As a teacher I was always on the look out for bullying behaviour. The school I previously worked for were hot on nipping any bullying behaviour in the bud. Bullying has such a detrimental effect on children that it was important to address it before it escalated. As a school, we advocated Anti-Bullying Awareness and participated in Anti-Bullying week. We were teaching children what bullies do, as well as what to do if they saw someone being bullied and the actions they should take if they themselves felt like they were being bullied. We educated children on the differences between being mean to someone and the act of bullying itself. We taught children to be kind to each other and educated them on accepting each other. We were also educating parents as well in the procedures to take if their child had expressed that they were being bullied at school and reassured them that we had an ‘Anti-Bullying Policy’ in place to ensure that any incidents, deemed as bullying, were dealt with effectively. I always felt armed and ready to deal with any child who felt like they were being bullied and always took any incidences seriously and was eager to stamp out negative behaviours immediately.
Quite recently, I met a very good friend of mine for lunch who was worried about her son. He had become withdrawn, lacked interest in things he used to love doing and seemed to have lost his ‘spark’. She explained to me that she was going back and forth to his school because he was being bullied by some other boys in his class. Even though her son had reported the bullying as soon as he felt able to, it took some time for the boys to be held accountable for their actions. Even though the bullying had stopped, the effects were still ongoing. I’m not here to dissect how the school dealt with the bullying incident because, in truth, I don’t know the full story and knowing schools the way I do, they would have had things in place to support him. I was upset for my friend and empathised with her. My own daughter went through a bullying incident at the start of secondary school and seven years later she is still dealing with the effects of those.
As we were discussing how bullying still goes on even after the act itself had stopped, it was then I said to her:
“Schools really should be educating children to recognise bullying characteristics in themselves because once the bullying occurs, it’s too late, the damage is done.”
This thought has stayed with me. Even after the bullying has stopped, the damage is already done. So why aren’t we teaching children to recognise emotions that relate to, and could potentially lead to, bullying behaviours?
Yes, we should absolutely be educating children on how to recognise a bully, stop other people from being bullied and protect others from being bullied but our first port-of-call should be educating the bullies or potential bullies first and foremost. Prevention is better than cure, if you like. I’ll say it again: Once the bullying is out there, hurting others, the damage is already done. The bullied are hurt and it takes a long time to recover from that.
The Anti-Bullying Alliance defines bullying as “ […] as the repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power. It can happen face to face or online.” This could also include, and is not limited to, physical and emotional bullying be it online or in a social setting, threatening behaviour, name-calling, making things up to get someone into trouble, taking items or leaving the person out of activities on purpose. These are repeated actions that occur over a period of time which will affect a person’s well-being and mental health.
We may also have a pre-conceived idea of what a bully looks like. For example; a person who is aggressive and more dominant in persona, as well as size, who may be experiencing some form of neglect or are in an aggressive environment. Isn’t this how bullies are often described? Bullies, however, come in all shapes and sizes and are from varying backgrounds. They could be from poverty-stricken areas or even from affluent families. Don’t assume that just because a bully doesn’t fit the historic stereotype they aren’t, in fact, making someone’s life hell. In fact, some bullies are faceless. Bullies can be hidden behind their computer screens, cowering behind the so-called safety of their anonymity as they type their toxic words.
So what makes someone bully? To put it very simply: it’s all about power. It’s the power between the bully and the victim. There also needs to be some sort of gain. To illustrate further, the bully is trying to gain popularity, gain possessions, gain a sense of control as well as self-importance. Often bullies have been thought of as those with low self-esteem but recent studies have shown that it is those with a high sense of self-esteem and a sophisticated understanding of social behaviours will often do the majority of the bullying (Psychology Today).
What should we be doing about it?
I don’t think I can articulate how incredibly important education is here. We should all be educating our children, right from the word go, on the variety of emotions. Not just happy, sad and angry but also more complex emotions such as jealousy, envy, disgust, embarrassment and awe. Developing an awareness of how our emotions reflect certain circumstances, can help us to understand how our emotions can actually affect our actions. From there, we should then be exploring how and why these emotions manifest and how our actions can affect others. The aim here is to develop empathy in children as well as promoting the idea of how actions lead to consequences. When children are educated in managing their emotions, they are emotionally intelligent. This means they are able to understand a variety of different situations and manage them with a level of sophistication. If children understand anger, then they should be able to express why they are feeling it and where this emotion has come from. From this point, we should be teaching children how to diffuse those negative emotions before they filter through to irreversible actions.
A few years ago, I taught a class about the effects of what happens if we say mean things to each other by demonstrating with a tube of toothpaste. As I squeezed out the toothpaste I said things like; ‘I’m angry and I want to feel better by making others feel bad’, ‘I’m going to say mean things such as ….’ As the class and I, sensitively, discussed things that could be deemed ‘mean’, I squeezed more toothpaste out. At the end, I asked the class that if I say these things, can I take them back? Although they recognised that we can apologise for things we say, the ‘mean’ things we say are already out there - we can’t take them back… just like the toothpaste. Putting toothpaste back in the tube is very hard. Taking back the things we’ve said or done is just as difficult. (Side note here: I did this with a Key Stage 2 class where I was aware of their emotional maturity. Exercises like this have to be age appropriate so children understand on their level.)
