Reflections on bullying – some core underpinnings and a definition
Brian Donnelly Director of respectme, Scotland’s Anti-Bullying Service.
A great deal of learning has taken place over the five years respectme has been delivering anti-bullying training, policy support and campaigning. There are some core messages that underpin the approach we take which challenge existing thinking on bullying; I shall explore some of these in this refection. This reflection is also based on work done in partnership with Professor Howard Sercombe University of Strathclyde to develop an academic synthesis reflecting some of the theoretical underpinnings of the approach taken by respectme.
We challenge the traditional belief that persistence and intent are the defining elements of bullying situations. Instead we have focussed on the impact the behaviour has on individuals. Our reasoning for this is that it’s our role to provide pragmatic and practical responses, resources and skills that can be implemented by parents and professionals. What you do about bullying is much more important than how you define or what criteria you apply to determine if an incident merits the label. In our experience, many children and young people reflect a clear understanding that something needs to only happen once and it can be bullying, yet most definitions, and often anti-bullying policies, refute this, stating that the behaviour has to be repeated over a period of time. The actual intervention may not be repeated, but the threat will be sustained over time. Typically, the threat will be sustained by actions, looks, messages, confrontations and physical interventions or the fear and anticipation of these.
Similarly intent is not only difficult to prove but easily denied and this should not be used as criteria for this very reason. Many of the behaviours experienced are subtle, indirect and designed to unsettle and make people feel left out; again it is the impact that needs to be the focus for intervention.
respectme focuses on the need to develop interventions and approaches that recognise the impact bullying has and works to ensure adults are able to deal with it effectively and confidently. This involves supporting partners to come to a shared understanding of what bullying behaviour can be. When faced with an actual situation, how you define it is less important than what you do about it. This deflects the intervention from a dispute about whether or not a presenting situation should be classed as a bullying situation, and turns attention to where it ought to be focused: to the person directly affected. Then, the intervention becomes much more straightforward; really a matter of three questions:
1. What is happening?
2. What does the person in distress want to happen?
3. How are we going to make that work?
Bullying behaviours can include:
· Being called names, being teased, put down or threatened
· Being hit, tripped, pushed or kicked
· Having belongings stolen or damaged
· Being ignored, left out, or rumours spread about you
· Receiving abusive text messages or emails
· Behaviour which makes people feel like they are being bullied
· Being targeted because of who you are or who you are perceived to be
This is not an exhaustive list; there may be other behaviours that can be classed as bullying, these are what we would call ‘practices of domination’.
Children and young people can experience bullying for a variety of reasons; including where they live, their sexuality, gender, disability, the colour of their skin, what clothes they wear or what team they support.
The one thing that these have in common is difference or perceived difference. Bullying is a relationship. It’s a two way thing. The attempt to dominate needs to be answered by subordination in order for the bullying relationship to be established. Bullying is therefore not primarily a description of a person or behaviour but a kind of relationship. Those who bully and those bullied are in a relationship with each other. What differentiates bullying, we believe, is the impact it has on a person’s agency. This ‘agency’ is their capacity for effective action and feeling in control of their lives. Bullying strips individuals of the capacity to do this.
As a result of the work and discussions with Professor Howard Sercombe, we defined bullying as:
“A relationship of violence involving practices of domination that strip another person of the capacity for agency, using interventions carrying the sustained threat of harm” (Sercombe and Donnelly 2012)
The aim of interventions must be to restore agency, to replace that which was taken away. We must base our responses on this question: ‘how can I respond in a way that gives this person back their agency, to help them regain that sense of control over who they are and what they do?’ Not just ‘how do I fix this?’
Adults who adopt this perspective can make a much more effective intervention. These core principles are underpinned by our values of fairness, inclusion and equality and are supported by our commitment to provide practical resources for adults to use that promote and protect Children’s Rights. These values and principles apply when dealing with children and young people who are bullying others. They need to understand what the behaviour is that is unacceptable, why it is unacceptable, what the consequences may be and what is expected of them in future. They may also need help to repair relationships.
Another core message that underpins the work of the service is our approach to labelling, respectme does not label children and young people as ‘bullies’ or ‘victims’. Care needs to be taken because labelling is not without its risks, labelling a child or young person on the basis of bullying behaviour can result in a confirmed identity as a ‘bully’ or ‘victim’ resulting in ongoing behaviour patterns based on this identity. respectme has developed approaches to working with bullying which hopefully avoid the labelling dilemma. A core theme in training, policy development and campaigning has been the exploration of the value judgements that lie behind labels.
This is not to dilute behaviour but is to keep the focus of the adult’s responses on the behaviour that is problematic, rather than the assigning characteristics to those involved. This is a solution focussed approach that is designed to help people change the way they behave, rather than attempt to change who they are. We help people change by telling them and naming the behaviour that is unacceptable, being clear that what they are doing is bullying and that it needs to stop.
I look forward to sharing more of the learning in the coming months on topics ranging from cyberbullying to what our 24 month evaluation highlighted as critical factors for success.