BACK TO SCHOOL – BULLYING; ITS IMPACT ON LEARNING AND MENTAL HEALTH.
Policies and procedures can be reviewed and changed but they are not worth the paper they are written on unless the culture and the behaviour of everyone in the school ‘lives’ and ‘breathes’ the recommendations made.
Bullying is a form of abuse and exists in all institutions; the family home, educational settings, social settings and work settings.
I have heard time and time again schools denying that they have a bullying problem, yet if you speak to some parents of pupils that attend the school in question they will quite willingly tell you that their child has been bullied in some shape or form. I have been told that school’s do this so that they can keep or improve their OFSTED rating. For a school to receive a ‘good’ rating the current draft says inspectors should consider whether “bullying, aggression, discrimination and derogatory language are rare”. If a school doesn’t record bullying then they will pass with flying colours.
Why is it important that schools have a zero-tolerance approach to bullying?
Children spend their formative years at school when their brain is growing and developing; a child’s education delivered in a secure and caring environment is extremely important for optimal growth and development to take place.
3 in 5 young people have been bullied in school and nearly a 1/3 of 1000 surveyed have been bullied online according to research undertaken by the Diana Award. Teachers are overworked with the new curriculum that has been implemented and class sizes in most schools are too large for effective management.
It’s every child’s human right to receive a standard level of education and feel safe whilst doing so.
Bullying, mental health and the long term impacts.
Bullying can and does have a massive impact on an individual’s mental, emotional and physical health. Every day we read articles about a young person who has self-harmed or taken their own life because of bullying and or abuse. Sam Connor aged 14, Jessica Scatterson aged 12, Shukri Yahya Abdi aged 12 are cases in point. Mental health services are underfunded and oversubscribed due to the austerity cuts. Even with the government’s promise of more funding and the plans of installing mental health ambassadors/practitioners in schools we have a long way to go in changing the culture and practise of dealing with bullying and its impact within institutions such as schools.
I personally know a current case of a young person (we will call Meg) that has been bullied for many years at school. Meg comes from a loving and caring home; her parents were constantly in contact with the school to try and solve the issues of bullying. At the time the school refused to acknowledge the bullying, each incident was treated in isolation, the bullies were dealt with but the impact on Meg was never recognised and responded to in the appropriate manner. Over time Meg feared being in school; would often have panic attacks at the school gate and would break down crying in school. This made her vulnerable to being a target for other bullies. Meg was studying for her GCSE’s and having to deal with high levels of anxiety.
The parents asked for Meg to be referred to the school counsellor for help and support which the school did but they never informed the school counsellor why Meg was being referred. Both the counsellor and Meg were working on the presenting symptoms e.g. the anxiety and how to build better friendships but not the causal problem which was the impact of trauma from the bullying Meg had endured over many years. Meg needs were not being met because the school would not acknowledge bullying or its impact.
Anon quote – “Abuse at school and abuse at home. I didn’t know where to turn other than to turn all the negativity on myself and that’s when I made suicide attempts and began self-harming.”
I have spoken to many adults that were bullied as children and here are a few anonymous quotes from them:
“I was severely bullied both in primary and secondary school, and yes it affected the person I have become. I suffered from anxiety, depression and very low self-esteem. I struggled through my teens and young adulthood, I felt very lonely and isolated, even though I was surrounded by friends and family. I never felt good enough, never felt pretty enough, never felt fit enough, I never fitted in.”
How you perceive yourself to be & how you feel about yourself impacts your relationships with people and your potential in life.
“As an adult now I still have flashbacks of the bullying I endured and anger wanting to know why me why did you do this to me? I also overly worry about my children being bullied at school due to the experiences I have had. And even though I got through those years the feelings it made me have and the cruel words that were said or typed to or about me still go through my head and cause me to feel low and I even sometimes think they were right.”
“I was bullied at school and felt like I deserved it. My home life was shocking too. Feeling unloved and unwanted and being told the same at school made me so angry. I started to hit out at other people and became a bully. It was hurt them before they hurt me. I am not proud of my actions but I just wanted someone to care, to see that I was hurting and ask me why I was doing what I was doing! To this day I have problems with my relationships and especially with people in authority.”
What is bullying?
There is no single definition of bullying however there are 3 points that most definitions share and the Dept for Education highlights:
- The behaviour is intended to cause distress
- The behaviour is repeated
- There is an imbalance of power between the perpetrator/s and the victim.
Children and young people do fall out with each other and do say things when they are upset; this is not bullying. Being able to deal with friendship breakdowns and repair relationships is all part of a child’s development and growing up.