Therefore, I stress the importance of teaching children that emotionally influenced actions have consequences. We should also be teaching mindfulness in every year group and how we can turn one emotion into another. For example; a child should be able to understand when they feel angry. They should also be able to articulate why they feel angry and what’s caused it? They should be able to diffuse that emotion by thinking; ‘If I carry on feeling like this, what is going to happen? I may hurt somebody and myself’, ‘If I use one of my tools (like breathing) to help me calm down it is going to help me feel calmer’, ‘The emotion I want to feel which will help me have a good day is happy, I’m going to sing my favourite song to make myself feel happy’. Of course, the language and tools used are interchangeable depending what is appropriate for that child.
Once a good, solid foundation of understanding of how to control personal emotions has been built, we can then educate on how our emotions can influence our actions and, therefore affect others. It is, at this point, appropriate to inform children of the different ways bullying can occur. They may recognise bullying as seeking out someone persistently, just to say something mean to them. Or by using negative language to focus on someone’s appearance. Or even take an object away from somebody else. Or by physically hurting someone. Once we highlight these for children, they may be able to recognise any negative thoughts or actions that could be construed as a bullying. We can help them to question their own actions:
‘Why do I feel angry?’
‘Why am I constantly going towards this person just to hurt them?’
‘Why do I feel the need to say something mean about what they are wearing?’
‘Why do I always take their toys?’
‘Why am I feeling these bad emotions towards that person?’
Asking those ‘Why’ questions are extremely important. As educators (parents, teachers and specialist groups) we also need to ensure that if our children are feeling these conflicting thoughts, they have somewhere safe they can go to talk to someone who can help them manage these emotions. In schools, this may be someone who specialises in emotional literacy (ELSA). I also want to point out that I do not expect this to be something children will admit freely. It is up to parents and educators to help them identify these characteristics. Promoting emotional education is to help children recognise, articulate and manage varying emotions.
In addition to this, I also want to add that children who may be demonstrating bullying behaviour must also be monitored and investigated by professionals. Anyone who work with children will tell you – children don’t bully for the sake of it, there is always a reason behind the behaviour, therefore these children will be identified and supported effectively.
Although, this all seems incredibly advanced for children in Key Stage 1 (and earlier), and, quite frankly, no one wants to believe that any child of any age would be capable of bullying, we have to be realistic and acknowledge that it does happen. The sooner we address it the better. I truly believe that it is incredibly important to teach all children about recognising emotions, why these emotions may have manifested, how our emotions control our actions and how our actions affect others. The more we teach this, the more children will become emotionally intelligent and be able to monitor and self-govern themselves.
Children need to be educated on emotions and their effects in addition to recognising bullying characteristics in others. This needs to start as early as possible. If done in a sensitive and age-appropriate way, then perhaps we can stop so many children and young people be affected by bullying by stopping the bullying before it even starts.
Our world is changing and bullying still persists in all areas of our world. As I write this, we have just learned about the tragic passing of Caroline Flack. Although it hasn’t been officially confirmed, many that knew Caroline have expressed that she had taken her own life. Laura Whitmore’s heart-wrenching tribute to Caroline criticised Twitter trolls and the media for “tearing down” everything she did. Laura is absolutely right. Enough is enough. Be it on social media or in-person, we all need to be kinder to each other and be aware of our own emotions. We may not think our words or actions hurt, but they do. It’s focusing on why people act the way they do is important. People feel a certain way about an issue, they act upon it and, more often than not, somebody gets hurt:
Emotions = Actions = Consequences.
The sooner we educate our children about handling emotions effectively the kinder the world will be. This is about supporting the mental health of ALL children and creating support for everyone.
POINTS TO CONSIDER:
· Educate young children about recognising their emotions.
· Help children to articulate their emotions and what can cause those particular emotions.
· Teach children to understand that our emotions can lead to actions (i.e. if I’m angry, I want to hit somebody – If I’m happy, I want to play with my friends).
· Help children to understand that our actions have consequences. (If I hit someone, they may get seriously hurt and I will be disciplined).
· As children get older, teach them how it would feel to be a bully. What are some of the characteristics? Why would they bully someone? How can they stop those emotions before they go too far?
· Who can they turn to, to help manage these feelings?
These still have a place in schools, but I truly believe that they need to be updated to include recognising emotions and actions within ourselves, which could lead to negative consequences.
If you think your child is being bullied then please speak to their teacher immediately.
Teachers know what to do and there will be protocols in place to help protect your child. Your school will have an ‘Anti-Bullying Policy’ in place (which should be accessible to everyone) and they will want to work with you in order to ensure that it stops straight away and that the wellbeing of your child isn’t affected.