Tackling the complex issue of school bullying

A new film could inspire parents to truly celebrate difference and so head off bullying, writes Helen O’Callaghan

Tackling the complex issue of school bullying

A NEW movie opening in Irish cinemas today will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever been bullied at school.

Wonder is based on RJ Palacio’s book about Auggie Pullman, a fifth-grader with a facial disfigurement who attends mainstream school for the first time. It captures typical facets of bullying — — the forms it takes: in Auggie’s case, name-calling (‘freak’) and taunting (notes left on lockers); the power of schoolmates to stop bullying; the unhelpful attitudes of certain parents; and the efforts schools can make to right things.

Auggie looks different — he overhears a classmate saying he’d ‘kill himself’ if he looked like him.

Bullying is almost solely targeted at difference, says psychotherapist and Bully-Proof Kids author Stella O’Malley. “The common denominator for targets of bullying is they’re different. Children sense difference very quickly. It’s primal — in caveman times difference was a threat — so children are rattled when faced with it. They need to be taught to handle it.”

James O’Higgins Norman, director of National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre, DCU, agrees — research finds children who stand out more vulnerable to bullying. “It could be physical disability, social class, skin colour — when kids don’t understand difference, they react in cruel ways. But when schools educate about difference — that it’s good — bullying levels reduce.”

Twenty-two percent of primary schoolchildren experience bullying. “Schools do their best but it’s an ongoing challenge,” says O’Higgins Norman. Official safeguards include the Anti-Bullying Policy and Code of Behaviour which all schools must have. In 2013, the anti-bullying circular was extended to include homophobic and cyber bullying. Principals must report any serious bullying incidents once a term to school board of management. Teachers are instructed to record incidences of bullying too.

Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN) president David Ruddy says the Stay Safe programme’s anti-bullying section sees every teacher discussing in class how wrong bullying is. “The other big thing schools promote is ‘we’re a telling school’ — it’s fine to tell. In my day, we were called ‘rats’ if we told. The whole idea is to make bullying very un-cool,” says Ruddy.

But schools are a microcosm of society — so bullying happens. And it’s more likely if a child has special needs. While the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) developed an Inclusive Framework, requiring schools to formulate policies accommodating difference, a 2014-published report commissioned by NCSE tells a sorry tale.

The report analysed data from the nine-year-old cohort of the Growing Up in Ireland study, specifically those with special educational needs (SEN). It found children with SEN reported being bullied more frequently (47%) than ‘typical’ children (36%). Reports by parents of their child being bullied were also more frequent for kids with SEN (36%) than those without (19%).

During the 2015-’16 school year, 28,714 students in mainstream primary schools got extra teaching from resource teachers — disabilities included ASD, emotional/behavioural disturbance, hearing impairment and moderate general learning disability. David Ruddy, who was principal of a Clondalkin school for 20 years, says he personally didn’t come across children with special needs being targeted. “Children can be very inclusive and have a great sense of fairness, though I’m sure [bullying] could happen — a child with behavioural issues without good social skills could find themselves being bullied or bullying others.”

Ruddy believes the existence of SNAs protects against bullying. “We have about 12,000 SNAs and an equal number of special needs teachers — take them out of the system and schools wouldn’t be as comfortable for kids with special needs.” O’Higgins Norman says integrating children with special needs into mainstream schools requires additional work with other children as to why this child has special needs and how they can include them.

Educational psychologist and systemic family psychotherapist Richard Hogan sees children on the (ASD) spectrum targeted because of their difficulty reading subtleties of communication. “[They’re] very straight in their answers, so bullies ask silly, ridiculous questions to try to get the child to be logical about it. The questions are designed to trick, humiliate and alienate the child,” says Hogan, who works to show such targeted kids the difference between genuine and ‘dangerous’ questions.

Bullying takes many shapes, from physical/verbal aggression to being isolated. “A big one is messing with someone’s school bag, taking out and hiding their pencil case or books, and the kid’s saying ‘Sir, I can’t find my bag’,” says Hogan.

