Bullying – an epidemic

It’s been a while since I have posted. I took a break from twitter and blogging – but I’m back! 🙂

I’m going to write about something that is very close to my heart and something that I have experienced. It’s something that has left a mark on me from childhood right into adulthood. Bullying. It has been around for a long time and comes in many guises. Bullying can be physical, verbal or indirect, you can be excluded and intimidated, these are all forms of bullying. The latest manifestation of bullying is – cyberbullying and it is unfortunately becoming more and more common.

Bullying occurs when an individual is targeted repeatedly in a harmful manner and the victim feels powerless to stop the interaction (Raskauskas, 2009; Olweus, 1999). There is common agreement between researchers that bullying includes a number of elements, those being physical, verbal and mental abuse and repeated attacks on a person occurring despite the absence of incitement by the victim (Besag, 1989; Pearce, 1991; Smith and Thompson, 1991; Sharp and Smith, 1994).

Many children and teenagers experience bullying and some teachers and adults treat it as a matter of course. Sometimes the child is told to confront the bully and sometimes there is an intervention by the adults involved. I have tried both routes. I have stood up for myself and that didn’t help. As a child and teenager adults intervened and that didn’t help. In both cases things got much worse. I’m not sure why but I think it’s because to a certain extent bullying is accepted in our society. Many schools are rife with bullying even though they profess to have ‘anti-bullying policies’ and a hard stance against any bullying going on. Research however shows that adult-bullying takes place in many schools (and many other workplaces) and research supports that when bullying is tolerated at staff level it is often ignored or not appropriately dealt with at student level. 

Teachers often experience bullying in the form of peer manipulation whereby a teacher or a number of teachers are excluded by a core group of teachers through the spreading of gossip, being excluded from conversations and the withdrawal of friendship leading to an intimidating work atmosphere (Crick and Grotpeter, 1995; Wolke, Woods, Bloomfield and Kartstadt, 2000). Bullying is often subtle at this level and difficult for the victim to prove as a group engaging in bullying behaviour will often close ranks. Bullying is a global issue and literature relevant to bullying and anti-bullying policies in schools makes it clear that bullying is  widespread and similar problems exist in addressing it appropriately within a school context globally.

Input from parents, teachers, the victim and the person engaging in bullying behaviour are all pertinent in attempting to solve the issue. It has been suggested that those who engage in bullying behaviour do so because they accept bullying as a part of life and, as they have a negative view of the victim, they see nothing wrong with bullying (Patterson, 2005). Frequent and prolonged exposure to bullying behaviours can have a detrimental effect on the well-being and mental health of an individual (Ozkan et al., 2010). When teachers take an active interest in their pupils and show concern bullying incidents decrease (Lee et al., 2008). Social, emotional and academic development for both the bully and the victim are negatively affected by bullying (Ozkan et al., 2010). There is evidence that those who engage in bullying behaviour are often at high risk of developing depression (Patterson, 2005). The input of the principal in a school influences the success or failure of anti-bullying policies (O’Moore & Minton, 2005). Bullying affects almost all children at some point in their school lives, they may be the victim, the person engaging in bullying behaviour or a bystander, it is an issue that impacts on the mental health and well-being of many children and adults on a daily basis (Elsea & Smith, 1998).

An intervention carried out in Norway in the mid-80s targeted bullying at whole school, class and individual levels and proved successful. Three years after the intervention further research was carried out to evaluate the programme, results showed that schools which had continued to with the interventions had less bullying than those schools which did not continue with the intervention (Eslea & Smith, 1998).

It is important to remain cognitive of the subtle nature of bullying. Bullying is deliberate and cannot be perpetrated accidentally. Bullying is an aspect of child culture that is both common and entirely unacceptable. Children who are different in any way from the core groups that have formed within the classroom culture are often excluded and become targets for physical and or verbal bullying. Pollard (2009) asserted that adult intervention must take place and that this intervention must be sensitive to the realities of the social situation of the child culture as if this culture is not taken into consideration then the intervention can be more damaging than positive.

The Education Act (1998) states that school policies must support equality of access and participation. Schools must ensure that there is an anti-bullying policy in place to ensure a safe and nurturing atmosphere for pupils.  The NCCA Intercultural Guidelines (2005) state that through their primary school education children will learn to recognise discrimination and learn how to empathise with the position of the victim and the perpetrator in the bullying situation. Through the application of the Intercultural Guidelines (2005) children will gain a deeper understanding of the effects of bullying and appreciate that discrimination can adopt many forms. Discrimination is not based on culture, ethnicity and religious belief alone. 

