School bullying: Zero-tolerance to mutual respect

When children talk about life at school, bullying often comes up. Parents are unsure when to suggest children should “get over it” as part of growing up, push back and learn to stand up for themselves, or report it to teachers. The lines between playful teasing and harmful aggression, and between ratting and reporting, may be clear in school policies, but not in practice. For teachers and principals, bullying feels like one more thing they are expected to solve among already overloaded expectations. Laws against bullying, which have developed in reaction to high profile incidents, such as the suicide of a bullied child, often have unintended consequences. A deeper look at a decade of research points in a different direction for effective prevention of bullying in school, home and society.

Myths about bullying

First we need to dispel some myths. Bullying is not a harmless part of childhood; careful research documents serious harm that can last into adult years. Less expected is the realization that children who bully others have long-term negative impacts just as the children being bullied do. Bullies need positive help more than punishment.

Bullying affects many children: 15 percent of girls and 18 percent of boys report being bullied. Twelve percent of girls and 18 percent of boys report bullying others, and 85-88 percent of children report being bystanders. In an average classroom of 35 children, four to six are likely affected at any one time. Friends and peers are affected and will either be part of the problem or the solution.

Bullying is not inevitable. International comparisons show that Canada has a higher rate of bullying than two-thirds of Western countries. That invites questions about why and what could improve daily reality for Canadian children in public and Christian schools.

Effectiveness of school anti-bullying programs

Approaches to bullying in school have changed significantly in the last two decades. In the 1990s high profile cases lead to a “zero tolerance” movement that promoted harsh punishment for perpetrators, such as suspension, to have “safe schools.” Codes of conduct were framed in “do not” rules, with punishments for each infraction. This approach was not effective and has been modified in most schools. Suspension alone does not change behaviour, and the form of bullying shifts to evade specific rules, for example electronic bullying extends or replaces physical bullying and verbal harassment into off-school hours.

Initial research focused on identifying and predicting victims and perpetrators. Labelling children as bullies or victims is simplistic and has many negative consequences. Understanding bullying as a relationship issue, more than an individual character fault, has led to more effective programs.

A second shift moved from treating it as a matter of individual relationships to better understand the factors that contribute to a child engaging in bullying or being a target. Programming that addressed causes as well as symptoms was shown to be more effective. Research also documented the significant role of bystanders who typically focus 75 percent of their attention on the perpetrator, reinforcing negative behaviour. Peer-training programs, which can turn bystanders into “upstanders,” children who learn how to support the child being bullied and wisely diffuse incidents, became part of a broader repertoire of tools. Among effective responses are restorative justice methods that involve all the children involved in playground bullying incidents to resolve conflicts and also teach skills in conflict resolution. Adding tools to improve social dynamics and school culture involve the whole school in finding solutions.

Positive prevention

Another shift added a positive approach to prevention through a deliberate focus on developing and practicing healthy, respectful relationships. PrevNet, the largest national network on the prevention of bullying, now promotes strategies to foster healthy relationships in schools and public policies. Rights-respecting schools, for example, show less bullying and more respect for teachers as positive outcomes of creating a culture where children learn to practice respect for the rights of others and awareness of their own rights. Respect Ed, a program offered by Red Cross Canada, is another effective program based on similar principles.

I find it interesting that fostering healthy, rights-respecting relationships emerges as the most effective way to prevent bullying, abuse, sexual exploitation, rape culture and other forms of violence against young persons. Sounds Biblical to me.


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