Bullying can be:
- Emotional – being unfriendly, excluding, isolating, tormenting (hiding belongings, threatening gestures)
- Physical – pushing, kicking, hitting, punching or any other use of violence
- Sexual – unwanted physical contact or sexually abusive comments
- Verbal – name-calling, sarcasm, spreading rumours, teasing
- Cyber – misuse of the internet to intimidate (email, social media sites), threats via mobile phone, sexting.
- Homophobic, biphobic and transphobic (HBT) – based on an individual’s sexual orientation.
Who gets bullied? Anyone can be a victim of bullying however it is often motivated by prejudice against a particular group on grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, special needs or disabilities, being a carer or being in care, being of a certain class or financial means or just being different can make an individual vulnerable to bullying.
Breaking the silence, finding your voice, using your lived experiences to make a change.
I was mentally, physically and neglected within the family home. I was sexually abused by someone outside the family home at the age of 9 and by a family member at the age of 15. I grew up in 3 domestic violent households.
My school was a safe space for me until the bullying started. I was bullied because I was a vulnerable child / young person.
In primary school I wore old, holey smelly clothes, I was often ravenously hungry and fearful of my own shadow. I would often wet myself and was extremely introverted because I was so nervous.
In secondary school even though I was still ‘scared’ I was more outspoken. I asked for help on many occasions and was told to ignore it; it would just go away. It didn’t it became so bad I was being bullied inside and outside of school and abused at home. One day I got into a violent fight after the bullying escalated to a point where I could not put up with it any further.
When your brain is continuously in a heightened state of alert you cannot learn. You are literally in survival mode. I remember disassociating in class and wondering how I could make people stop being horrible to me and where I was going to get my next lot of food from. I was constantly worried about my safety and my rumbling belly.
When I was shouted at by a teacher for not concentrating this triggered me and contributed to my low self-esteem and not wanting to draw attention to myself. It exacerbated the bullying and how I generally felt about myself. I can completely understand why children and young people feel that they have no place or no-one to go to and why they self harm or take their own life.
As a victim of bullying and abuse, I now speak and consult on the subject within a wide range of institutions. I have recently helped and advised a local school about their anti-bullying policy and the culture the school needs to adopt going forward. All schools have a challenging time with bullying and addressing it. Some schools are more proactive than others but no school to my knowledge likes to speak about it, acknowledge it and respond to it in the right way until now.
In my opinion, a school who is proactive in dealing with bullying i.e. they acknowledge that bullying does happen and they clearly state how they deal with it and this is all embedded in their culture and code of practice – they have the blueprint to show all schools how to lead the way.
Amongst many things the school I have been working with have agreed to review and implement:
- An improved framework and guidance for staff in managing reported bullying with a clear understanding by all parties. It is not only the responsibility of pastoral care staff to deal with bullying and to have training appropriate to bullying but for all staff including kitchen staff caretaking staff and of course teachers.
- Improved systems for a referral to counselling making sure the reason for the referral is clear so that the student can be given the appropriate help and support.
- Ensure that all necessary staff are aware of what is happening for a student so that the student’s needs can be met discretely.
- Having a single point of contact for parents/carers in dealing with the school about the bullying and impact.
- Joined up thinking and communications so that further stress to the parents and the child are kept to a minimum. E.g. When you are trying to get your child to attend school but they are so emotionally broken they cannot attend; you have informed the school of this but you receive warnings about their attendance and the student receives detentions for not completing homework – this clearly shows a lack of understanding of the trauma impact of bullying and further adds to the stress and anger of the parents towards the school.
Having a clear concise policy that sets out the ethos and culture of the school is a must. The school policy should clearly communicate that bullying is unacceptable, the policy should set out how bullying is defined, actions to prevent bullying and the framework for all in reporting and responding to bullying.
The Anti-bullying policy is only a small part to establish and sustain a culture in schools in which all students feel welcome, safe and happy.
Students and parents should feel confident in reporting bullying and expect it to be dealt with quickly and efficiently.
The right response at the right time is crucial for the student’s mental health and wellbeing and can reduce the long term impact of trauma caused by bullying.
My advice to parents: Check out the school’s anti-bullying policy and ask them what their approach is to bullying. If a school tells you it doesn’t have a bullying problem please reconsider sending your child there. If an institution is in denial about the existence of bullying; the way they respond to it will not be appropriate for any child.
Written by Chris Tuck Sept 2019
Founder and Director of SOB www.survivorsofabuse.org.uk. Consultant to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse – a member of the Victims and Survivors Consultative Panel.