Understanding bullying behaviour

Bullying takes place  in an environment on or offline, where other people may be involved. It can be led by one bullying person or a group. More often than not there are others present.They may be involved as colluders or even henchmen around the ringleader bully. There are many roles played by participants in bullying: Ringleaders, Followers, Reinforcers (who encourage the bullies by laughing at the victim) Defenders who try to help the victim and Bystanders who stay out of things but witness what is happening.

Peers are present in 85% of bullying episodes that occurred on the school playground. (Craig & Pepler found in 1997). Nowadays bullying can be online and in front of an ever wider audience.

Interventions need to recognise the roles played by the wider group in order to work with and try to turn around their attitudes. By withdrawing some of the audience and support for bullying behaviour it can be markedly reduced.

Punishing an individual bully can heighten their hero status among henchmen who may continue the bullying on their leader’s behalf unless work is done to change attitudes and behaviour with the group generally.

A child might bully at a time of great change in life, such as bereavement or family breakdown. Feeling angry at the world can easily be channelled into bullying. Consider why this child is acting out aggressively. Is it out of character? is their behaviour worsening?  If yes, this could be a sign that something in their lives needs attention. They need help to change this behaviour and it may require a supportive counselling role. Children and young people may disclose a safeguarding concern when careful work is begun to unpick their behaviour. All staff should be fully trained in how to respond.
If the child is very young it may occur when a new baby arrives in the family.

Are they bullies or victims?

It is not clear cut! There is not always a clear distinction between bullies and victims – some victims go on to bully others and some bullies may have been victims in other situations.  Among a group of severely bullied teenage boys, half admitted that they bullied others and so too did a third of severely bullied girls. (Bullying In Britain, 1999).

There are multiple paths by which people become bullies and they are complex. Learned behaviour and unconscious adaptations have been observed among children who absorb the message that some people gain power and adulation by acting in this way. This may be from their experiences at home or with peers.

Others have experienced it first hand as a victim and to protect themselves they  may adopt aggressive behaviours to turn from being the one threatened, into the one with the power. Some resort to bullying through powerlessness and frustration or revenge. Aggressive victims can therefore require more thoughtful help. ‘Bullying’ them into stopping this behaviour is unlikely to succeed.

Some children who bully others,  simply enjoy the power and can see no other way to gain the adulation of their group. They can find it difficult to change the behaviour which everyone has come to expect from them, without losing their position in the heirarchy of the group – or in their own eyes.

To tell or not to tell?

The secret world in which bullying flourishes has many layers and large numbers of victims never report what has happened. They may believe that they have to be seen to ‘take it’. They fear being seen as a ‘grass’. Indeed their fears are justified as retaliation is common.

Furthermore in our BIG Award anonymous pupil survey we regularly check whether pupils got a good outcome if they did report bullying. Even in schools with good prevention and reporting systems, failure can occur at the intervention stage. Too many young people who do report it say the problem has remained the same, while others tell us that it got worse.

Staff need training in good practice when an incident is reported. There are huge risks to the student who comes forward. If this results in failure, retaliation or threats/blackmail the situation is dangerous.

That is why work with the wider group is needed. The object is to create an atmosphere in which bullying is unacceptable and others might stop it or report it. Support or adulation for bullies is withdrawn when you successfully work with a group to decide what behaviour is unacceptable.

It is not always necessary to name the people involved in a case you are working on. You may see the victim individually and yet work with the class as a whole group without mentioning names. Sometimes this can be very powerful when the victim hears other people say they think certain behaviour is unacceptable.  In a safe environment people can come out with these statements even though they did not feel able to intervene when they witnessed bullying. But set the ground rules first and ensure no names are mentioned, only different behaviours are discussed. Assert values, rights and equality. The class will tend to sign up to these readily.