When your child leaves for school in the morning, what is it that worries you more: that your child might be hated or that your child might hate?
After more than two decades of study, educators and child practitioners in Canada are beginning to take the matter of victimization seriously. Bullying hurts and for many the hurt can last a lifetime or even lead to suicide. It is not a new phenomenon but it is only recently that it has become recognized as a significant one, beyond "normal childhood deviancy" and "kids being kids." There has been an increase in serious violent situations at schools in both our own country and in the United States, with many incidents involving gangs and weapons (Bulach et al, 2003).
It has been argued that a major barrier to dealing with the bullying issue centers on the incidence, reporting, and defining of it as a behaviour. For example, a large number of adults, some of them educators, still view bullying as a rite of passage. As well, there is a danger that almost any behaviour can be seen as bullying, regardless of its motivation or social context -- definitions change from person to person and school to school. Clearly, if we are unable to accurately define a behaviour it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to measure its incidence and impact on students, schools, and communities and we will struggle to implement satisfactory preventative measures.
This article will attempt to demonstrate that the single-discipline, "quick fix" approach is destined to fail. Until there is a firm theoretical definition and framework for dealing with bullying behaviour it will remain a significant issue for children and youth and indeed for the education, criminal justice, and health care systems. Bullying is phenomena deeply rooted in social practices and greatly impacted by societal influences and as such it cannot be dealt with merely as a school yard issue.
II Working Towards A Definition Of Bullying
Without a clearly accepted definition of bullying behaviour, we might suggest that everything works and nothing works! This does not help the children who are targeted daily in their schools and neighborhoods nor does it help anxious teachers and parents.
Australian expert Ken Rigby describes bullying as repeated oppression, physical or psychological, of a less powerful individual by a more powerful individual or group (Rigby, 1998). He argues that it is not the same thing as conflict, violence, or disagreement, although bullying may involve them. Bullying generally happens within the confines of a peer relationship with a power imbalance that makes ill-treatment possible. It can include a wide range of hurtful behaviours, including physically injurious actions (e.g., shoving, hitting, kicking), verbal and non-verbal forms (e.g., harassment, name-calling, gossip, exclusion), and other indirect means (e.g., extortion, hiding or taking belongings, spreading malicious rumours, text-message abuse, cyberbullying).
The progressive and ground-breaking work carried out by Pepler and Connolly (Lamarsh Centre for Research, York University) and Craig (Queens University) goes further. They state that bullying is a relationship problem and that people who bully are in a position of power relative to their victims (Pepler, Craig, Connolly, 2003). That power may come from being larger, stronger, older, more popular, and more physically mature or from knowing sensitive information about their victim.
For many perpetrators, bullying comes from a belief that it is okay to act that way. They may see this in their families and neighborhoods, witnessing open prejudice from their elders towards minority groups, people with disabilities, or people who are gay or lesbian. For some children, bullying is acceptable because they have grown up with violence or harassment and believe this is a normal way of relating. Some develop low self-esteem and feel that they have little power and, as a result, may resort to bullying to make themselves feel more powerful through controlling others.
It is clear that we are drawing nearer to a universal definition of bullying -- one that involves a relationship, a desire to hurt or hurtful action on the part of the perpetrator, the misuse and/or imbalance of power, and repetition. (Rigby, 2000; Pepler, Craig, Connolly, 2003). It can be argued that with this closer step to defining the behaviour, we are also closer to being able to report, monitor, and measure it.
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III The Consequences of Bullying
Bullying-research pioneer Dan Olweus found that those who bully and are bullied appear to be at greatest risk of experiencing loneliness, trouble making friends, lack of success in school, and involvement in delinquent behaviors (Olweus, 1993). Other studies in Canada and around the world indicate that bullying has long- and short-term psychological effects on both those who bully and those who are bullied, finding that victims experience loneliness and report having trouble making social and emotional adjustments, difficulty making friends, and poor relationships with peers (Coloroso, 2003). Victims often suffer humiliation, insecurity, and a loss of self esteem and many develop a fear of going to school. The impact of frequent bullying often accompanies these victims into adulthood and for some there is a greater risk of suffering from depression and other mental health problems.
Bullying also affects the social environment of a school, creating a climate of fear among students, inhibiting their ability to learn, and leading to other antisocial behavior as well as having an impact on the quality of work life for teachers and administrators. People, young and old, do not want to attend institutions where there is oppression, a high police presence, and an underlying ethos of fear.
If we turn a blind eye to bullying in childhood, there is a danger that it will become habitual. Indeed, research indicates that bullying during childhood puts children at risk of criminal behaviour and domestic violence in adulthood.
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IV What Works?
Bullying behavior does not exist in isolation and may indicate the beginning of a generally anti-social and rule-breaking pattern that can extend into adulthood. Programs to address the problem, must reduce opportunities and rewards for bullying. We know that the quick-fix, piecemeal, zero-tolerance approach rarely works; similarly, we also know that flooding the school with police officers and surveillance equipment simply reinforces the idea of the school as a war zone.
