Ben's mother took the call at work. "Please come and collect Ben from school. He fell on the stairs and banged his head. He was knocked out for a few moments but he seems to be OK now." It was only later, when some girls reported that Ben had been pushed, that this incident was acknowledged as bullying and dealt with appropriately.
There is a saying that evil flourishes when good men stay silent. In Ben's case, good (wo)men did not stay silent and the bullying stopped.
Encouraging children who witness incidents to take action is an approach that is being developed in new anti-bullying programmes around the world.
They shift the emphasis from treating bullying as an individual problem to seeing it as a social one.
The schemes work by getting all children who witness bullying to think about their role as bystanders and encourage them to take action to stop it. Most bullying goes unseen by teachers, and most of it goes unreported, but often it occurs in front of other children. Those who observe bullying usually know it is wrong, but don't intervene. Getting them to take responsibility, but doing so effectively and safely, is at the heart of these new initiatives.
At the University of South Australia, Ken Rigby and Bruce Johnson started an international research project on the behaviour of bystanders. They developed a video showing a variety of bullying incidents, and a questionnaire. It was used with children in England, Bangladesh, Israel, Italy and South Africa, who were asked how they would respond to similar events. Among the reasons children gave for not intervening were:
* they were afraid of the consequences (getting hurt, being a tell-tale);
* they did not want to collaborate with teachers;
* they did not want to get involved;
* they believed that the victim deserved the bullying;
* they saw resolution of the problem as the victim's responsibility;
* they enjoyed the conflict;
* they felt it was a safer option
* they felt admiration for the bully
* they felt dislike of the victim
Canadian research has shown that bystanders' intervention lowers the number of incidents and teachers report that the school feels safer and more caring. It also shows that the behaviour of bystanders is crucial in influencing whether bullying stops or is repeated. Getting children to acknowledge that bullying is wrong, and then to express an intention to do something about it, is only half the battle. Many schools are there already; but translating empathy into action is difficult. Children feel they should act, but often do nothing.
Ken Rigby and Bruce Johnson say: "What struck us strongly from the study was the lack of correlation between what children thought their teachers expected of them and what they (the children) thought they would do. On the other hand, the expressed intentions of students were closely related to what they thought their friends expected them to do. This is important because it strongly suggests that teachers telling students how they ought to behave as bystanders is likely to be quite ineffective."
Helping children find appropriate ways to respond can empower them and help them develop social skills. In Ben's story, instanced above, it was girls who intervened, and the research has shown that boys are more likely to see peer support as a female role. In programmes used in the US, a key focus is on "doing the right thing". Discussion then moves on to what alternatives there are for responding, with safety of both victim and bystander being paramount.
In the UK, some schools have trained children to act as counsellors or mediators, but training children in this way takes skill and dedication on the part of the staff. Not all schools have the time, expertise or willingness to do this. Some schemes that involve formal training and response structures have evolved into more informal and immediate arrangements, such as "buddying". Although this kind of peer support may be effective, it can focus responsibility on a few skilled and trained pupils rather than establishing a wider responsibility.
Other schools have incorporated awareness and bystander training into areas such as creative arts and citizenship programmes. In the US, the Wisconsin Public Television service teamed up with educators, social workers and artists to develop a curriculum that includes video, visual arts and interactive performance to empower young people to stop bullying when they encounter it. The result is Bystanders into Allies (b2a), a three-module programme for middle schools. Part one is for parents, part two for teachers, and part three works directly with the children. This format underlines the need for everyone to be involved.
* Ken Rigby's Stop the Bullying: a handbook for schools is published by ACER Press, Melbourne. There is more about the research into the behaviour of bystanders in Pastoral Care in Education (Blackwell Publishing, 2005).
Information about Bystanders into Allies can be found at www.wpt.orgoutreach
Gill Moore is a lecturer and freelance writer
Ken Rigby and Bruce Johnson suggest the following practical approach for schools:
* Open up the discussion by using pictures or a video clip. Ask if the children have seen similar incidents.
* Ask the children how they would respond. Focus on children who say they would act to discourage the bully.
* Acknowledge children who have fears about responding to bullying.
* Identify the situations that children consider dangerous and explain that it might be better to get outside help or inform a teacher.
* Consider how to minimise the risks of intervention, for example, by stating the child's disapproval, rather than physically intervening.
* Get pupils to rehearse what they might say and, if appropriate, use role play.
* Encourage students to report back when they have intervened, so you can reinforce positive bystander behaviour and build confidence.
* Let parents and all staff know what you are doing.
Rigby and Johnson say: "The key to our method is getting positive statements from peers in the classroom about why they would act positively and help the victim, and making effective use of them. Our research provided a good deal of detail about the strong altruistic motivation of many children, expressed in ways that were moving and indeed likely to influence other students. Eliciting such statements is, I think, the key, then building on them."
(These suggestions have been adapted from Teacher, September 2004, published by the Australian Council for Educational Research)