Schools need increased literacy on bullying

A national agenda on bullying in schools

Don’t do your best, do what is necessary

Australia needs a new national agenda on bullying in schools because what Australian schools are doing is not working. A survey of bullying in schools in about 40 countries found that Australian primary schools were among those with the highest reported incidence of bullying in the world (TIMSS and PIRLS international reports from 2015). Most parents don’t need statistics to confirm this, they know it well from their kids’ school. The high prevalence and seriousness of the behaviour kids have to put up with are also amply demonstrated by ever-new stories in the media most weeks.

But why? It is an unavoidable truth that if we cannot adequately express the problem, we cannot find a solution.

I’m sure it is the case that kids who suffer from bullying in schools will find very caring teachers and school leaders who will do the best they can to solve the issues at hand. It is also rather unfortunate that the best support most schools can provide is also not good enough and even for all their good intentions, they are not doing what is necessary.

bullying in schools
Despite all their good intentions – many schools don’t do what is necessary about bullying

Bullying in schools and Lessons from the workplace

Unfortunately, there is no easy fix that schools are ignoring. There is, however, ample reason to assert that there are little literacy and training of teachers in how to recognise bullying and about how to address bullying once recognised. Schools do not invest in adequate training because they do not encounter the types of bullying very much that would incentivise them to train staff better.

Australian schools might have to see more litigious behaviour from parents before priorities change. Because of widespread litigation around workplace health and safety, staff gets workplaces fitted and someone will be on hand to tape down any cables to avoid trip-and-fall litigation or set up “wet floor” signs for leaks. We need to see this approach to bullying as well.

Bullying is not on display all the time, kids get on with things and make the best out of it and teachers get on with teaching. When the offending child is walking out after a talking-to, victim and parents soothed, the problem is walking out the door and all boxes are ticked.

This is not an adequate approach.

Bullying in schools: Many unused resources

There are lots of research and resources available on bullying in schools but they are not being widely used. Such resources concern both what constitutes bullying and around types of bullies and victims. Researchers have recognised for a long time that this is a problem that can be sliced and diced in every which way and is not clear-cut nor does the problem conform to common short-hand definitions of bullying.

Ken Rigby points this out in his article last year for the Conversation. Specifically, his research included feedback from teachers saying they had little or no training in how to handle actual cases of bullying.

It does not matter how many posters you have, how many awareness campaigns, how many policies and general talk if you cannot handle actual cases of bullying.

All schools will have a policy on bullying, a local dialogue on bullying, that is, talking about it, making posters about it, maybe even a nice friendship bench. This is not the same as having teachers adequately trained to deal with bullying or measures to make the children comfortable approaching teachers about bullying, really often two sides of the same issue.

bullying in schools
If schools don’t deal effectively with incidences of bullying, they also don’t make kids comfortable about coming forward to report bullying. Thus, the problem “goes away”.

Bullying in schools: What training programs and approaches are being used?

An Australian government report outlines some current approaches to bullying in schools.

Universal Approach

We have the Friendly Schools program. This is a current strategy that comes under the Universal Approach to bullying. This is a community-wide approach that works to raise awareness and understanding of bullying, give support to students and discourage bullying behaviour. This is the feel-good approach to bullying where everyone can take a stand, say nice things and school leadership can feel they have done something and everyone can see that they have done something. Politically a very good approach that can be assumed to work in any one school until proven otherwise, that is, everything is ok until it is not. When bullying does spring through this blanket approach to influencing attitudes and social environment, the situation is probably past talking about it.

Selective Approach

The Selective Approach target a group or individuals in a support group approach. Some calls it the shared responsibility approach, training programs include the “Support Group Method” and The “Method of Shared Concern”. It used to be called the “no blame approach”. There are several other training programs in this category of Selective Approach to bullying. These have been shown in research to be effective methods of dealing with incidences of bullying but the level of training in Australian schools remain low.

Indicated Preventive Interventions

The most intensive approach is the Indicated Preventive Interventions that include family therapy to address maladaptive patterns of family interactions that are linked to the child’s symptoms, i.e. the bullying behaviour. It is designed to help the child develop intentions and skills to act in a healthy manner. This method is employed in programs and specialist schools dealing with more highly maladapted young people. Schools can refer families for this kind of support or to schools with specialist counseling programs.

Description of the bully and the victim

The Norwegian Research Professor of Psychology, Dr. Olweus established back in the early ’70s the vocabulary that has been applied ever since when discussing bullying in schools. I will quote from his 1993 “Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do”.

Bullies tend to exhibit the following characteristics

  • They have a strong need to dominate and subdue other students and to get their own way
  • Are impulsive and are easily angered
  • Are often defiant and aggressive toward adults, including parents and teachers
  • Show little empathy toward students who are victimised If they are boys, they are physically stronger than boys in general

The victims generally have some of the following characteristics:

  • Are cautious, sensitive, quiet, withdrawn and shy
  • Are often anxious, insecure, unhappy and have low self-esteem
  • Are depressed and engage in suicidal ideation much more often than their peers
  • Often do not have a single good friend and relate better to adults than to peers
  • If they are boys, they may be physically weaker than their peers

There are many more researchers that have developed much more refined definitions of bullies, their behaviour, and their victims but for this purpose, one of the original descriptions will do.

bullying victims
Would you recognise bullying? Bullying is often incidious and the perpertators are also often the victim’s friends.