The primary school curriculum emphasises the importance of educating children about bullying. The primary school SPHE curriculum (1999) highlights the importance of enabling children to recognise bullying behaviours and teaches them that bullying is always unacceptable. Children are taught that bullying is harmful and that if they are being bullied or if they know of someone else who is being bullied there are certain steps that must be taken. The approach that teachers take in the lessons they deliver should be informed by the schools anti-bullying policy which should be reviewed regularly and adapted in order to keep it current.

Emotional intelligence (EI) and the development of same at all levels is hugely significant in addressing bullying concerns. Having emotional intelligence refers to the ability to understand the emotions of others and being able to control ones’ own emotions (Mayer & Mitchell, 1998). Studies have shown that there is a link between the EI of leaders and the effectiveness of their organisations (Rosete and Ciarrochi 2005, Codier et al. 2008). Developing EI throughout the school is significant on several different levels: research has shown that children who display bullying behaviour towards their peers are six times more likely to have criminal records as young adults than their less aggressive peers (Hoover and Oliver, 1996). By investing time into developing EI in these students this could perhaps be avoided leading to the child addressing the issues which cause him to bully and making him more aware of his own feelings and the feelings of others.

Training programmes to develop EI would be beneficial to teachers at staff level and would enable them to develop these skills in the children they teach. Teachers would benefit from training in the identification of bullying behaviours and the changes that one might observe in a child that is being bullied. If teachers were capable of recognising these signs then they would be better equipped to prevent bullying from taking place.

Training should be provided to enable teachers to support children in resolving bullying issues. The teacher should be trained to support both the victim and the child displaying the bullying behaviour. Whole school and class based activities should be facilitated to address the role of the bystander.  The bystanders should be taken into account as they play an important role where bullying is concerned. Bystanders may intervene and try to defend the child being bullied alternatively they may passively accept that bullying is taking place or they may join in and reinforce the negative behaviour (Birchmeier, 2009). Many studies have shown that the bystander plays a crucial role in bullying (Aboud and Miller, 2007; Rigby and Johnson, 2006; Lodge and Frydenberg, 2005; Kärnä et al., 2010).

Bullying influences the culture of the school as many children feel they are powerless to stop the bullying that takes place and bullying becomes an accepted norm (Hamarus and Kaikkonen 2008) which forms a negative school culture. Bullying is often misinterpreted and the mere mention of the word can have a negative impact on both pupils and their parents. As a teacher and a mother I am conscious of the ethical implications of addressing an issue as pernicious as bullying and the importance of approaching bullying sensitively for all parties involved.

Many studies have been conducted into the effectiveness of interventions to address bullying and the common consensus is that a systematic whole school approach to effectively prevent and manage all types of bullying behaviour is imperative (Pearce et al., 2011; Homgren et al., 2011; Cross et al., 2011; Watson et al., 2010). When children are left to their own devices to address bullying their choices of interventions are either ineffective or lead to further victimisation (Craig et al., 2007). In recent research Holmgren et al. (2011) investigated the use of role-playing and literature linked with establishing a school wide definition of bullying to prevent and manage bullying behaviours, Holistic interventions have met with mixed success (Eslea and Smith 1998; Smith, Ananiadou, and Cowie 2003). Peer based interventions (Heydenberk and Heydenberk, 2007; Birchmeier, 2009; Aboud and Miller, 2007; Rigby and Johnson, 2006) have proven successful in some cases but have a number of limitations with regard to set up and maintenance and there is a risk that the children involved in the intervention will be targeted and victimised themselves (Watson et al, 2010).

I am of the opinion that a peer based intervention coupled with EI training should be put in place to deter and prevent bullying behaviour from taking place. If students are cognitive of their own feelings and the feelings of others they may be less likely to engage in bullying behaviour. EI training would also impact upon the bystander as they may be less likely to reinforce negative behaviour or stand passively by as someone is bullied. EI training would enable the bystander to process what is happening and realise that they should perhaps approach an adult in order to address the issue.

The peer based intervention could be addressed during SPHE lessons and whole school assemblies. The primary school curriculum (1999) emphasises the importance of educating children about bullying however, the manner in which the lessons are delivered is dependent upon the school’s anti-bullying policy. I believe that if a policy is not regularly updated then it is not at the forefront of educators minds and they are less inclined to spot the important signs that a child is being victimised.

These strategies may impact on the level and frequency of bullying that takes place in the classroom and school yard by encouraging children to accept one another and to work collaboratively together. By ensuring that no cliques are allowed to exist in the classroom teachers would be enabling students to work with children they wouldn’t normally choose to work with. The anti-bullying policy should ensure that these strategies are outlined for staff, students and parents to ensure that the school community are all involved in the implementation of the strategies.

