Never judge a book by its label

I have been thinking a lot about what to chat about at this time following a very busy and successful anti-bullying week. There were so many issues covered in the build up to and since, everything from on-line bullying to the challenging messages contained in this year’s advert. We were able to get our advert on STV for the very first time and we await the figures for this. Anti-bullying week also seen the advert watched on YouTube 35,000 times in one week. The ‘click-through rate’ for this ad is apparently twice the industry average. You can view it here

There is also supporting videos discussing the campaign and on responding to bullying

I also had the pleasure of attending an International Anti-Bullying Conference in Nashville in early November. I spoke to many colleagues at this event and one issue that came up more than most was labelling. I had also had some feedback and discussions with other people about respectme’s approach labelling prior to this so I decided it was something to revisit and reflect on.

One of the first things I noticed at the conference was just how anti-bullying is an industry in The States. The volume of books written on the subject is staggering and having spoken to a few aspiring authors, it is a crowded market that is not easy to crack. A glance at many of the books on show – especially the ones aimed at younger children or the parents of younger children were a little concerning. Titles such as:  ‘How not to be a Bully’, ‘Llama Lama and the Bully Goat’. ‘What to do if your child is a Bully’ and other similar titles. This is not to single out or to critique any particular title just the very consistent use of the word and the label.

The large number of books like this made it easy to engage in conversations about labelling with many other delegates. Every speaker I heard talked about ‘Bullies’, ‘Victims’, ‘Bully/Victims’ and ‘Pure Bullies’. A part of my input covered the approach we have in Scotland to this explaining how respectme does not label children and young people as ‘bullies’ or ‘victims’.

Our approach reflects the view that 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.

The point is that if you label children a certain way – there is a significant risk that they effectively ‘live up’ to that label and all of their subsequent behaviour is viewed through this prism– which is unfair as no one is ever just the one thing. We hear of many situations where bullying has been overlooked or ignored because either the school or the parents did not think the person doing it was a ‘bully’, perhaps because they were clever or popular and articulate – however, on many occasions their behaviour was bullying. Our work tries to take away the perception people may have about who is doing it and focus on what the person actually did – bullying and what was the impact.

The response to this was warm and many delegates commented on how this approach would actually help them yet acknowledged that it would be a real struggle to get other people to move in the same direction.

‘Bully’ has become a word that commands attention; it elicits an emotional response from adults, an understandable emotional response that sees the children who do this dehumanised and caricatured from an early age, this can also reinforce the notion that it’s always someone else’s child who does this. This is not to suggest that the behaviour of some children towards other children is not outrageous and damaging – it can be.

The word itself conjures up particular images for each of us, ones that may represent our own experiences too. I do not seek to take that away from anyone as that is a natural response  – my role in this is to find solutions and try to help how we respond to bullying. Because that is what matters surely? How we respond to behaviour and help someone feel safe and feel like themselves again is what makes a difference. How we help children to see how unacceptable their behaviour is and what is required of them to share social spaces and classrooms with their peers. That is what makes the biggest difference.

We have had over 30 years of work in anti-bullying and somehow people persist in focussing on what a ‘bully’ is, the type of person who bullies, or who follows, or who is easily bullied, rather than what people actually did and the impact it had. Almost as if when we reach the point that everyone can accept that a particular child is indeed a ‘bully’ that’s our job done.

Children bully other children for a number of reasons, it’s not always because deep down they are afraid and scared or lack self-esteem – they might be but they can also be confident children with an abundance of self-esteem – they will now exactly what the impact is, that might be why they are doing it. The thing is no two incidents are ever identical – the dynamic is always affected by who is involved.

Success in dealing with bullying is usually rooted in having an approach like this:

What was the behaviour?

What impact did this have?

And what do I need to do about it?

This sees you deal with behaviour and impact – if the behaviour is completely out of character then that might influence any subsequent consequences, if it is the third incident this week, then that too will affect your response. If a child coped well with the attempt to bully, then that night influence the amount of support they need. This is the crux of the matter for me – there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ response. Success requires you to take the time to look at each incident and find a way forward with the young people involved that reflect their strengths, weaknesses and their wishes. What works for children on Monday won’t always work for a different group on Tuesday.

Too many schools and too many parents have lost days (and the interest of their children) arguing over whether the person who did this is in fact a bully or not. Have I found it easier saying to parents who ask me if I’m ‘calling their child a bully or not?’ to answer, ‘no. I’m saying that what he did was bullying’ then the answer is yes, I do think that is easier and focusses attention in the right places.

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 the behaviour that is unacceptable, being clear that what they are doing is bullying and that it needs to stop.

Consistency does not mean doing exactly the same way every time – the consistency is where children and their families will know that schools, other parents or youth clubs take bullying seriously, they will listen and have a range of ways they can respond to bullying that reflect the broad and complex range of relationships within our schools and social spaces – this includes their online social space.

It was pleasing to hear other people talk about ‘dropping the labels’, well one other speaker to be fair and also that they found this to be radical and innovative which of course, it is. What was pleasing is that it has been fundamental to our work and success for the last seven years in Scotland. Perhaps we can be more radical and innovative than we think sometimes.

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