Those strategies that are demonstrating some degree of success in the Scandinavian countries are first and foremost those that recognize that school personnel can not adequately handle the problem of bullying on their own; they do not have the pre-service training and in-service opportunities are rare. Bullying prevention is clearly part of the teacher's work, however they must have the support of the community, without which bullying will continue. We must also recognize that bullying is not addressed and corrected in a single school assembly, classroom discussion, movie, or one-time curriculum exercise. The process is a little more complex but not so much that it requires an enormous infusion of funding. What is required is a major shift in attitude, particularly amongst adults.
Consider the work of Scotland's Andrew Mellor who advocates moving away from the quick fix approach that is often designed to suppress bullying at all costs to one that is more positive in promoting students' cooperation and pro-social ways of thinking and behaving. (Mellor1999) In this way the school milieu, which can contain elements that foster aggressive and intimidating behaviour, can be changed. The gains noted in Scottish schools appear to be most notable for the well-being of students who are particularly vulnerable to bullying but in the long run a positive school ethos benefits all students. (Mellor 2000) Young people and their teachers clearly benefit from the process of bringing about a happier and more constructive school climate -- one in which every student is engaged and has the opportunity to achieve social and academic success.
Yet, while programs such as the Fear of God school assembly, theater-troupe presentations, the zero-tolerance approach, metal detectors and cameras, and expensive anti-bullying curriculum kits arguably have value, there is no empirical evidence. Despite the vast array of programs proposed and implemented in recent years to tackle bullying behaviour, there continues to be a paucity of evaluation studies.
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V Addressing the Problem in Canada
It is somewhat encouraging to note that new and more effective methods to reduce incidence and mitigate the effects of bullying are being employed in some Canadian schools and communities, including the development of a Safe and Caring Schools policy, implemented across Canada over the past five years, and tougher in-school protocols relating to critical situations. The impact of such policies is unknown. Sadly, the change is not happening fast enough and there are still too many interventions that are piecemeal at best and harmful at worst.
What is needed in Canada is a country-wide campaign designed to raise public awareness; prevent and reduce bullying behaviours; identify and provide appropriate interventions; and foster greater links amongst stakeholders. It would also highlight the need for a community-based, collaborative approach, greater youth engagement, increased pre-service and in-service training, and greater emphasis on positive school ethos and culture. As mentioned earlier, we need a universal definition of bullying, longitudinal research studies, and greater opportunities for parents to participate in their child's schooling.
It is also critical that governments at all levels recognize that bullying is not simply a problem for education and the criminal justice systems; rather, it is one that has enormous health care and child-welfare implications. The work must be carried out in a way that engages all disciplines, working jointly and in partnership with parents, youth, and the broader community.
The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program is considered by many to be the best-known initiative to reduce bullying among elementary, middle, and junior high school children. The program involves school staff, students, and parents in efforts to raise awareness about bullying, improve peer relations, intervene to stop intimidation, develop clear rules against bullying behavior, and support and protect victims. (Olweus, 1993) Yet, this approach has not been implemented broadly in any Canadian province. It is increasingly discussed across the country but resources for implementation are scarce to non existent, despite some compelling research results that found that significant behavioral changes were more pronounced the longer the program was in effect. Olweus's study concludes that school climate improved and the rate of antisocial behavior, such as theft, vandalism, and truancy, declined during the period of research. Most significant was the overall reduction in bullying and victimizing behaviour. (Olweus, Limber, 1999) More information on this program is available from Dan Olweus, PhD, Research Center for Health Promotion, Christiesgate 13, N-5015, Bergen, Norway, [email protected].
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We have come some way in recent years in raising the consciousness of bullying to the larger community. To ensure that this is not just a passing fad, there is a great deal of work yet to be done to promote quality research, education, and interventions that demonstrate measurable results, work which is presently beyond the resources of schools. However, with the right kind of collaborative community effort, change can happen. As members of the community, we all have a part to play in this critical work to help ensure that children are not hurt, ashamed, excluded, and denied their rights to a full and decent education free from victimization.
The social costs of bullying can not be carried by the education system alone; rather, all institutions must respond to the short- and long-term consequences of bullying. This includes law enforcement agencies, emergency medical services, and public health programs. Public health professionals, especially those in child health programs, can play a major role in preventing bullying and its consequences by bringing their specialized skills and knowledge to this struggle. If the problem is to be fixed, all sectors must work together to advocate for support of research for the development and effectiveness of programs to reduce bullying behaviors and for effective clinical tools and protocols for the identification, treatment, and referral of children and youth at risk. It is also important that those working in hospital emergency departments, clinics, sports arenas, and community centres be vigilant for signs and symptoms of bullying and other psychosocial trauma and distress in children and youth.
Child & Youth Friendly Ottawa (CAYFO) is a small, not-for-profit charity that advances the cause of young people in the National Capital area. A critical component of the organization's mandate is to raise awareness of the consequences of bullying and victimization and ensure that youth play a critical role. CAYFO coordinated Canada's first conference on bullying in Ottawa in May 2002 and played a key role in the development of the Ottawa Anti Bullying Coalition (OABC), Canada's first municipal anti bullying coalition. The fifty-member coalition, which includes stakeholders from all sectors, is committed to working conjointly to prevent bullying in Ottawa schools and communities. CAYFO is currently planning Beyond Rhetoric, Canada's Second Conference on Bullying, scheduled for Ottawa in March 2005.
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