What Role Can the School Play in Responding to Bullying?
Promoting individual responsibility and providing systemic support is a winning combination for communities hoping to reduce bullying and foster communities where every young person can flourish. By taking this approach, schools can continue to shift from a culture that unintentionally tolerates and even encourages bullying towards one that is more humane, more respectful and closed to all forms of violence, including bullying.
Building a Culture That Supports Everyone Being Safe, Strong and Free?
Effective bullying prevention is achieved when communities involve all their members in efforts to promote compassion and inclusion, where all young people have a sense of belonging. Such a culture sends children and teens the message that adults are determined to take bullying seriously and mobilize everyone to find creative and constructive ways to reduce and prevent it.
To build a culture where everyone feels “safe, strong and free”, it is imperative that all members of the school community – young people, parents and school staff - develop attitudes and the range of skills and knowledge required and have access to systemic support. A comprehensive approach is essential if we want to support young people who are or wish to become allies. These children and teens must be able to rely on consistent systems that protect them when they decide to defend the rights of young people who are being bullied.
Systemic support is also necessary for parents and guardians of children and teens who are being bullied or who bully. The response to bullying is a complex and demanding task, and no one should have to intervene without having had the opportunity to learn the skills, and without clear guidelines and appropriate support.
Such measures help ensure that bullying and other forms of violence are not tolerated, and to guarantee and protect the rights of every young person (and everyone).
The School’s Responsibility
The Ontario government takes bullying in schools very seriously. The Education Act is a law that helps address and prevent bullying. It requires all school boards to take preventative measures, develop a plan and policies and share these with their schools. Schools also have a Code of Conduct providing guidelines for acceptable behaviour, along with core values. These resources are available to all community members and, of course, to all parents and guardians.
To deal with problems such as bullying, schools and boards are mandated to use progressive discipline to address inappropriate student behaviour with appropriate consequences and support. Principals are required to act when an incident occurs, and to communicate with the family of the students directly involved. Parents have an important role to play in this whole-school approach to help ensure that schools are safe, inclusive and accepting.
Should I Approach my Children’s School?
It might be difficult to know when or how to approach our children’s teacher or the principal for help. When our children are having problems, our inclination may be to feel angry and upset. It may be helpful to ask the following questions :
- Are the core elements of bullying present in this situation? It might be conflict and not bullying. See Module 2 for information on the difference between conflict and bullying.
- Is my child involved in the process of deciding how to move forward? Have I used empowerment listening and problem-solving guidelines to ensure that my child has as much say in the action plan as possible? See Module 7 for information on our empowerment based problem solving approach.
- Has my child shared the problem with the teacher? Is the school already aware of the problem?
- Can my child be part of discussions with the school?
It may be appropriate for you to seek help from staff at your school. Calling or asking for a meeting is often the first part of an action plan that families put forward. Positive role modeling of healthy communication has a very positive impact on our children who are observing us and hoping for our constructive and thoughtful support.
It is important to communicate to our children that we will take their needs and suggestions into account when helping them manage bullying. Knowing that their parents or guardians will stay calm, and still be there for them is an important part of this approach. Children and teens are simply more likely to approach us if they trust our response will be constructive and respectful.
To be effective, the adult response to bullying - and any other form of violence – needs to encourage reflection, change and repair. It is important that consequences be both fair and consistent and be perceived by young people as fair, consistent and case specific.
Ontario law requires schools to develop a bullying prevention plan with coherent and constructive intervention policies and procedures. The following framework in four parts (not necessarily presented in a linear order or by importance) can help to establish a holistic plan for bullying intervention and prevention.
COMPONENTS OF A COMPREHENSIVE BULLYING PREVENTION PLANIf your child’s school already has a plan, you can explore with them whether it addresses these four important areas. If the school hasn’t created a plan the school can be encouraged to incorporate the following components.
- Reflection: Encourage all members of the school community to reflect on how they use power in school, and on the link between responsibility and power (whether it is used positively or negatively).
- Attitude change and skill development: Encourage values and attitudes that foster compassion, respect for differences and basic rights, as well as the wellbeing and self-fulfilment of students (and of everyone). Foster the development of skills and abilities needed to ensure that adults are able to model healthy communication and to intervene sensitively, respectfully and effectively. Foster the development of a wide range of social skills among students enabling them to resist bullying and to develop healthy relationships in all areas of their lives.
- Development of school systems: Develop a whole school policy, including a set of coherent and comprehensive protocols and procedures to support and uphold efforts aimed at preventing bullying and intervening in bullying incidents. A Code of Conduct containing a clear definition and description of bullying is a key element of such a policy.
- Strategies for action: Develop and implement an array of short-, medium- and long-term activities, initiatives, measures and approaches that facilitate and reinforce daily practices and behaviours (among all members of the school community) imbued with the values associated with bullying prevention.
Three Actions the School Must Take
- Administer an anonymous survey with the whole community to learn more about each person’s perceptions of bullying at the school, and about the types of bullying that are occurring. (The Law requires school boards to administer anonymous school climate surveys with students, parents and school staff, at least once every two years.)
- Establish a committee, comprised of students, parents and guardians, and school staff mandated with the responsibility to analyze the survey questionnaires and to disseminate the results.
- Train school community members to raise their awareness about the problem of bullying and its impact, to build their skills and to provide them with the necessary information enabling them to fulfill their respective roles in a responsible manner. (Each year, school boards are required to offer professional development to school staff on bullying prevention and strategies for fostering a positive school climate.)