Ad hoc application of “doing their best”

I think one of the reasons schools do not invest in training for their teachers is that they fail to recognise much bullying in their schools and their level of comfort is quite high.

Do they not receive complaints of bullying? Of course they do. They think what they do is adequate.

They may even have high-level interventions like letting the bullied kid have reduced hours of school contact time, or arrange for conciliation and meetings of all involved. This may have been a strategy covered in a workshop on bullying, however, it is a fallacy to blindly apply something that may work in some scenarios and then fail to recognise when it will not. They lack training in recognising what is the best strategy and then do not have the resources to find a more appropriate strategy.

The “nice” bully

Thinking that the bully is the child no-one likes is a fallacy, as is thinking they come from poor homes, have little self-esteem and so on. The bully is often socially strong, popular, does well academically and is well liked both by students and teachers.

Bullying is often put into convenient boxes: there is bullying in primary school types, bullying in secondary school types but then there is little cognisance that as these individuals continue through life, they do not change.

Certainly, the “common bully” with problems at home, that may be academically challenged, have self-esteem issues, is often assumed to continue on their path to a life of crime, domestic violence or just  to become a dysfunctional adult.

Most are well functioning and popular and at Uni their behaviour becomes known as “hazing”, then, later on, you meet them in the workplace. They are well liked, efficient and clever and still engaged in the behaviour that always worked well for them – bullying.

It may be a challenging proposition to put out there that schools don’t invest in adequate training because they do not encounter the types of bullying very much that would incentivise them to train staff better. Most bullying goes unrecognised by teachers and most bullies are rewarded in school as they will be later in life. Because of their superior skills-sets, they are given awards in school, they are loud and they get heard – the bully probably made the best presentation on bullying. In the workplace, they are readily promoted.

From the news, we can pick out some high profile bullies, though they may not commonly be called such: Michaelia Cash, Senator for Western Australia and Minister for Jobs and Innovation; Peta Credlin, Chief of Staff to former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister. I shall not dissect their doings but I think anyone half following current affairs understands. The point is bullying is efficient, it works.

Most people around the bully is not bullied. The sophistication they show will be highly dependent on their personality.

confident successful woman
Bullies are often clever and popular with both staff and students and continue to be successful in life.

Would you recognise bullying?

In childcare and pre-prep, you might encounter behaviour such as someone in a group always having to play the patient while the popular child will be the doctor or the nurse, someone will get the less popular doll, the less popular clothes for the doll, never be able to decide the game to play and their part in it. The behaviour is not clear-cut – it can be bullying and it may not be. It depends both on the level of agency and the level of perceived force or choice.

Moving on to primary school: who in a group is left to guard the empty prison by themselves in a game of cops and robbers, who is always asked to be the goalie in a ball game, who is not invited to birthday parties, who does not get the ball much in ball games or is chosen last in PE classes when the popular kids pick their team. None of these instances are necessarily bullying. This is where training and recognising the context comes in. The kids involved in the behaviour may or may not intend to sideline and exclude other kids. They are probably well behaved and well liked and also probably the excluded child’s friend. Bullying is not as clear-cut as some discourses around the issue may indicate.

There are much worse behaviours out there on school grounds, in classrooms, and cyberspace, thus also making it easier to decide that intervention is needed. Knowing that people’s base tendencies do not tend to change much – how many of those bullies started out on the lower end with unrecognised, unsanctioned behaviour?

Girls interact very differently to boys so it is not surprising that the behaviour to watch out for with girls also is different and does not fit well with common perceptions about bullying. Girls bully other girls that they are in a close social relationship with and get away with it because they are the victim’s friend and people in authority don’t recognise it or does not know what to do.

Increased training of teachers is a question of resources and thus one of priority. Bullying in schools is a problem that intersects with other issues such as the safe schools/LGBTIQ issues and cyber safety. Bullying in schools may not be the problem we thought it was and literacy is key – just like it has been in the discourse around and understanding of sexual violence and harassment and domestic violence.


Olweus, D., & Limber, S. P. (2010). Bullying in school: Evaluation and dissemination of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 80, 120–129. doi:10.1111/j.1939- 0025.2010.01015.x.

Olweus Bullying Prevention Program

Maines, B., & Robinson, G. (1992). The No Blame Approach. Bristol: Lucky Duck.

Australian Government. Australian Institute of Family Studies Children who bully at school

Psychology Today Izzy Kalman

American Psychological Society “School Bullying is Nothing New, But Psychologists Identify New Ways to Prevent It”

Ken Rigby “I don’t want to be teased”

The support group method

Method of shared concern

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