Jenny Ryan, psychologist and anti-bullying consultant sees less physical bullying and more rumour-spreading and name-calling.

“Mainly, I see exclusion — leaving kids out of games and passing the buck. It happens a lot in primary schools. A child asks to join in and someone says ‘oh, I don’t know — ask so-and-so’. It implies a few dominant characters that the others are a bit fearful of. Teachers must pick up on this and really reinforce: everyone has a right to play.”

Bullying’s highly challenging to deal with because human beings are complex, says Ruddy. “Take girls bitching among themselves — it’s difficult to resolve. Or a parent comes in saying: ‘I saw this [bullying behaviour on social media] on my child’s phone over the weekend’. The school’s obliged to follow up, yet Article 42 of the Constitution says the primary educator is the family — no child of primary school age should even be on Facebook.”

Research shows cyber-bullying rarely happens in isolation — in 90% of cases, traditional bullying’s also occurring. “It can be hard to protect the child because he’s encountering bullying in different spaces,” says O’Higgins Norman.

O’Malley agrees much of bullying is exclusion, which is very nebulous. “It’s hard to put your finger on someone being excluded. Other parents will say ‘they can’t be friends with everybody’. Fair enough — as adults we can’t be friends with everyone, yet we ask kids to do it.”

And some children don’t realise they’re being bullied.

“Take a boy, slagged all the time for being short. The others call him ‘big ears’. They’re saying ‘look at the state of him — trip him over’, and the little fellow’s laughing along, thinking ‘this is all just a laugh because everyone’s laughing’. He becomes insecure, yet it’s difficult for his parents to deal with because the kid might be trying to get in with these boys.” Ryan has seen similar dynamics.

“In school situations, where there’s a hierarchy, the target often responds in ways that [perpetuate] the hierarchy.”

Teachers add to the challenge if they speak negatively among themselves about the child — and this happens, says Hogan.

“I recommend principals ask teachers to refrain from negative comments about a student in the staffroom. A teacher saying ‘Johnny brings a lot of trouble on himself’ copperfastens a thought — it becomes absolutely what Johnny is. Once out in the staffroom, such comments create a thick narrative that can last children a lifetime.”

According to Laura Erskine, mum-in-residence for MummyPages.ie, mums regularly seek online peer advice on how to handle bullying. “They worry about taking the wrong approach and making things worse. In some instances, when perpetrator or their parents don’t acknowledge or seem to care about their role in the bullying, it can leave the victim and their parents very upset.”

Parents can get it wrong. Hogan says the biggest parental challenge is over-identifying with the problem. He advises being ‘by’ your child’s side, not ‘on’ it. “When you’re on your child’s side, your anxiety’s heightened. You’re telling your child this is a serious problem, they’re right to be fearful. You’re ringing the school, giving out.” Whereas, when you’re by your child’s side, you’re listening, empathetic, advising the child.

O’Malley finds parents don’t read the bullying dynamics — they go for quick answers: ‘oh, it’s because my child’s tall’; ‘your man’s just a bully’. What’s needed is deep analysis. “In a big way, parents must gather information — and not just from their child. I often advise inviting the [perpetrator] over. Observing the bully in your own house, you’ll see what’s going on a lot quicker. Ask your child’s other friends: ‘what’s Johnny like with my boy?’ Maybe Johnny’s horrible to everyone, not just your kid — so you’d approach it very differently with the teacher.”

The desire for punishment for the other child also trips up parents, says Ryan. She gets this, but it makes things worse. She recommends parents consider what resolves conflict among adults — good conversation, communication and education. “We need to increase empathy in the [perpetrator] and increase assertiveness in the [targeted child].”

She cites school-based, anti-bullying programme KiVa developed in Finland. It aims to prevent bullying by influencing group norms and by building children’s capacity to behave in constructive ways — taking responsibility for not encouraging bullying and supporting vulnerable peers. The programme has clear guidelines for tackling bullying — handling each case in individual and group discussions between school KiVa team and the students involved. Several pro-social peers are challenged to support their targeted classmate. Since its roll-out, bullying has decreased in Finland.

