Preventing and responding to bullying in schools

Written by: Dawn Jotham | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Bullying behaviour and incidents must never be dismissed as ‘kids being kids’, but we must empower and support everyone in the school to call-out bullying. Dawn Jotham looks at how we can do this

As a child I remember being moved schools because of the impact another child had on me. It took a long time for my parents to understand why I did not want to go to school. Both my teachers and parents thought I was being difficult.

I still remember it; not the other child and not what exactly happened, but I remember it. I was that child who just blended in, the one whose name you had to look up, the one everyone said lacked confidence and should speak out more.

At the time, it was seen as “girls just being girls”, a bit of name-calling, pushing, and shoving, status in the playground, but I can remember it feeling so much more than that. I still feel physically sick when I think of those girls.

Skip forward a few years and many things have not changed, except young people can now be bullied both on and offline. The opportunities for bullies and bullying behaviours have been amplified by technology.

Young people will remember later in life if they were bullied or indeed were the bully. These events really do stick and the negative events a young person experiences can have a big impact later during adult life.

Bullying can impact a person’s emotional, physical, social and academic wellbeing. The sort of things that can be experienced may include:

  • Feelings of deep unhappiness and sadness, that more commonly lead to depression and anxiety, and in some cases to self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
  • Feelings of shame, inadequacy and weakness.
  • Feelings of deep anger and bitterness.
  • Stomach aches, insomnia and exhaustion.
  • Low self-esteem that can affect learning.
  • Difficulty in making friends and forming healthy social relationships.

According to a survey carried out by anti-bullying organisation Ditch the Label (2020):

  • A quarter of young people aged between 12 and 18 have been bullied in the past year.
  • The most common reason given by young people for why they think they were being bullied is because of how they look.
  • Twenty-six per cent of young people reported witnessing bullying.

Young people can feel socially excluded from their peers, threatened, and intimidated. Many young people will not report bullying for fear of embarrassment or retribution.

What can schools do to help?

Schools should do as much as they can to help prevent bullying. Create a culture of care, respect, inclusion and empathy, promoting good citizenship. These principles should be embedded into everything the school does. According to the Department for Education’s Preventing and tackling bullying guidance (DfE, 2017): “That culture extends beyond the classroom to the corridors, the dining hall, the playground, and beyond the school gates including travel to and from school.”

How can you drive change in your school?

You should take every opportunity to communicate your ethos and values and consult with your community to make sure your actions correspond to your values.

Ensure the school has an up-to-date and effective anti-bullying policy that is fully implemented and regularly reviewed. It should contain a clear statement defining what bullying is and how it will be dealt with by the school. It should also state that “bystander apathy” is unacceptable and will be dealt with accordingly.

When was the last time your school’s anti-bullying policy was updated? Do you and the young people you work with know where to find it and what it says?

The policy should help raise awareness and support a culture of respect and it should ensure that everyone in the school community is aware that the school takes bullying seriously.

Student voice should be a key point when writing and implementing the policy. Identify potential trouble spots and times and seek young people’s suggestions of what would work to prevent bullying from occurring.

Ensure that all staff know the importance of dealing with and reporting bullying incidents and that they are given adequate training and support in identifying incidents.

The SecEd Podcast: Effective anti-bullying work

This episode from November 2021 looks at how schools can prevent and respond to bullying behaviours and incidents. Our experts consider the role of school structures, policies and culture, including whole-school approaches, the elements of effective anti-bullying policies, using student voice, how to nurture the right culture, LGBT­+ inclusion, CPD, and family engagement. We look at the role of education, including making children aware of what bullying behaviours are and supporting children to manage disagreements. We consider how to respond to incidents of bullying, including breaking down the barriers to reporting and dealing with perpetrators.
for free here:

The importance of reviewing

It is important to review the previous term’s reports of bullying in order to continually learn and improve your school’s management of incidents: What is working well? Is there a decrease in certain types of bullying? Has cyber-bullying increased? What about peer-on-peer abuse?

Remember to check whether any anomalies in reporting are due to more effective procedures being put in place or indeed because pupils are not reporting for some reason. Make sure you, your senior leadership team and governors continually question and examine incidents.

And if you are comparing the numbers to the academic year just passed, you must take the impact of the pandemic into account.

How to help young people

Many people wonder why a child or young person does not “stand up” and confront the person or people bullying them or tell others they are being bullied so that they can put a stop to the behaviour that is causing them so much distress.

There is often a power imbalance which causes the target of the bullying to feel unable to defend themselves and afraid of the consequences of telling others.

A starting point is for the school to make sure young people have a clear understanding of what bullying is and what peer-on-peer abuse is. Encourage open discussion on differences between young people. This should include such topics as ethnicity, disability, religion, and gender.

Empowering the whole school community to “call-out” any bullying behaviour is important too. By instilling an ethos of “it’s not welcome here” in all members of the school community we will encourage anyone and everyone to call-out anything they see and help to minimise any incidents.

This can be implemented by developing an effective RSHE programme, but also supported by the wider curriculum.

Include role-play situations, which the children can develop and where they can take the lead. Help children to acquire confidence and assertiveness skills that can help them respond to a bullying situation. This includes the use of body language to show others they are confident and self-assured, and the use of assertive language to stop someone who is trying to hurt or embarrass them.

Consider positive changes that can be made, e.g. staff training, better supervision, re-organisation of activities so that they are staggered.

Involve parents/carers so they feel confident that the school takes bullying seriously and any incidents are dealt with.

Reflect on your own behaviours and whether you are assertive, passive or aggressive. This includes how you solve problems, discipline, control your own anger and disappointment.

Handling incidents

When dealing with incidents of bullying remember to…

  • Listen and reassure the young person.
  • Look at each case in detail.
  • Check the facts: You will very rarely have all the facts, and the bully and victim will have very different views about what is happening.
  • Make sure you try to get as many accounts of it as possible. Things might not have played out exactly the way you were told.
  • Talk to the young people that are the bullies – they might be victims as well. There may be problems elsewhere in their life that cause them to act out.
  • Use older pupils as peer mentors.
  • Use mediation sessions or offer nurture groups and quiet spaces for students.
  • Empower young people to take the lead.

As I stressed at the beginning, bullying is not in any way pleasant, and the effects can last for years. As education professionals we must never turn a blind eye to any potential bullying behaviours. It is our duty to dispel the myth that these things are just “kids just being kids”.

  • Dawn Jotham has extensive experience working in schools as head of year, lead for student pastoral care and senior leader for safeguarding and looked after children. She is now safeguarding and pastoral care lead at Tes and has helped develop the EduCare Preventing Bullying Course. Visit

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