How you can help stop school bullies in their tracks

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

The new kid. The troublemaker. The class clown. The loner.

Most of us have a memory of children we’ve known who have attracted those labels – whether they were our fellow schoolmates, the students sharing the playground with our children, or, for educators, the students in the classroom.

But if your own child falls into one of these stereotypical categories, new University of South Australia (UniSA) research shows that not only may they be at risk of being bullied, but they perhaps, could be engaging in bullying others themselves now or in the future.

In a unique case study – Persistent bullying and the influence of turning points: learnings from an instrumental case study – researchers at UniSA’s Centre for Research in Educational and Social Inclusion have explored the lived experiences of a self-identified persistent bully to gain a deeper understanding of the factors that may contribute to the anti-social aggressive behaviour of school bullies. The case study was an adult, preservice teacher who voluntarily shared his school-life experiences of bullying for the research.

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Bullying can leave a lifelong impact

Each year in Australia, 543,000 perpetrators instigate more than 35 million bullying incidents, and almost 25 per cent of students (about 910,000) experience bullying while at school. About 24 per cent of victims are ‘bully-victims’ – both victim and perpetrator of bullying.

UniSA researcher and education expert Dr Deborah Green says the study highlights the acute need to address bullying by focussing and understanding the individual and their motivation.

“Bullying has been researched globally for decades, yet one in four children are still bullied in schools. This equates to more than one incident of bullying every week in every school around Australia,” she says.

“The trauma associated with bullying is felt both immediately and long after students have completed school, even up to 20 years later. The estimated costs associated with bullying are $2.3 billion. Clearly, traditional interventions and sanctions are not working for some students, so it’s vital that we look for alternative solutions, particularly for those who persist in bullying others.”

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A 2019 report on gender differences from five large cross-national databases found that males perpetrate bullying at higher rates than females. They also found that males tend to more frequently be victims of bullying, consistent across age groups.

By investigating the rarely-heard voice – that of the bully – Dr Green told EducationDaily that some insightful findings about how and when his behaviour changed were revealed.

“We call these turning points as they indicate when a change in behaviour occurs,” she says. “They also represent opportunities for intervention. Through this case study, we see how each turning point created a chain reaction of behaviours and responses which ultimately shaped the bullying trajectory, reinforcing the emerging bullying behaviour until it was persistent.”

The case study identified three important social and behavioural ‘turning points’ that served to steer a child toward bullying others, and eventually sustained his bullying behaviour.

These turning points included:

  • Peer rejection and a lack of belonging
    Striving to belong through bullying
    Social positioning, status, and reputation achieved through bullying

“Sadly, although not uncommonly, this child started out as a victim of bullying. Then in an attempt to connect with students he began acting up, demonstrating bullying behaviours to others,” she says. “Ironically, this generated a sense of social standing within his peer group, which led him to detention where he forged a friendship group – the ‘detention kids’ – and a heightened sense of status and belonging.”

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Like all of us, Dr Green says he wanted to feel connected and like he belonged. He wanted a friend.

“But at each turning point, this need was filled by negative behaviours, rather than positive ones,” she says. “In the end, the only way he knew to engage and connect with his peers was through bullying.”

What should schools do?

The field of bullying, Dr Green says, has recently engaged in a social turn whereby the focus is no longer on the individual or the school but more on a ‘whole of education’ approach to addressing bullying.

“This involves stakeholders from schools, community and broader,” she told EducationDaily. “There is a need to shift our focus away from individuals and stop demonising the bully to an approach that speaks to how we as a community can support all learners to develop into healthy, well individuals. This includes those who engage in bullying and persistent bullying. If we recognise that persistent bullying can lead to dating violence and elder abuse, it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that bullying is addressed early, and young people are supported in developing healthy and positive relationships.”

To support this new approach, Dr Green says a cultural shift is needed – “and I believe that this is happening globally”.

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Many schools, she says, already employ a three-tiered approach to addressing bullying:

Tier One – known as the universal level – represents universal approaches for all students.

“These are usually preventative and proactive strategies, employing school-wide supports,” Dr Green told EducationDaily.

Tier Two – known as the primary level – represents more targeted, group-oriented strategies, considering some high-risk individuals more carefully (e.g., victims of bullying, bystander approaches).

“These approaches aim for a rapid response and a high level of efficacy in supporting them.”

Tier Three is the tertiary level and represents intensive individually focused interventions with largely assessment-based individual students.

These are “high-intensity approaches and are what we recommend for persistent bullies”, Dr Green says, adding that this study highlights the need for teachers, counsellors, and well-being leaders to reflect on the individual needs of young people who are engaging in persistent bullying and support them in what may have led to this behaviour.

“These individually focussed interventions for persistent bullies would ideally involve a whole of education approach as they cannot rely solely on the school context. This would include community interventions as well as those employed by schools. Engaging youth outreach workers, social workers, sporting communities, etc., would be a valuable part of this.”

Understanding the motivation behind the persistent bullying and then working with a range of stakeholders to support the young person would be the aim of this type of individual approach.

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“We encourage teachers and counsellors to be aware of peer dynamics and social structures of their classes so that they can better understand and respond to social issues and call for this to be further embedded into initial teacher education training,” she says.

Tailored support can create positive change

The young man in the study lacked the necessary social skills to develop healthy friendships. For students on similar trajectories, Dr Green says teachers can play a key role as they “are really good at building strong relationships with young people”.

“They need to use these skills to understand the motivations behind a child’s behaviour and then work with them to address these,” she says. “In our study, the persistent bully really needed social skills to make and maintain friends. Teachers, through their relationships with students, could teach and model these behaviours and then provide a safe, cohesive classroom environment in which the young child could practice the new skills and receive immediate age-appropriate feedback from their peers.”

Families, she says, can also be critical change-makers.

“Families are the very first form of socialisation that a child has,” Dr Green says. “It is in the home that children learn their first social skills. Therefore, it is important that we support families to model good social skills.”

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But with many parents working full-time, Dr Green says it is important that they are supported to spend quality time with their children so that important social skills are not missed.

“Funding that supports childcare whether in formal settings or with relatives is therefore important in achieving these outcomes,” Dr Green says. “If we can interrupt the cycle of bullying, we could prevent significant and often lifelong harm for victims and those who engage in bullying.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]brandx.live