Whether a student is a victim or a perpetrator of bullying, the word itself evokes emotions in parents that can range from shame to anger. The shame felt by parents when they realise that they have not picked up on many of the telltale signs that their child is suffering can be just as potent as the anger directed towards the school for not keeping that child safe.
For the parents of perpetrators, shame comes from the fact that their child has been labelled a bully, but it can be mixed with anger, too, if they believe that the label is unjust. Understanding the emotions that parents feel when they find out that their child has been involved in one or more bullying incidents is important in navigating the difficult meetings that follow.
Some anti-bullying interventions ignore the central role that parents play in school life. Yet how the parents respond to such incidents is just as important as how the school responds. If parents feel supported, they will support the school; if they feel alienated, they may well reject suggested solutions.
The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (OBPP), a US anti-bullying programme that is widely used internationally, recognises this. In the OBPP scheme, once the facts are established, parents must be part of the process when an action plan is drawn up. If sanctions are to be enforced, they must be agreed by parents, and there must also be a commitment to review the progress of the action plan with everyone involved. But you do not need to be in a programme such as OBPP to do this. Schools can create good lines of communication with parents and help them to understand what has happened to their child at school.
When speaking to parents, it may be a good idea not to use the word "bullying". It trivialises a violent assault or inappropriately labels a disagreement that has escalated into a fight. Bullying has a relatively strict definition: the behaviour has to be repeated, it has to involve a perceived or actual imbalance of power and it has to be deliberate. Sometimes, one-off incidents are labelled "bullying" when they may not be so. Similarly, we tend to assume hurtful acts are deliberate, but as adults we know that such acts can be the result of a misunderstanding rather than malice. Refraining from using the term "bullying" may defuse potentially difficult discussions or, in serious cases, impress on all concerned the gravity of the situation.
Next, it can be helpful to outline the structure of any meeting that parents are asked to attend. For the parents of victims, as well as those of perpetrators, it should be clearly stated that the meeting will include a formal record of what is discussed and the agreed next steps. Wherever possible, that record should be signed. If a plan of action or intervention is put in place - which is likely in cases of persistent bullying - this will require regular review by all concerned. The date and time of the first review should be set so that everyone is aware of the timetable. Ideally, all such meetings should be chaired by a member of the school's governing body.
Setting up a parent support network can also be an effective way to bridge any perceived divide between the school and parents. Parent-governors are best placed to facilitate these groups and provide points of contact for those who seek advice when their child is involved in a bullying incident, perhaps even supporting them at the initial meeting. Also, involving families in anti-bullying activities not only reinforces the whole-school approach to tackling bullying, it also shows students that such behaviour will not be tolerated at home, either.
In these ways, schools and teachers can get the crucial buy-in needed from parents for anti-bullying interventions to work. The topic can be incredibly sensitive for parents, but with some intelligent and sensible work from schools and teachers, these challenges can be overcome.
Ian Rivers is professor of human development at Brunel University in London and visiting professor within the Faculty of Health, Social Care and Education at Anglia Ruskin University in the East of England. He is the lead author of Bullying: A Handbook for Educators and Parents (2007). A blog by Marj Adams on parents' reactions to their child being a bully. A bullying audit questionnaire for parents and carers.
A blog by Marj Adams on parents' reactions to their child being a bully. A bullying audit questionnaire for parents and carers.
A bullying audit questionnaire for parents and carers.