Why our anti-bullying policies at school don’t work

12:05 pm - March 24th 2013

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by J.C. Piech

Last week, 14 year old Ayden Olson committed suicide. His mother said on Twitter her son had been ‘bullied to death’. There is no denying what a tragedy this is, yet sadly it is a common one: type ‘bullied student commits suicide’ into Google and you’ll find thousands of cases.

It’s compulsory for UK schools to have anti-bullying policies, yet when so many children are suffering we must ask meaningful questions about why these policies aren’t working.

First, anything ‘anti-bullying’ requires a child to identify themselves as a bully before they can take action to stop being one. Yet bullies are vilified; we portray them as nasty people who should know better. So who is likely to think of themselves that way?

In truth, most of us have blurted out an unkind word, or ignored someone, or stood by when someone is being treated unfairly. But, you might argue, you were having a bad day. Or you were angry. Or you were only six at the time.

And when we don’t consider children to be mature enough to have sex, or join the armed forces, or drive or smoke or drink, why do we expect them to have full comprehension of how their actions and words affect others?

This is why anti-bullying policies don’t work. They demand a differentiation between good and bad children, and they perpetuate the idea that only bad people bully.

Second, schools state that children are encouraged to report incidents of bullying, yet this is a redundant offer when it’s not safe to do so. Many teachers don’t handle bullying with much skill or insight.

In 1997, when I was 11, I was being bullied by a friend. I didn’t want to say anything about it because I didn’t want to get her into trouble. But eventually I’d had enough and summoned the courage to mention it to my form tutor. The tutor took me and my friend aside to talk about what was going on. I started to explain, when my friend started crying and said it was in fact me who was bullying her.

Because I was unable to cry at that time in my life, even when I wanted to, the tutor took my friends tears as a sign she was telling the truth, and I was told to stop bullying her. Some weeks later, the truth came out and my head of year apologised to me. Yet the damage was done.

As long as adults insist on labelling children as either the villain or the victim, bullying will continue destroying lives. No case of bullying is black and white. Perhaps the bully is mirroring what’s happening to them at home, or maybe they’re jealous of the child they’re picking on, or maybe they’re trying – in their clumsy, unskilled way – to make friends by joking around.

Teachers need to find out what’s really going on, for all involved, and facilitate communication. And this isn’t some fluffy idealistic idea: when done properly, it works. After successfully facilitated conversations between the bully and the bullied, children often leave on amicable terms, sometimes even as friends.

Lastly, if schools are serious about tackling bullying, more needs to be done about teachers who are bullies. I’ve heard countless stories of teachers screaming into pupils’ faces, of teachers not allowing teenage girls on their periods to go to the bathroom during class, of teachers embarrassing children in front of their classmates, including one school that produced a video advocating the use of shaming as a technique.

Children mirror the behaviour they receive. So to combat bullying we don’t need stronger policies. We’ve wasted enough time pushing paper. What we need now are emotionally literate and aware adults to show children, by example, how to treat each other with respect, tolerance and care.

J.C. Piech is a freelance writer. She has also facilitated community workshops for people with mental health issues. http://twitter.com/jcpiech

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Reader comments

“Lastly, if schools are serious about tackling bullying, more needs to be done about teachers who are bullies.”

This is the fundamental thing. The whole way schools work is based on bullying children. Teachers need to stop setting a bad example.

Schools are full of bullies, head teacher’s down. Far more than any private firm. My sister is a teacher who has worked in the independent and state systems, if half she says is right the bullying that occurs in the staff room and heads office is untrue. Snide comments and surly women/men who couldn’t get a job in the private sector.

“… surly women/men who couldn’t get a job in the private sector.”

Er … some schools are in the private sector.

4. the a&e charge nurse

Bullys are a direct reflection of the sort of home they come from – the mess is too big for even the best teachers to clean up

This is such a complex subject – I have spent 12 years researching bullying. Policies are only as good as their implementation; labels are unhelpful – it is the behaviour that needs to be exposed as “unacceptable” or “bad”, not the person; counter-accusations of bullying are a common response from perpetrators; teachers (like managers in the workplace) are under extreme pressure and need to be given appropriate training to deal with bullying behaviour. Then there are connections between childhood experiences of bullying (as both a target and a perpetrator), teenage bullying which often has a sexual context, domestic violence and workplace bullying. Raising awareness is a great first step, but it is only the beginning of what needs to be done.

Society is based on bullying people. The alpha male (or female) is applauded for their aggression and wins promotion. Just look at shows like The Dragon’s Den and see how bullying is the key to success. With role models like this, and institutions which rely on bullying to keep the underlings in line, schools have the world on their shoulders when they try to change things. Especially since they themselves enshrine bullying, with management keeping teachers cowed using just the same means. If we really want to get rid of bullying, we need to root it out everywhere. Meanwhile, Cameron hopes to win votes by bullying people on benefits and immigrants, with Labour refusing to oppose him.

7. the a&e charge nurse

Thank you everyone for your comments so far. I agree that bullying is systemic. And I think that’s partly because many people are not self-aware enough to view their own behaviour objectively. Which is why it’s insane to expect children to be able to.

And yes, bullying is complex, and there will be no single solution. Teachers can’t be responsible for ‘fixing the mess’ by themselves. But when children spend 30 hrs a week in school, teachers need to play a part. It’s no good for teachers to say ‘It’s not my job’ and then for parents to say ‘I shouldn’t have to fix school related problems’. It’s our collective responsibility, and whilst we’re arguing over who’s responsibility it is, children are killing themselves.

9. white trash

Good article.

“What we need now are emotionally literate and aware adults to show children, by example, how to treat each other with respect, tolerance and care.”

Unfortunately such people are very few and far between. Unfortunately also, some of the people who see themselves that way can actually be some of the worst; excluding those who don’t conform to their often ideologically preconceived ideas of how people ought to think and behave, for example.

“Society is based on bullying people” Briar @6 – How true! Precisely what I was thinking -then I saw you’d written exactly what I was thinking.

Children are aware enough to know that there actions are hurting someone, and that why bullies bully, to hurt their victim. Bullying leaves long term scars and problems, I was bulled myself at school, and despite having a degree, I find it difficult to find a job because I cease up during interviews, partly due to the fact that I was bullied.

A lot more needs to be done to support victims of bullying in the long term, to ensure that it does not overshadow their lives, and a lot needs to be done to ensure that those children who do bully realise that they cannot get away with such behaviour.


Like you, my life has also been hugely affected by bullying. The example I used in the article was just one of many instances. But I have to disagree that children bully in order to hurt their victim, just like teachers don’t bully children because they want to hurt them. Teachers usually bully because they’re trying to gain control but lack the skills to it in a non-aggressive way.

There have been many studies on how children develop empathy, and it’s widely accepted that children have to LEARN it.

“Unlike intelligence and physical attractiveness, which depend largely on genetics, empathy is a skill that children learn.” – DR LAWRENCE KUTNER, PH.D

So rather than viewing bullying as a deliberate effort to hurt, it should be viewed as a sign that that child has not yet learnt how to care for others, probably because they have received a lack of care themselves. If we don’t shift our beliefs about bullying, we’ll just be condemning future generations of children to the same damage we’ve experienced.

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