New evidence published this anti-bullying week underscores the link between violence and attendance. While schools are the very place that could and should be keeping children safe, in any school, there are explicit as well as covert instances of bullying that can result in affected students – perpetrators and victims alike – no longer wanting to come to school.
Bullying perpetration is associated with increased aggression, substance use, and a higher risk of dropping out. Meanwhile, being bullied is associated with increased mental health difficulties, including depression, anxiety, and self-harm. It’s also linked with poorer school performance both in the short- and long-term, not least because prolonged periods of absence mean affected students are constantly playing catch-up.
Teachers play a critical role in preventing bullying, and a whole-school approach to mental health and wellbeing can help to achieve that. Working collectively and collaboratively can move the dial, and support from senior mental health lead training and the mental health support teams being rolled out can help to put appropriate structures in place.
A key feature of a whole-school approach is a school-wide ethos that is embodied by all staff members. An evidence-informed toolkit developed by the Early Intervention Foundation and the Anna Freud Centre sets out strategies that all teachers can apply as part of their daily roles to support students’ mental health, wellbeing, and behaviour, including the following strategies that help prevent bullying.
Build better relationships
Building supportive and inclusive relationships between staff and students and encouraging positive peer relationships is an important way to prevent bullying. Such relationships have been shown to reduce the frequency of bullying incidents. Having positive role models in school can help reduce any stigma or hesitation young people might have in standing up for someone being bullied.
Simple things that help young people to feel seen, heard, and valued are important. These include greeting students individually at the door when they arrive in the classroom, being empathetic and listening attentively, sharing some information about your own interests, goals, likes, and dislikes, noticing change, and giving specific, authentic and relevant praise.
Teachers can support positive peer relationships by not only engaging students in group work, but also scaffolding these interactions with appropriate sentence starters (e.g. ‘Building on what Charlie said…’); coaching students to develop ground rules and asking them to self-assess their collaborative approach.
Create an inclusive environment
Having an inclusive setting where everybody feels accepted, heard, and supported is essential for eradicating bullying.
To help all students feel a sense of belonging, teachers can model inclusive and respectful behaviour, including making a conscious effort to see and treat students as individuals. This includes using the language your students use for themselves and refraining from asking individual students to talk ‘on behalf of’ a particular group.
The use of clear classroom rules that are written positively, understood by all students, and consistently reinforced can lead to reductions in instances of bullying. Actively engaging students in the design of such class norms helps create an environment that promotes respect, inclusion, and dignity for everyone.
Take a clear stance
It helps if teachers understand the signs and symptoms of bullying and challenge all behaviour, language, and incidents of bullying, including micro-aggressions. When they say ‘It was only banter’, this needs to be challenged. Where students unintentionally offend others, validate the feelings of the victim, and help involved students to understand that comments can be hurtful, even if not intended to harm.
Keep it positive
When responding to bullying incidents, teachers should follow their school’s protocol and safeguarding policies and procedures. In doing so, teachers should separate the behaviour from the person and convey high and positive expectations: not ‘you’re a bully’ but ‘bullying behaviour is not OK, and not what I expect from a normally kind person like you’.
Educators should not underestimate the role of bullying – or their potential role in preventing and responding to bullying instances. Every adult in school can make a real difference in a young person’s life, and this anti-bullying week, with increased awareness of the issue, there’s no better time to start.