Addressing bullying in schools is an important preventative health measure but many schools are failing to adopt the most promising psychological processes.
Helen McGrath MAPS, a psychologist and educator who is a member of the National Centre Against Bullying, said that schools are struggling to identify and contend with the concerning behaviour. While most schools are addressing the challenge head-on, some are failing to adopt nationally recognised anti-bullying principles.
Dr McGrath says: “At its heart, bullying is defined as repeated behaviour by an individual or group with the intention to harm or cause distress to a specific individual. The intention and the repeated nature is what sets it apart from straightforward harassment or abuse.”
Consequences of bullying
Suffering bullying has been linked to poor physical and mental health later in life but psychologists are increasingly aware that those who bully are also likely to go on to experience social and emotional problems.
She says: “Australian and overseas research suggests that they have a greater instance of developing anti-social behaviour disorder, which encompasses psychopathy and sociopathy. If we can address bullying behaviours, we can head off very damaging later-life consequences and effectively reduce mental health and crime problems.”
Challenges for schools
Research has increasingly identified instances of bullying in preschool settings. This can entail children being pushed over or excluded from games, with behaviour becoming more entrenched if it is not addressed.
One of the biggest challenges for schools responding to instances of bullying is identifying exactly what has occurred. “Schools must be careful to keep an open mind. Often children who are capable of bullying others are quite often popular with staff. Children can be well able to pretend they meant no harm when the intention was very much to hurt a peer. This is an easy way to avert responsibility for what has gone on,” she says.
Best practice standards
Dr McGrath was one of the professionals who helped devise the National Safe Schools Framework (not to be confused with the Safe Schools Coalition Australia program). This standard was released in 2011 and sets out the nine areas schools must address in order to prevent or manage bullying behaviour.
The areas – which are explored on the government-funded information site Student Wellbeing Hub – include: commitment from school leadership, early intervention, engagement with families and communities, positive behaviour support, clear policies and a focus on student wellbeing. The framework was developed at the request of the Federal Government but is not compulsory.
Psychologists such as Dr McGrath say it remains important that both children on the receiving end of bullying, and those perpetrating it, are not labelled as ‘victims’ or ‘bullies’. “Labels such as these are very stigmatising, and can get in the way of preventing and dealing with outbreaks of the behaviour.”
Treatment that works
A form of psychological counselling called motivational interviewing is showing signs of being effective in addressing the causes and effects of bullying. This delves into the underlying motivations driving the problem behaviour and helps young people work out ways to meet their needs without hurting peers.
Dr McGrath said: “We need better access to psychological help for schools and for those who work in schools to be trained in ‘motivational interviewing’, an approach which has been shown to be quite effective in reducing bullying situations.”