Peter Tait, head of Sherborne Preparatory School, claims that pupils are being left vulnerable to bullying because of “excessive closeting”. He has urged schools to do more to “bully-proof” children and equip them with the tools they need to avoid being targeted in the first place.
Writing in Attain, Mr Tait said that schools must do all they can to foster an anti-bullying culture, but also argued that giving young people the resilience to cope on their own is just as important to help prevent them from being targeted repeatedly.
Bullying is a serious issue and can blight the lives of young people to the extent that they are unable to function normally; too many teenagers take their own lives as a result of bullying, and statistics suggest that almost half of young people say they have been bullied at school at some point in their lives.
Bullying is the most common reason that boys telephone ChildLine, and some 38 per cent of teenagers have been affected by cyber-bullying. As the author of a best-selling book on bullying, I am the first to support the idea that schools need to be vigilant, and children need to be supported.
However, Mr Tait does have a valid point. While schools have a key role in creating a safe environment for children, and policies for dealing with bullying, there is also a responsibility to teach them to cope, to become more resilient, to stand up for themselves.
A quiet girl was, according to her mother, the victim of repeated bullying. The school put into place a huge range of supportive mechanisms and yet the girl’s mother refused to believe that anything was being done. She spent long hours tearfully offering her daughter sympathy and became increasingly anxious, something the little girl instantly picked up on and began to manifest.
The girl was taken out of school for long periods, which made her feel more socially isolated; she became a “victim” because she was labelled one, and as her mother went out there fighting on her behalf, she became increasingly disempowered, with no coping skills or belief in her own ability to sort it out.
The fact is that children are mean. As they grow and develop through childhood and the teenage years, children struggle with their own identities and social relationships; they make themselves feel more in control and powerful by exercising social (and sometimes physical) aggression, and they emulate the behaviour they see around them (and in the media, which is a weak role model).
Girls tend to employ methods such as social ostracisation, manipulation, gossip and sarcasm, while boys are more likely to use their fists. In almost all cases, it is a control issue, and a way of attracting instant attention and power.
That is not to say that bullying is normal or right; but what is clear is that all children need to learn to assert themselves and become strong enough to resist both the label of victim and becoming the target of bullies. All children need guidance, support, strong positive role-models and an understanding of socially acceptable behaviours; all children also need to be given a little responsibility (in the classroom, for example) in order to feel good about themselves.
In fact, bullies often have a great deal in common with victims, in that low self-esteem, powerlessness and poor self-image are often at the root. Giving children respect, and teaching them to focus on and use their strengths; treating them with kindness and compassion, while also having robust expectations, can go a long way towards removing a culture of bullying. Equally, there are numerous measures that can be undertaken to give students the very tools they need to resist bullying. I’ll look at this in my next column (to be published on January 31).
Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert.