does not have a bullying policy or program, the counsellor may want to assist in the development of a well-supported school based anti-bullying policy.
  4. Work with educating all children in the classroom environment (if appropriate). How to prevent bullying should be a significant part of children’s social education and as such part of the school curriculum.
  5. Promote effective bystander behaviour. Much bullying does not come to the attention of teachers. Positive bystanders can make a different in curbing bullying behaviour.

Websites, Resources & Services

Below is a comprehensive list of websites, resources and services related to bullying. Feel free to browse through and forward this information to friends and colleagues.

Information on Bullying: (United States)
National Bullying Prevention Center (United States) (New Zealand)
DEECD – Bullying (Australia)
National Centre Against Bullying (Australia)
Parliament of Australia – Cyber Safety (Australia)
Bullying No Way! (Australia)

Resources/Support Services:

Coping with My Child Being Bullied (Life Effectiveness Guide)
BeyondBlue – Youth Website (Support Service)
Headroom (Support Service) (Information/ Support Service)
Kidshelpline (Information/ Support Service)

Professional Development:

BullyED (Free Anti-Bullying Program for AUS teachers)
School Bullying (Online Course)
Understanding Emotion in Children (Online Course)
Play Therapy (Online Course)
Communicating with Children (Online Course)
Using Undercover Teams to Re-story Bullying Relationships (Online Video)