Bullying and the ‘One-off incident’…

One challenge we have faced on several occasions over the years is around perceptions of what a ‘one-off incident’ is and ‘can it be bullying?’

At respectme, we have always stated that behaviour does not need to be persistent for it to be bullying – even though typically bullying may be repetitive, this does not mean it always is or has to be.

It is unhelpful to think of bullying this way and narrows our focus.

The most common response to this approach is that, by our definition, every single one-off incident or argument between young people can now be considered as bullying, and teachers especially are going to have to record every little fall out or cross word that happens.

Saying that something can happen once and it can be bullying is not the same as saying everything that happens once is bullying.

 We never have and never will suggest that two children who fall out over something or who aren’t nice to each other are bullying.  It is reasonable to expect adults to deal with this low level, everyday behaviour by challenging it when they see it, and by role modelling the right way to behave – and there is certainly no need to record that you have done so. Bullying is different.

Bullying is a mixture of behaviour and impact – the impact on a person’s capacity to feel in control of themselves. This is what we term as their sense of ‘agency’. Bullying takes place in the context of relationships; it is behaviour that can make people feel hurt, threatened, frightened and left out.

Nowhere in this is it suggested that falling out or arguing with someone is bullying – children and young people will fall out, they will disagree on who and what is cool, they will bicker with each other and this is part and parcel of children being in social situations. People can argue without it being bullying.

A young person can be threatened and intimidated by other young people on a bus, leaving them feeling humiliated and embarrassed– This only needs to happen once to stop them from getting on that bus again, or being terrified at the thought of it, or re-living the experience and not being able to concentrate in class.

The threat of it happening again is very real; the likelihood of it happening again is also real if that’s the bus they need to get to get to school every day.  Regardless of whether it happened on the last day of school, when all of the people who took part were leaving for good, or whether it was the last time that bus ever ran, or whether the person being bullied is moving to another country the following morning and won’t see these people again, it is still bullying. The behaviour experienced sill stripped someone of their capacity for agency.

If I get humiliated and picked on when changing for PE one day, it could have lasting effects on my participation in it or enjoyment of it.  Do I really need an adult to not take it seriously or consider it bullying because it only happened once?

How do we apply this to behaviour that takes place online? One post seen or read by dozens can have a devastating impact – is it the number of ‘likes’ that make it repetitive? In the playground or on the bus, people can hear nasty and hateful things being said.  Would we consider a story being shared or gossip passed around as repetitive or persistent? It certainly can ensure the impact is greater.

Adults need to have the confidence to deal with behaviour when it happens. How often it happens might make it more serious; it could mean attempted interventions have not been successful and it now requires a more robust response.

Now, I know most adults are capable of responding in this way but I have seen first-hand and heard many times from children, parents and from some senior teachers, that because it only happened once, they couldn’t do anything – their anti-bullying policy said it needs to be repeated.

This very literal take on a policy document is in some ways understandable – that’s what many people do with polices.  The thing is for me, if you need people to apply judgment and discern (and you do) don’t give them a definition that is limiting or reductive. Let them consider what was the behaviour, what impact did it have and what do they need to do about it? It is what you do that matters.

When I ask young people if something that only happens once can be bullying – the overwhelming response is ‘of course it can’.

I have always struggled with the subjective nature of the word ‘persistence’ to be honest – does it simply mean more than once? More than once a week? Or does once a day make it persistent enough to deal with? And also, who decides? My teacher – who has not seen or heard every incident – or me, the person it is happening to? Also, how does my teacher know it is not persistent? They never saw what happened on the way into school or in my last class in another part of the building.

I do understand if people’s motivation to exclude ‘one-off incidents’ from bullying is due to recording and the time this will take up. If what you mean by ‘one-off incidents’ are low level, everyday interactions such as a fall out, an argument or a cross word, then I support that- but then you need to define what you mean by a ‘one–off incident’. Make sure there is a shared understanding of what you mean and what is expected of people as a result.

Your policy needs to be clear that when you say a ‘one-off incident’ that it is not bullying you are talking about but the low level stuff just described. Be clear that you are not excluding certain bullying behaviours because they only happened once.  

Make sure everyone understands repetition or persistence is not a criteria that is to be applied and used to determine if something is bullying or not. If there is not a shared understanding of this, then responses are less likely to be applied consistently and inconsistent responses form part of a culture where bullying is more likely to thrive.

Brian Donnelly

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