The tribe has spoken: bullying
Experts agree that bullying will never go away, but there are many well credentialed research studies and programs that point the way to minimising the harm. Schoolyard bullying has been a fact of life for many young people for centuries, say teachers, experts and even magistrates.
Acts of bullying range from trivial verbal remarks to serious physical or emotional cruelty. More often than not, bullying manifests through words. But, according to South Australian University researcher and leading authority on schoolyard bullying, Dr Ken Rigby, no matter how harmless the words may sound to the bully, they can have lasting effects on the victim.
Dr Rigby defines bullying as ‘the repeated oppression, physical or psychological, of a less powerful person by a more powerful person or group’. The consequences, like the action, can range from the trivial to the serious.
Last year, a case of bullying ended in front of a magistrate after the victim became so traumatised she took the offender to court. The magistrate, after finding the bully guilty of stalking, told the court what may have been regarded as common bullying should not be tolerated in modern schoolyards.
‘The conduct you engaged in was not really much more than the sort of bullying and unpleasantness which has gone on between people for centuries,’ the magistrate was quoted in the local press. ‘But in the context of today's society it amounted to stalking.’
The victim, from regional Victoria, earlier told a children's court the accused student repeatedly pushed her during a 12-month period. She said she often went home with bruises and was too scared to tell anyone about the bullying because she thought it would make it worse. The accused denied the incidents but was found guilty of stalking and bullying and was placed on an eight-month good behaviour bond without conviction.
Dr Ken Rigby says about one child in six is bullied each week in Australian schools. Dr Rigby has completed numerous studies on the topic, including peer surveys, where he has asked children if they were bullied, how often, how it made them feel - or indeed, were they bullies and if so, why did they do it?
His research shows:
- Verbal harassment, such as teasing, is the most common type of bullying.
- Most victims are ‘bothered’ by their experience of being bullied; with a high percentage reporting it affected their health. But boys are more likely to deny it affects them.
- The older the victim, the less likely they are to report their experience (but girls are likely to tell their friends if anyone at all, while boys conceal it).
- Many bullies say they do it because of social pressure.
- children with low self-esteem appear to be common targets (but Dr Rigby believes more research on the correlation between self-esteem and bullying needs to be done.).
- Boys get bullied more than girls.
- Bullying occurs more in primary school than secondary (but it often increases at least during the first year of high school).
Much of what Dr Rigby says is backed up by the experiences witnessed by Melbourne secondary school teacher Kylie Howarth and her peers. She agrees with Dr Rigby that bullying occurs in younger students, is more likely to occur between boys and most often manifests in verbal harassment.
Ms Howarth, who teaches both senior and middle school students, agrees bullies target the quieter students because they are less likely to strike back. ‘Bullies tend to target the kids who are weak, they don’t necessarily bully them for any particular reason but because they see a weakness,’ Ms Howarth says. ‘They could’ve been friends right through primary school, but then they get to high school, there’s a new audience, they’ve made new friends who are new people to look cool in front of.’
In her opinion, many students bully to hide their own weaknesses. It doesn’t usually lead to major trauma, but it does affect students. And their lack of preparedness to discuss the issue often makes it harder to deal with – as does the careful tactics of bullies, who often target their victims away from teachers’ eyes and ears. ‘In about 90 per cent of cases, it’s a parent, another teacher or a friend who brings it to our attention,’ she says. ‘Rarely does the kid being bullied ever bring it to us.’ Recognising bullying as a problem is one thing, but what to do about it is another.
At Ms Howarth’s school, a welfare co-ordinator is employed to tackle any conflicts the teachers are unable to resolve on their own or with the help of parents. Parental contact, she says, is also an essential part of any proactive plan because often the problems start at home. Or problems from the bullying manifest at home in various negative behavioural forms.
In another part of Victoria, at Point Lonsdale Primary School on the Bellarine Peninsula, the bullying never gets serious enough to pose as a major problem. At this school, bullying in any form is a dirty word. The school may be small but what it lacks in size it makes up for in ingenuity, proving itself as a national leader in bullying-prevention.
It’s all thanks to Tribes – a ‘process, not a program’ which was started in the United States by Jeanne Gibbs in the 1970s, but took until Point Lonsdale heard about it nearly 30 years later to reach Australian schools. Principal Fay Agterhuis began implementing Tribes at the school about six years ago after one of her teachers, Sharon Hill, went to the US for training.
