“Our world is becoming increasingly violent. Social and political initiatives everywhere are seeking to counteract escalating trends of suicide, aggression, crime, destruction of the environment and ultimately war.” — James W Prescott PhD. How Culture Shapes the Developing Brain and the Future of Humanity
No matter how many laptops, iPads, interactive white boards or other innovations that are appearing in our schools, we cannot ignore the elephant in the room — bullying is on the rise and negatively impacts almost every classroom. Teachers everywhere are struggling with the issue from kindergarten through to the high school and valuable time is wasted trying to solve the problem because it is not easy.
Before I continue I need to clarify the difference between childhood nastiness and bullying. Children have always had moments when the choices they make when interacting with other children are unkind and hurtful. The odd shove, bite or name calling incident is how children learn how to make better social decisions with careful guidance by adults. It shows that emotional competence to manage impulses, delay gratification, manage emotions and develop empathy take time to grow. This is normal childhood nastiness and is different from bullying where there is a deliberate intent to hurt another by using an unacceptable use of power and it is often repeated.
“Bullying is when someone (or a group of people) with more power than you, repeatedly and intentionally uses negative words and/or actions against you, which causes you distress and risks your wellbeing.” — National Council Against Bullying (Aust)
I was asked to take over a Year 9 English class for a teacher going who was going on maternity leave and I was warned that the worst bully of the school was in that class. ‘Tommy’ certainly had attitude and no-one would sit near him in class and no-one wanted to ever work with him. I decided early on that he looked lonely. I spent time building a cooperative caring class environment by doing different activities and the best one was paired sharing. This involves students choosing students they don’t know, and doing a guided pair-share. I kept the time limit to 90 seconds and ensured that only one person speaks and the other listens — no interruptions. Each pair-share began with 90 seconds sharing your life story — then swap, then maybe talk about your best play experiences from childhood then swap, maybe share worst nightmares, favourite foods, if I had $1million what would I do? I also enjoy using Jenny Mosley’s Circle Time after the first week as this is a powerful way of building connectedness. After the second week something interesting happened – students were sitting next to Tommy, speaking to him and even working with him in groups. Tommy never put a foot out of place and his studies improved dramatically. The bully had been tamed.
In many ways the increases in school bullying is a sign that our adult world has changed. There is more violence in sport, road rage, violent computer games, alcohol-induced violence, less manners, reality TV that publicly makes fun of people, graffiti and high levels of youth homelessness — all sure signs we have lost social capital and a former culture of community cohesion and care. Despite these social changes, we still need to do everything we can to reduce the bullying that exists in our schools. In a way, bullying behaviour has almost become accepted as the new norm. Our job now is to change this.
In my experience as a high-school teacher and a counsellor I know that both the bully and the victim are struggling with emotional illiteracy and a low sense of self. The bully covers his or her inadequacy by ‘acting out being tough’ when they are really struggling to cover up a low self-esteem and a fear of being rejected.
Many victims are chosen because they appear vulnerable or just because they are different – not because they are weak. They have a different culture, they have big ears, they are overweight, they seem to have no friends or they have a noticeable life challenge. Then there are the victims who are chosen because they have what the bully values and wishes he/she had good looks, wealthy family, courage to be individual, a girlfriend/boyfriend, artistic talent, lots of good friends, school success or even a happy family. The bully’s actions are what then causes the victim to struggle — being frightened for one’s safety, being shamed, harassed, constant verbal and psychological abuse, and being excluded all cause deep trauma within children and adolescents. The thinking processes become distorted and the inner critic voice of many victims will become negative, toxic and the cycle of self-destructive and critical thoughts continually erodes the victim so that they then attack themselves. Effectively, they bully themselves and expect to be bullied this is a very difficult cycle to break and this can have lethal consequences especially in adolescence.
“I endured years of bullying from those in my school, and in my class especially. I still remember their names, all of them, and to this day am still haunted by the years of humiliation. As a result, I have not managed to develop many friendships, been quite a shy person, dislike social activity, and have ended up pretty much a prisoner to my own fears of being embarrassed and humiliated”. — Nurturing Kids’ Hearts and Souls, Maggie Dent (2005)
Signs a student might be being bullied:
- Unexplained cuts or bruises
- Ripped clothing
- Vague headaches or stomachaches
- Reluctance to go to school
- Asking for “lost” possessions to be replaced
- “Losing” lunch money
- Falling out with previously good friends
- Being moody or bad tempered
- Doing less well at schoolwork
- Being quiet or withdrawn
- Unexpected outbursts and meltdowns.