An effective anti-bullying policy for students should be clear. The policy should state clearly what the school hopes to achieve by putting this policy in place. This statement should be closely linked with the school’s own mission statement. The objectives should be placed in measurable terms. An effective policy would outline not alone what the school hopes to achieve through the policy but also how they hope to achieve it by outlining strategies and interventions they will put in place in the pursuit of the objectives outlined. Any resources or training required to put interventions in place should be outlined in the policy. The policy should state how the interventions and strategies will be monitored and reinforced and should set a time frame for evaluation – by including this in the policy the school is ensuring that the policy is a living document and will be adhered to and reviewed on a regular basis. All stakeholders should be involved in the writing of the policy to ensure that the children, parents, staff and management all have ownership of the policy. The policy must be enforceable and assumptions must be explicit.

Input from the principal and teaching staff of a school influence the success or failure of anti-bullying policies (O’Moore & Minton, 2005). The culture created by the leadership skills of the principal in a school directly impact on teachers job satisfaction and this in turn has an effect on student behaviour and performance (Roland & Galloway, 2004). Input from parents, teachers, the victim and the person engaging in bullying behaviour are all pertinent to solving the issue.


The Principal plays a pivotal role in eradicating a school culture in which bullying has become the ‘norm’. Teaching methods should be based on a common understanding with the principal and should support appropriate school policies. Gruenert (2006) states that bullying is a common phenomenon in schools and highlights that teachers are regularly culprits of bullying behaviour. It is necessary for the school principal to ensure that a bullying culture does not exist at either staff or student level. The school community is responsible for guiding children in resolving relationship conflicts positively so as to avoid bullying situations. Children who are victims of bullying should feel that they can approach a teacher or another adult in the school to voice their concerns and this can only happen if there is a culture of listening and acceptance in the school. The child must feel safe. The victim should feel supported and bullying issues should be dealt with discreetly to avoid placing the child under undue stress.

The victim requires support, as does the child displaying bullying behaviour. Children who experience chronic stressors are more likely to display bullying behaviour (Sharp & Cowie, 1998). Often children who come from homes with family problems are more likely to engage in bullying behaviour than those whose home life is more stable (Roland, 2002). When a child begins to engage in bullying behaviour he begins to view himself as a bully and seeks out opportunities to taunt and victimise other children (Butler & Greene, 1998). If a child identifies himself as a bully then he will continue to engage in bullying behaviour, as he feels powerful in this role. The parents of the child and the teacher must attempt to show the child that this is not the only means of identifying himself and guide him towards the constructive traits he possesses so that he begins to see himself in a positive light. The author believes that this area requires more attention as quite often children who bully are treated as if they have done something wrong and time is not spent finding out the reason behind the behaviour and addressing the underlying issues. 

Bullying is a global issue. It affects many children and adults on a daily basis. Effective anti-bulling policies can prevent and manage bullying situations appropriately to ensure that neither the victim or the child displaying bullying behaviour comes to view themselves negatively. Effective anti-bullying policies protect all involved and provide clear guidelines for all members of the school community to enable consistency at all levels thus giving the policy and procedures credibility and respect in the eyes of all involved.

As a mother I look at my children and I wonder how I will react if the time ever comes when they come home from school crying because somebody hurt their feelings. I worry that someday they will not want to go to school because of how another child or adult is treating them. I don’t ever want them to experience the fear and despair I felt as I approached the school gates. As a society we need to stop accepting bullying both at child and adult level – enough is enough!

By maggiemulrine

2 comments on “Bullying – an epidemic

  1. Excellent article on bullying. I have worked in a place where the actual bully was the person in charge and yes part of our health and safety had bullying policy in it. It was so hypocritical the day in the office when the boss delivered the talk on bullying, whilst i was sitting there wishing he would shut up. There was nothing I could do as he was the boss and I contact citizens advice and told me i could take a case, but risk loosing my stand as a professional. I was climbing the ladder within my department and this would knock me off altogether. IS there something that can be done without loosing face?
    I am still in this job as I have a large mortgage on my new house myself and wife bought in the “boom”. If only it was boomed now, i would not worry.
    Its a necessary evil, sitting with the devil to pay satan!!

    • Hi Jack,
      Thanks for the feedback – it’s really good to get. I feel very strongly about bullying and about the procedures that are in place to deal with the issue. There isn’t enough emphasis placed on the need to get bystanders involved. Too many people allow it to continue and particularly when the person in charge is the one perpetrating the bullying behaviour. It’s time to get people to stand up and say ‘no this is not okay – this is not how you should be speaking to or treating another human being’.

      Victims of bullying are not well protected unfortunately and we do risk losing our standing as professionals when we take cases against bullying. It would be nice to say that that wasn’t the case. It takes someone very strong to stand up to it and take it the full way as we have so much to lose – but a very wise woman said to me recently ‘Do you want to stay miserable and downtrodden your whole life? Fight this!’

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