Its philosophy is based on four major agreements:
- Attentive listening
- Appreciation/no put downs
- Mutual respect
- The right to pass
‘It creates a culture in the school that is built on agreements and inclusion with strategies implemented at each stage,’ Mrs Agterhuis says. It’s all about conflict resolution. And prevention.
Mrs Agterhuis also travelled to the US for training in 2002 and now, six years since her school became Australia’s first Tribes school, thousands of teachers in schools across Australia are teaching under its methods. Mrs Agterhuis estimates about 88 trainers are spread across the country, including herself.
She and Ms Hill recently spent four days at a training course in Tasmania and says she has trained 70 teachers this year. ‘It’s all word of mouth. We don’t advertise,’ she says.
So how and why is it so successful?
‘It gives the kids strategies right from the outset. It’s empowering to say I’m not going to be bullied.’ It is also powerful, she says, when she has heard one child telling a new student, ‘No, we don’t do that here,’ after an incident which could be perceived as an act of bullying.
It also works, Mrs Agterhuis says, because it is built into the curriculum as a way of life. ‘It’s not like we do Tribes after lunch on Mondays, it’s built in and it’s the glue that holds everything together.’
But Mrs Agterhuis does not try to gloss over the issue of bullying; it is obviously an issue, she says, or Tribes would never have been needed. ‘You’d be a fool to say we don’t have bullying, it would be absolute idiocy, but I would have to say we are at the low level of it. ‘It’s usually name calling and for us, that’s a big deal.’
At government level, a Victorian Education Department spokeswoman says the government does not tolerate bullying and is constantly updating methods to deal with it. The spokeswoman says it is part of each school’s duty of care to ensure bullying is addressed so that each school is ‘safe and effective’.
The department requires all government schools to develop a student code of conduct that identifies goals and standards for student behaviour, and proactively manages bullying incidents. The Victorian government contributes to the National Coalition on Bullying website, Bullying No Way, and is currently updating its own bullying website.
And last year every Victorian government school received a book called Bullying Solutions: Evidence Based Approaches to Bullying in Australian Schools written by Dr Helen McGrath, Dr Ken Rigby, Toni Noble and Andrew Fuller.
Bullying is the repeated oppression, physical or psychological, of a less powerful person by a more powerful person or group. It is not the same thing as conflict, violence or disagreement - although it may involve all these. With bullying there is always a power imbalance which makes the ill-treatment of the victim possible.
Research in schools has shown that about 85% of bullying incidents at school occur in the presence of other students who influence what goes on. Besides victims, others typically include:
- ringleaders - who take the initiative
- followers - who join in
- reinforcers - who encourage the bully or laugh at the victim
- defenders - who help the victim
- passive observers - who merely look on.
What bystanders do or refrain from doing can strongly influence the outcome.
by Dr Ken Rigby
Tribes is a process – not just a curriculum or a set of group activities. It is a step-by-step sequence of appropriate strategies to attain the goal of youth development. The caring process becomes an on-going culture within the school because it is facilitated and monitored by students within peer groups (tribes).
The culture is transformational for learning and development - kindness, respect for diversity and social support in this way become a reality throughout the school. Rather than fixing kids, fix the environments of the systems contributing to and sustaining their problems
Rather than diagnosing and labeling weaknesses, involve teachers, parents and students to identify, appreciate and celebrate each young person's strengths and importance to self and others.
For more information visit Tribes.
Created by Australia's educational communities with input from all state education sectors, as well as students, staff, parents, agencies, education officers and community members from schools around the country.
Better Buddies, an initiative of the Alannah and Madeline Foundation.
The Better Buddies Program promotes the awareness of the existence of vulnerable children and teaches children to care for one another.
Dealing with bullying together: Prevention and resolution, Pam Linke, published by Early Childhood Australia
Bullying can have a significant impact on children’s lives, whether they are the instigator or the victim of the bullying. Early childhood educators have a responsibility to protect children from bullying and to support those who bully to learn appropriate social behaviours.
Experienced author, Pam Linke, offers practical advice on:
- Becoming a careful and objective observer
- Strategies for helping children who are bullied and children who bully
- Supporting parents when their children are bullied or they bully
- Preventing bullying behaviour from and early age
This article was first published in Australian Family Magazine, May 2006. Updated July 2009.