Perspectives on bullying
This week is the anti-bullying week and our associate, Shân Jones, who has extensive experience in the education sector, talks about bullying and what we really mean when we use that term. Shân is currently involved in a number of projects with schools and local authorities focusing on improving well-being and developing good anti-bullying practice. She is also pursuing a professional doctorate in education at Cardiff University and is actively working on developing her thesis on exploring different perceptions of bullying in schools.
Look at any form of media, and you won't have to search too hard to find an article about bullying. Often emotive, describing how children and young people suffer from a constant barrage of bullying behaviours, in school, in the community and online. Depending on where you draw your statistics from, estimation of prevalence can vary from 15% to 50%. But are we all talking about the same problem? What do we mean when we use the term bullying?
There are many definitions of bullying. Schools and colleges in Wales often make use of the definition offered in the Welsh government guidance, Respecting Others, which on first examination appears to offer clarity. Intention, repetition, impact and power are key components of this definition drawn from the pioneering work of Dan Olweus. Defining bullying is still an area of debate, not just in academia, but also in practice. It is the development of a shared understanding of what we mean by bullying that is crucial for children, teachers, and parents.
Each of these groups will have their own understanding, coloured by their own experiences, values and attitudes. However, one constant throughout any bullying scenario is the emotional impact. Bully, victim or bystander will be engaged in a personal emotional experience, and their actions or interventions may have varying consequences. Bullying can be both direct, as in name calling or physical aggression and indirect, including exclusion, rumour spreading or cyber bullying.
Recognition of the harm or impact of any of these behaviours varies depending on your perspective. The long-term impact of behaviours that are often perceived as low level such as name calling can have long-term significant effects on the victim in terms of mental health, academic and economic achievement, whilst the bully is more likely to become involved in antisocial or criminal behaviour.
Individual perspective is important when considering the intentionality behind the act. The question of the difference between conflict and bullying is key to the development of shared understanding. When there is genuine recognition of the harm caused in the action and efforts to put things right, often through change of behaviour, does this negate the action or are we failing to recognise the impact on the victim? Does it reduce the fear of it happening again?
Source: Rich Johnson, part of the Weapon of Choice project (www.hurtwords.com/gallery/3-stupid)
Questions have been raised about the meaning of repetition. Does it mean that an action has to occur more than once to the same victim? Or is it repetitive if the same act is carried out more than once, but with different victims? Our understanding of this will have implications on how we recognise and respond to observations or reports of bullying. If there is a failure to respond and challenge to single instances of unacceptable behaviour, what are the thresholds we set to intervene? And more importantly what are the subtle messages we send to children when we draw these often arbitrary and subjective lines around our responses.
Smith and Sharp (1994)1 describe bullying has ‘systematic abuse of power’, and it is this element of the definition that we need to understand from a range of perspectives. What does power look and feel like? Is it physical, psychological, financial? Changing the behaviour of the bully, the victim, or the bystander is challenging, because each unique episode of bullying requires a unique solution. Are we empowering individuals with skills that help them to recognise, respond and intervene in these power struggles?
If we are truly working towards changing this complex and diverse behaviour, a shared understanding developed through a lens that takes account of multiple perspectives and the emotional impact of bullying is an action that is long overdue. Antibullying week offers us an opportunity to start this conversation and continue to develop a shared understanding.
1Smith, PK, and Sharp, S (eds). 1994. School Bullying. Insights and Perspectives. London, Routledge.Back to blogs