What else can parents do? “Stay calm. Reassure the child it’s not their fault. Find places away from school where your child has feelings of success,” advises O’Higgins Norman.

Help child reassert power, recommends O’Malley. “Notice the pattern. Is bullying worse at lunchtime? Then play close to supervising teacher. Does bully get others laughing at your child during sports? Encourage him to pre-empt things: ‘I know I’m not good at sports Johnny — you don’t have to tell me’.”

Teach child assertiveness and resilience, says Ryan. No asking permission to join the game, instead child says: ‘I’m joining in — I don’t have to ask permission’. “Sometimes non-verbal [assertiveness] is best: maintain eye contact, shrug shoulders and stay put, within reason — after three verbal taunts/five minutes of negativity, make very assertive excuse: ‘I have better things to do’.”


Be your child’s voice, urges Ryan. Approach their teacher, say you don’t want the other child in trouble, but assert the behaviour’s not ok and you want observation increased. “The teacher has a duty to do this if asked,” says Ryan, who strongly recommends a ‘restorative’ approach. “Depending on the teacher’s skill-set, I’d advise s/he speak to the two children together in a very restorative way. First meet with each individually to hear what happened. Then meet both together, asking ‘what do you have to say about this incident’.

“Asking the hurt child ‘how did you feel’ gives them some power and the other gets the chance to have some empathy.”

Difference is often the flag that attracts the bully. So own your quirk, says Ryan. “Children are often not allowed to own their difference. If your child’s short, encourage him to say ‘Jezz, I know, I’m tiny’. If you own what’s ‘wrong’ with you, nobody can use it against you.”

We’re all different, some more obviously so. Valuing difference means a more inclusive society, with more variety and tolerance and a richer tapestry of perspective, says O’Higgins Norman. “Schools all over Ireland are doing their best,” he says, citing, for example, a school in Ballyfermot. “They don’t wait for difference to arise. They proactively teach ‘we value difference’. From the start, everyone is presumed to be different rather than the same.”

‘I thought it was anxiety, being in a new environment’

Mum-of-three Patricia* says six-year-old Mia* was bullied soon after beginning primary school in Limerick.

“She stuck out because she’s taller than the other children. She was five but she wore clothes for a seven-year-old. She knew the other little girl from pre-school. In October, she started not having her dinner — three out of five evenings she wouldn’t eat it. I thought it was anxiety, being in a new environment.

“My husband works [shifts]. He drops her to school and he always says ‘see you tomorrow morning’. The other child started saying ‘your daddy doesn’t love you — your daddy and mummy don’t live together’. I approached the child’s mum about it. She said ‘your daughter’s taller than my daughter — she needs to toughen up’. As the term went on, Mia was getting really withdrawn and upset about the tiniest thing. I couldn’t get out of her what it was. My nephew was with her one day and she told him everything. The other child was calling her ‘Stretch’ — Mia’s tracksuit trousers were a bit short — she’d grown and the child was saying ‘your mummy won’t buy you new clothes because you’re too tall’.

“She was telling her if she stopped eating and drinking she’d be the perfect height and weight.

“Mia was coming home with scribbles on her arm, bruising on her leg. I went to the teacher and found the child was doing the same to others. The school’s policy is no exclusion so the [offending] child couldn’t be put sitting in the corner — eventually, she was made sit at teacher’s desk.

“The school implemented its bullying policy — warning the child in theclassroom and sending a written warning to her parents. They said their daughter wouldn’t do anything like that. The child was moved to a different class and isreceiving counselling.

“Mia’s great now — she’s confident again. We have a no secrets policy in our house — if someone says ‘boo’ to her at school, she can come home and say it. She can write it on a piece of paper and hand it to me if she feels she can’t talk to me. She knows now to say: ‘That’s not a nice thing to say to me — I’m not that thing’.”

*Names changed

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