Bullying: A new approach?

Written by: Dr Elizabeth Nassem | Published:
Great job Am very proud of you Dr Elizabeth

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Research shows us that fundamental changes are needed to how we approach anti-bullying work – both in national policy and practice on the ground, says Dr Elizabeth Nassem

My research has shown that bullying has become so entrenched within our schools that most pupils have learnt to accept abusive relationships with other pupils rather than challenge them (Nassem, 2017).

I have found that some pupils are beaten up, hit and kicked as they walk between lessons, some children with learning difficulties are ostracised to the point where they spend playtimes alone, and children who misbehave have spent several days in isolation, segregated from others and unsure of what they have done wrong.

I have been researching bullying – and how to resolve it – for a decade now. My work has included observations, focus groups and one-to-one interviews in schools across the North of England and the Midlands.

Unfortunately, I have not seen significant improvements in how schools resolve bullying and it remains a prevalent problem, as highlighted by the Children’s Society’s 2016 Good Childhood Report.

For substantial improvements to be made, there must be a paradigm shift in how policy-makers understand bullying and the strategies they recommend. So, what needs to change?

Understand bullying

A more sophisticated understanding of bullying is needed in order to tackle bullying effectively. Bullying is usually defined as aggression which is repeated, intentional and involves a clear imbalance of power (Olweus, 1993).

This definition has led to children’s more complex experiences not being dealt with adequately or being perceived as “not really bullying” – for example, when children are bullied by their “friends”. To enable schools to understand and resolve more nuanced experiences, bullying should be constructed as a spectrum of negative interactions ranging from mild to severe which includes characteristics associated with bullying, such as ostracism, teasing and hitting.

To enhance understanding of bullying teachers should ask pupils:

  • What is bullying?
  • Why do children bully?
  • How is bullying dealt with?
  • How should bullying be dealt with?

The knowledge generated from children can be used to enhance local and national policy for understanding and resolving bullying.

Pupil-led interventions

Most of the research and interventions policy-makers use stem from approaches originating about 30 years ago and have had only modest success (Smith, 2011).

These research approaches tend to be based on surveys and questionnaires which restrict children’s responses through categories predefined by researchers.

Initiatives to tackle bullying in school tend to come from school staff who might hold an assembly to address bullying and put up posters. However, pupils are often disengaged with the message.

Pupils’ experiences of bullying and pupil-led strategies for resolving it tend to be overlooked by local and national policy when interventions are designed. Yet pupils offer a wealth of knowledge and resources to improve policy.

A pupil-led approach ensures that children’s specific experiences of bullying are understood and addressed. It can be developed by teachers and staff speaking to children to find out about their experiences of bullying, and from this designing, implementing and evaluating interventions. From this, recommendations can then be developed to improve school systems for responding to bullying.

Mentoring for ‘bullies’

Policy-makers need to examine in more depth how schools usually respond to bullying. Schools usually respond by punishing “bullies” through detention or putting them in isolation (Nassem, 2012). These punishments often cause bullying to escalate because they create more anger in those who bully, which they then take out on those who they victimise.

Instead there should be a mentoring programme for children who engage in bullying where mentees are encouraged to reflect on their behaviour and the effect it has on others, and learn how to respond to conflict more respectfully. My research has shown that mentoring approaches help to dramatically reduce school bullying (Nassem, 2018).

A holistic approach

Both policy and research tend to place too much emphasis on the problem of bullying being between pupils and overlooks the role of teachers and the school system. Guidance should be provided on how schools can develop a policy to address how teachers can bully their pupils and how pupils can bully their teachers.

Research should be commissioned to examine what support teachers feel they need to tackle bullying in order to design interventions which strengthen their position.

National policy needs to consider how systems in school reinforce inequalities between pupils and contribute to bullying.
For example, streaming children by academic achievement has been found to contribute to bullying where children in the bottom set can be bullied and called “thick”, whereas others might feel resentful towards “swots” and consequently bully them (Nassem, 2012).

Although schools are legally required to have measures in place to prevent bullying (Department for Education, 2017) many teachers have not had adequate training. To address this, all teachers should be trained on how to understand and resolve bullying.

Policy-makers need to clarify what this training should consist of and provide guidance about how staff can develop a more robust understanding of bullying using evidence-based and pupil-led approaches.

Schools might consider an advisory board of pupils and staff to talk about the problems of bullying they have encountered and agree on the best strategies for the school to deal with these issues.

An expert on bullying should be appointed in schools that are failing to address bullying to ensure they are enabled with the support and resources to protect children from bullying.

  • Dr Elizabeth Nassem is a researcher at Birmingham City University.


  • The complexity of children’s involvement in school bullying, Dr Elizabeth Nassem, Journal of Children’s Services, December 2017: http://bit.ly/2GTOD9M
  • The Good Childhood Report, The Children’s Society, 2016: http://bit.ly/2Gwftpc
  • Why interventions to reduce bullying and violence on schools may (or may not) succeed, PK Smith, International Journal of Behavioural Development, July 2011: http://bit.ly/2SYOj04
  • Where does bullying exist in children’s everyday experiences of school? Dr Elizabeth Nassem, doctoral thesis, University of Huddersfield, 2012.
  • Bullying is still rife in schools: Here’s how teachers can tackle it, Dr Elizabeth Nassem, Guardian Teacher Network, January 2018: http://bit.ly/2SLSugF
  • Preventing and tackling bullying: Advice for headteachers, staff and governing bodies, Department for Education, July 2017: http://bit.ly/2T14El0

Great job
Am very proud of you Dr Elizabeth

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This is a great blog on bullying. I particularly like, and fully support, the idea that bullies should receive mentoring, and be given the help and support needed to stop being a bully.
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