We are wired to be social beings and schools are small societies. The two biggest threats that can happen to humans are to be rejected from the tribe and to appear weak because biologically this would mean death. Our ancestors and we humble humans today are instinctually wired to survive before being happy or clever. This instinctual behaviour still happens to feel unloved and powerless means to feel rejected and weak. Dr Matthew Lieberman, a social cognitive scientist, has found that social pains like being rejected, treated unfairly and being verbally abused feels like a physical pain. The brain shows the same neural responses of distress in either situation and social pain, like bullying can be seen to affect victims much more deeply than previously believed.
“… we sometimes think someone should ‘get over’ their hurt feelings despite the fact that we would never think someone should ‘get over’ their broken leg. Accordingly, we need to appreciate that however much reality we accord to physical pain we should also extend to social pain.” — Dr Matthew Lieberman, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2010.
In reverse, being treated fairly activates the same neural pathways as chocolate. This finding was like a light bulb going off in my head. I rarely saw any bullying in my high school classrooms and I speak to many teachers who experience the same. Yet some of my students were known to be bullies in other classes and in the playground. When the primary needs of every individual to feel safe, cared for, and valued are fulfilled it removes the invisible threat of rejection and the unconscious trigger of the fight/flight/freeze response. Bullies are often triggered to fight when they feel unsafe, inadequate or rejected. Being treated fairly is a huge influence on student behaviour in our schools. This negates the primitive and instinctual needs to demonstrate power and strength. This is what happened with Tommy.
I have concerns that the anti-bullying programs and initiatives may be unintentionally making things worse. When you focus on the word ‘bullying’ it creates a mental picture that makes the problem even more evident. Also, to change human behaviour you need more than a one-hour-a-week program that lasts a term. The message that bullying is unacceptable must be embedded within a school culture that focuses equally on academic growth and building emotional and social competence within an inclusive caring school environment. Essentially this is what schools were doing before the national testing focus become flavour of the month and stole times spent done doing non-academic activities.
Effective teachers have less time to build the best bully-busting initiatives that are known in childhood – building friendship, human connectedness, inclusivity and belonging through lots of play, school singing, dancing and the arts. The bullies and victims need to feel they are both safe and protected. Bullies are not born, they are made — they have to have been bullied themselves. So when a classroom offers protection and genuine care, they can relax and let their learned behaviour or their instinctual reactions take a back seat.
Their pre-frontal cortex can only function when their amygdala is calm and off alert. The same goes for the victims. Some children simply do not know how to be a good friend and no amount of sanctions will help. I am a good friend is a visualisation I have created for children under seven to build neural pathways that allow children with poor social skills to learn how to be a kind and caring friend. Kindergartens and childcare centres that have used this have seen huge positive shifts for children with bullying tendencies. One of the best protective factors against bullying is having friends — there is safety in numbers.
Ways schools can help prevent and overcome bullying:
- Have a school focus on fairness: Everyone matters — no matter what.
- Increase play time in classrooms and school grounds play — an excellent way of building emotional and social competences.
- Teach calmness and stillness to children from kindergarten.
- Build safer classrooms and playgrounds — reduce threats of rejection.
- Have a strong pastoral care focus in schools.
- Explore ways to build sense of belonging for troubled individuals. A teacher ‘ally’ is an essential part of helping bullies and victims to develop trust and understanding. To build a sense of inner value and worth, students need to help out others, e.g. read to preschoolers, help local elderly people, help in school gardens, help their teacher allies in some way. This technique builds self-esteem instead of damaging it through more sanctions and discipline.
- Run as many programs as possible for as long as possible that build resilience, emotional and social competence. (e.g. Best Programs 4 Kids have some fantastic resources, Better Buddies is an initiative of The Alannah and Madeline Foundation and Kids Matter also run some great programs).
- Build school spirit with school songs, assemblies, school plays, fun days and fundraising activities.
Serious and prolonged bullying leaves scars for life. The modern world is contributing to the problem with busy parents, children playing less outside and with each other, and having access to social networks online. Many of today’s children are couch potatoes, hurried and over-scheduled in many ways and this causes a heightened sense of stress and stressed children are more prone to being bullies or victims. Children need adults to keep children in our schools and homes safe and maybe this is where the problem really begins.
Maybe if we all slowed down a little, hurried less, allowed our precious children their whole childhood to grow up and invested heaps of time guiding our children how to be kind, caring and decent, bullying would disappear. Until then, we as educators need to do all we can to make our schools safe, friendly and fair places for our students. We need to value the art of good teaching which includes people making as well as academic success. Remember, fairness tastes like chocolate to the human brain and that seems like an easy place to start.
A version of this article was published in Teachers Matter magazine in 2012. Download the PDF version of the article here.