Life In School: More Serious Concerns


There can be no doubt that severe and persistent oppression through bullying can do considerable damage to the victim's mental and physical health and, at an extreme, can be a key factor in suicidal behaviour.

There is a tendency towards stereotyping in descriptions of the "typical bully" - "mad dogs, sharks and sociopaths" (Rigby, 2002) and the "typical victim" - wimps, weirdos and "mummies boys", and thereby to oversimplify a complex problem. This in turn can lead to the notion that bullying is always so blatant and wrong that if the "good" shout "No!" (or "Get thee from me, Satan!") at the top of their lungs both bully and bullying will shrink away in shame!

My approach to training shown in the video is inspired by the work of Michael White who in turn was inspired by Tom Andersen. Three of the course participants took on different aspects of “bullying” and were interviewed as that entity. This technique is known as externalising conversations, and is one way of the trainer or therapist moving away from an expert position with pre-prepared definitions of bullying, of bullies, and of victims, which pay little regard to the experience of those present. "...the person who is playing the problem is informed that problems tend to be rather arrogant and boastful, and that it is rarely difficult to get them to talk about their successes and to "spill the beans" on how they have achieved these successes. In fact, they are so "full of themselves" that they usually give away their secrets and bring themselves undone as soon as they are given even the slightest opportunity to do so." Michael White Workshop Notes Published on September 21st 2005.


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Peer Support Training at a Girls’ Grammar School

The first representative of Bullying International identified her particular approach as based on staring. She had learned to look out for body language and other cues as signs of lack of confidence, and ready victims. Many such children found this staring behaviour sufficiently intimidating to "back off". Those that didn't could expect a more direct approach!

This training method enabled the students to discover and enhance their knowledge of power dynamics amongst groups of young people.

By the way I realise that the camera work is not entirely steady! The camera was operated by one of the students, who did her best. Hopefully the content is interesting!

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Peer Support Training at a Girls’ Grammar School

Our second embodiment of bullying styled herself the "Queen of Sarcasm". She acknowledged that she had been under-confident and shy in the past herself, and discovered that she could use her wit and language skills to undermine others' self esteem.

Such bullying often goes undetected, or those affected are seen as over-reacting, or even advised to grow a thicker skin.

Particularly where a group of "emotional bullies" are involved, children going through a difficult phase can feel isolated and miserable and yet tell no-one about it.

My first interviewee suggested that bullying was everywhere. On reflection, this is a helpful rather than a depressing analysis, since it challenges us not to imagine we can wish or train such problems away. Michael White eventually reached a similar set of conclusions: "I don’t believe there can be a society without relations of power, if you understand them as means by which individuals try to conduct, to determine the behaviour of others. The problem is not of trying to dissolve them in the utopia of a perfectly transparent communication, but to give one’s self the rules of law, the techniques of management, and also the ethics, the ethos, the practice of self, which would allow these games of power to be played with a minimum of domination."

For the most part we have to live in a world of confusing shades of grey, where the "bully" is caught being charming and helpful, and is actually a lot brighter than we thought him to be, but is often terminally bored, or affects to be (cue John Travolta, "The Fonz", etc.). The "victim" may be less than saintly at times, and quite willing to oppress others when given the opportunity to dominate in his own particular style.

We also need to recognise that mostly things and people modify over time: in fact, as adults, we need to be cautious that our interventions do not "set things in stone".

There are, of course, lists of common characteristics, or perhaps more accurately, "tendencies" for both "bullies" and "victims", and for their families, and much of this is outlined and discussed during the training. There are, however, significant gaps in the research, notably the impact of the father's role as apparent, and bullying amongst siblings in the home.

For now, limited space might best be devoted to deriving from research suggestions as to what can be done, particularly in schools, to make a positive difference. The fact that broadly similar schools can vary by a factor of four in the number of bullying incidents they experience suggests that the school's ethos, and the practices derived from this, are of great importance.

Here are some suggestions.

  1. Build an ethos in which encouragement and concern (together with well-structured lessons and as much choice as feasible) is "the air that we breathe".
  2. Reduce the strangeness of the secondary school to new pupils through outreach to feeder primary schools, perhaps using Peer Supporters, especially where there are predicted transition problems.
  3. Many "bullies" lack a positive, involved adult role-model - but they can have one in school.
  4. Discover, nurture and develop aspects of a student's personality or abilities that tend to create motivation to succeed (gain status) by prosocial means.
  5. Find out in what ways students can involve themselves in the community (voluntarily, of course!)
  6. Teach skills for living: accurate awareness - and hopefully acceptance of - one's emotions; appropriate assertiveness; practice in thinking something positive of oneself, and accepting compliments with grace; how to listen and empathise with others; how to process apparent differences between ourselves or our group and others or "that lot".
  7. Provide information and resources that encourage each student to achieve their best physical condition, through healthy eating, exercise, techniques to combat stress (including, for some, when to take a break from studying!), and awareness of smoking, alcohol and drugs issues, promoting better-informed choices.
  8. Seek to involve fathers/male carers more in school affairs.
  9. Make support systems relevant and available to all, to demystify and destigmatize the notion of what it is to seek help or advice.
  10. Last, though arguably most importantly, conduct your own well-thought-out research about life in your school. You may well get some surprises as well as some compliments!

Mental Health Problems

There are still problems about using the term "mental health" within earshot of an adolescent: the likely riposte is "Are you calling me "mental"?!" Despite this, there is a need to recognise that severe emotional and in some cases psychiatric disorders affect a significant number of pupils in secondary schools. Again, these issues are more fully addressed in the course.

It is important to pierce the dual myths that adolescence is "one great laugh" or alternatively that it is a time of unrelenting angst. Certainly many teenagers do experience times of acute anxiety or even panic; many have bouts of depression at differing levels of severity; some contemplate suicide.

Even for the well-supported and socially adjusted student, things may "go bump" in their lives through the death of a parent, sibling or friend, parental conflict, divorce or remarriage, or some other crisis. Students may carry severe stress as a "secret" or assomething largely out of their own conscious awareness, but which "leaks" into their day-to-day lives and attitudes. Examples would include sexual abuse or victimisation, threats of forced marriage and the conflicts and restrictions surrounding this, and serious drug abuse and/or criminal behaviour within the family. It is entirely possible that the first person to be told or to "pick up" this information may be a Peer Support volunteer. The support structure available to them is particularly crucial at such times.

If other influences, including "bullying" in its various forms, conspire to convince the student that a) life is not worth living; and b) that nothing is going to change (the sense that there is "no way out of this", then that young person is in real jeopardy. The first signs may be behavioural changes, e.g. the eager student who starts "not appearing" for lessons, the able student whose work deteriorates markedly. Again the importance of a well-designed and -supported helping system in school cannot be overemphasized. Subject teachers as well as Year Heads need to have awareness of mental health issues, since they may be the first to see such signs. Equally it is crucial that appropriate school staff (not just the Special Needs Co-ordinator or Child Protection Team) know how and when to refer to local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. Bear in mind too that those offering support and/or counselling need information and support too, including awareness of when they might be getting out of their depth or when a situation is deteriorating and perhaps becoming dangerous. There is further information for professionals, young people and parents here. Ideally some face-to-face links should be forged, perhaps through inviting local mental health professionals into school for talks or seminars. The authors comment that "it is through creating whole-school environments that are conducive to wellbeing and connecting with communities that schools will become the key to addressing the mental health of all young people..."

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