When push comes to shove – what schools need to do to tackle the bullying scourge

When push comes to shove – what schools need to do to tackle the bullying scourge
Bullying harms everyone, even bystanders of the incident. (Illustration: AI by Midjourney)

More research has recently been done on the effects of bullying on the victims, the perpetrators and even those who witness it. The results make it clear that schools by themselves can’t stop it.

Violence remains a real challenge in South Africa decades after the end of apartheid. In the school context, there are almost daily reports in the press about incidents of violence in schools. They range from bullying and rape to stabbings and shootings. These reports repeatedly say that schools don’t deal adequately with the claims made by the victims of bullying.

Empirical research on bullying is relatively recent, with the earliest studies emerging in the 1970s in Scandinavia. However, with increased media coverage and greater awareness, bullying has received unprecedented academic attention internationally.

Bullying, long tolerated by many as a rite of passage into adulthood, is now recognised as a major and preventable public health problem, one that can have long-lasting negative consequences. Bullying behaviour can be found as early as preschool, although it peaks during the middle school years.

It occurs in diverse social settings, including classrooms, playgrounds, school gyms, buses and online. It affects not only the children and young people who are bullied, who bully and who are both bullied and bully others, but also the bystanders to bullying incidents.

What is bullying?

There are many different definitions and understandings of what bullying is. I like this definition: “Bullying happens when one person or a group of people tries to upset another person by saying nasty or hurtful things to him or her again and again.

“Sometimes bullies hit or kick people or force them to hand over money; sometimes they tease them again and again. The person who is being bullied finds it difficult to stop this from happening and is worried that it will happen again.”

Bullying is now generally seen as having these elements: a desire to hurt; the perpetration of hurtful behaviour (physical, verbal or relational) in a situation in which there is an imbalance of power favouring the perpetrator(s); the action is regarded as unjustified and is typically repeated; and it is experienced by the target of the aggression as oppressive and by the perpetrator as enjoyable.

Before schools embark on awareness campaigns or engage anti-bullying experts, they need policies in place that ensure the safety of students.

Bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted person physically, psychologically, socially or in terms of their education. Common types of bullying include physical such as hitting, kicking and tripping; verbal such as name-calling and teasing; and social and relational such as spreading rumours and excluding someone from a group.

Bullying also happens through technology, which is called electronic bullying or cyberbullying. A child or young person can be a perpetrator, a victim or both.

Consider Sipho’s experience for a moment: “The bullying started at the end of my Grade 6 year. They began calling me names and making nasty comments about me. I felt bad. They never hit or pushed me; they just kept on saying things that were mean. It got worse when I was in Grade 7…

“It was a group of boys in my class… They always seemed to pick on me. I tried to avoid them, to ignore them, but that didn’t seem to help. I eventually told my mother.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Bullying is deeply entrenched in our school culture and social media ‘Likes’ are a key driver

“She told the teachers. They got all the learners together and told them that this must stop. They also made them write letters to apologise to me.

“The bullying stopped for about a month. But then they started again. I… was irritated and frustrated. I had made new friends by then, but the other boys kept following me. I tried to ignore them, but that didn’t help. I was losing self-confidence and was becoming very unhappy, and the teachers didn’t seem to care…

“Eventually, I told my parents that I did not want to go to school. After many discussions with the school, my parents took me out… and I completed Grade 7 at home.”

Sipho’s story illustrates the emotional consequences of bullying. It played on his mind as a young boy and he was forced eventually to leave the school.

Bullying can also result in physical injury, social and emotional distress, self-harm and even death. It increases the risk for depression, anxiety, sleep difficulties, weaker academic achievement and dropping out of school. Young people who bully others are at increased risk for substance misuse, academic problems and experiencing violence in adolescence and adulthood.

A recent meta-analysis found that, although boys and girls experienced relatively similar rates of being bullied, boys were more likely to bully others or be bullied than girls. Interestingly, girls are more likely to report being bullied than boys.

Relational bullying, which includes attempts to damage the reputation of the victim, is higher among girls than boys in mid-childhood or early adolescence. Relational victimisation tends to be equally prevalent for both genders in adolescence.

Rule-breaking and ‘minor’ violations should not be ignored.

Bullying involves more than just the bully and the victim. It also involves bystanders, who can be categorised as pure bystanders, assistants to bullies, and reinforcers or defenders of victims.  

Victims may feel rejected by peers and feel isolated, anxious and lonely, and the chronic victim can avoid attending school. Some personality traits, such as shyness, do make students vulnerable. Factors like changing schools or changes in physical development can also make students vulnerable.

What can schools do?

Before schools embark on awareness campaigns or engage anti-bullying experts, they need policies in place that ensure the safety of students. The codes of conduct that emerge from them must be communicated and understood by everyone in the school community.

From a school’s perspective, it is vitally important to teach students how to deal with conflict when it arises, and schools should not just expect students to solve all their problems on their own. More than ever, it seems clear that learning how to behave in a group is an important life skill that must be taught.

Adults need to supervise students at school and they need to be visible in its high-risk areas. They need to take an active interest and make sure safety is a concern that is consistently addressed. Any acts of aggression and violence need to be dealt with.

Rule-breaking and “minor” violations should not be ignored, and students need to understand that violent or aggressive behaviour will not be tolerated at school. The consequence of breaking the rules also needs to be understood by everyone.

More importantly, teachers need to model respectful behaviour to students in how they themselves act as well as in how they treat their students. Schools must do away, too, with practices that foster violence, such as corporal punishment.

Advice for parents

Most children don’t seem to talk to their parents about school bullying. If they do speak to you, listen carefully and ask them what role they would like you to play in solving the problem. Assure them you will handle the situation sensitively and with a view to protecting them from further harm.

Contact the school to report the bullying. Don’t contact the other child’s parents directly, since this can escalate the issue and take away your child’s power. Ask the school to investigate the issue and how long it will take to respond. You can request that your child’s identity is not shared to protect them from further retaliation.

Help your child develop interpersonal skills to help them navigate instances of bullying. These include self-regulation, social and problem-solving skills. This can help your child to stay calm and not appear distressed. Also, help your child identify safe spaces, friends and adults they can turn to for support. They need to know that they have people they can depend on who care for them. DM

Dr Mark Potterton is the director of the Three2Six Refugee Children’s Project.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


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