I will not be starting this by offering my definition of bullying, it is only once we explore agency will the definition be worth sharing.
It is vital that we understand that bullying is both behaviour and impact –never always one and not the other. It is itself a relationship between certain behaviours and particular type of impact.
Bullying is not defined by persistence or intent. This is relevant because if you were to look up definitions online and in peer reviewed articles, the vast majority of these will refer to bullying as persistent and deliberate behaviour.
I would argue that these are unhelpful criteria to apply to situations. So much time can be lost trying to apply all the various factors, many of which are entirely subjective.
Let’s look at intent – if you tell me bullying must be deliberate and then accuse me of bullying, what is my first response? – That I didn’t mean it. Intent is difficult to prove. It can tie situation up in knots and the focus on responding to what someone did and the impact it had is lost.
Schools can waste a lot of time trying to prove intent –I have been involved in examples when intent is denied the adults are stumped.
It’s usually deliberate not always – sometime children use language they hear at home and have no idea of how offensive or inappropriate it is. We should not get caught up in using this as qualifying criteria though – it’s too easily re-framed
Let us now consider persistence – that the behaviour must be repeated before it can be considered bullying – again this is something I do not agree with and neither do most young people have I spoken to. Persistence is difficult to define and also, who defines when it’s persistent enough? Me, the person it is happening to or the intervening adult? Something need only happen once and the impact can be severe; a child may not get on the bus in the morning again or get changed for PE after this.
The fear of repetition can be sustained through looks or perhaps threats or just the fear of it happening again.
These two factors are present in the majority of definitions of bullying across the globe; both of which, we feel here in Scotland are unhelpful. What you do about bullying is actually more important than how you define it.
The questions we need to ask are;
What was the behaviour?
What impact did it have?
What do I need to do about it?
Every situation is unique. You might over hear some name calling in the corridor and discover this is chat between to close friends who are ‘winding’ each other up; it is not part of any power or dominance game.
What was the behaviour? Name calling
What impact did it have? None – made them laugh
What do I need to do about it? Nothing – perhaps remind them about language or being overheard
You may hear the same name calling ten feet further on but the person on the receiving end is upset and embarrassed in front of her peers.
What was the behaviour? Name calling
What impact did it have? Left someone embarrassed and fearful – who ran off
What do I need to do about it? Help this person get back into her routine, listen to how she feels and decide on next steps – you will need to challenge the people who called her names and look at possible consequences too
This does not mean we only focus on the impact behaviour has – this means that if someone shouts a homophobic or racist slur at someone and it bounces off them and they don’t care –this does not mean you do not need to do anything about the language used and the attempt to bully or dominate.
Just as not all attempts to bully are successful, people can feel bullied but not be – it is possible some people over react –you still need to deal with their reaction and their feelings but you might not need to do much about the behaviour – A useful workplace analogy might be a boss saying something as simple as – ‘you’re a bit late today’ and the staff member over-reacts and assumes this is an attempt to exert power and control and may then claim they are feeling bullied. They may panic, become restless, loose sleep and this will have an impact on them but the boss’ behaviour was perfectly legitimate and reasonable. This person needs help to work through their response but they have not been bullied.
So when we look at impact – things like feeling hurt, angry, scared, frightened, that knot in your stomach- what is happening there? What do these reactions say to us?
Young people reflect in a range of ways that they feel unable to speak out and feel trapped – they draw pictures of themselves in large rooms feeling caged and so on. This learning helped us articulate the notion that bullying actually takes something away from people.
All of these feelings which are regularly articulated reflect a loss of being in-charge of yourself, of being capable of taking effective action, of making choices and of being an effective actor or agent in your own life.
This is where agency came into our thinking. Lister calls agents ‘autonomous, purposeful actors, capable of a degree of choice’
Giddens talks about how we have agency within structures and our agency is utilised when we consciously alter our place in the structure’
Young people get this notion – as it can be a bit if a head scratcher the first time you hear it – though when you explain a ‘typical day’ of meeting friends, going to school, laughing, joining in and knowing what is happening and how you’ll respond. Bullied children don’t feel that. Someone else is in charge of how they feel, where they go even or how they will participate.
The ‘structures’ this dynamic takes place in is schools and communities. When they can exercise choice in what happens in these ‘structures’, they are utilising their agency.
The ability to negotiate relationships and difficulties is something all children and young people need to learn and develop – it is a life skill many adults still don’t always get right
We learn from our past experiences, from imagining what we would do in future similar situations and what is happening to us now – these elements combine and enable us to make choices and act – this is agency.
Managing change and responding to challenges requires hope, a belief you can handle things – and agency and these underpin resilience.
Bullying is not about just any kind of injury, nor just any negative impact. It involves a particular kind of harm. It is aimed at engendering a kind of helplessness, an inability to act, to do anything. It is an assault on a person’s agency (Sercombe and Donnelly 2012)
It is not even the establishment of dominance. The person bullying is not satisfied with dominance. Bullying involves the attempt to deny another any settled place, even a subordinate one. It goes beyond subjection. In bullying, the goal is abjection
Considering that bullying is both different types of behaviour and a particular impact that re-focusses our understanding of the dynamic – this can re-define bullying in a way that helps practitioners’ responsd to feelings and actions. This is always more effective than checking off criteria and having uniform sanction based responses.
Bullying is not defined by the type of person who did it either. 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.
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.
It is a fundamental part of behaviour management that we tell people what the behaviour was they did, why it is not acceptable and help them figure out what to do the next time they feel that way – I did get asked recently if not labelling children as ‘bullies’ is gobbledygook at parliament
With this in mind – we offer up a new definition for people to consider
Bullying is 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 actual intervention may not be repeated, but the threat at least needs to be sustained over time. Typically, the threat will be sustained by actions: looks, messages, confrontations or physical interventions.
Lastly, if we can accept that bullying takes something away from people, that they can no longer take effective action our response must focus on helping get that back.
This is the real shift in anti-bullying practice – how do I help someone get back a feeling of being in control of themselves and in a place to take effective action to feel safe and get on with their day?
Things like moving desks or even just excluding people won’t on their own help restore agency – young people must be included in what will happen next and given the chance to steer what direction it goes in. They need to be asked what they would like to happen and we need to take that seriously.
This is not always easy but it must remain our goal with every intervention – to help young people get back to a place where they are in control and can take effective action. Where not all attempts to bully are successful – this can see you continue to challenge people’s behaviour but you may need a lighter response to the young people they are attempting to unsettle.
In reality – what does that look like? What does it sound like? You will need to ask questions like
What would you like to happen?
What do you think will happen if I tell his or her parents?
What will happen if I tell your teacher?
What are you worried about?
Be prepared for them to say
Don’t tell my dad – you will out me to him and I’m not ready for that
I just want you to know what is happening and if I need you I will come and get you
If you talk to his dad he will get a doing/beating and it’ll get worse
So you explore what options they do have and sometimes that means pointing out that you need to do something as not doing anything is dangerous
Open conversations like these promote communication – this promotes positive relationships and they promote and role model problem solving behaviours –these relationships can become stronger and children become more resilient to what is happening because of this strong purposeful relationship – even with just one person.
The process of listening and consciously trying to get back agency – a sense of being on control – won’t always lead to a perfect outcome but it will help the person being bullied
So in conclusion, I would suggest that we have in fact re-framed our approach to and understanding of bullying based on children and young people’s experiences – that this understanding compliments the significant and long standing work on resilience, and on how we promote and enable this in our children and young people.
When we are promoting respectful relationships, when we are building capacity to respond effectively, when we are helping young people learn to negotiate tricky relationships and when involve them we help them to become more resilient.