The expert's view: 'It can be hard for teachers to know whether or not a child is being bullied'

We must teach children that speaking out is the only way to beat bullying, writes an education consultant at the NSPCC children’s charity

Kay Joel

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I know that schools across the UK are supporting the fantastic work of so many charities during Anti-Bullying Week and it’s absolutely critical that everyone is reminded of the devastating and lifelong impact bullying can have. I also know that bullying can be a difficult issue to broach as a teacher – there are so many aspects to deal with, such as stopping the bullying, supporting the victim and teaching the bully that their behaviour is wrong, as well as understanding the changing nature of bullying in the digital age.

We all have a responsibility to help to stop bullying and to teach children right from wrong. Schools have a particular duty to provide a safe environment for children and young people, and this includes protecting them from bullying and responding quickly when concerns arise.

But the fact is that it can be hard for teachers to know whether or not a pupil is being bullied. A child might not tell anyone because they're scared the bullying will get worse. Sadly, we also know from the young people who contact ChildLine that they often begin to believe they deserve to be bullied, that their problems aren’t bad enough to deserve help or that the bullying is their fault.

Sally*, who contacted Childline when she was 15, said: “The bullying was so bad that sometimes I wouldn’t go to school. The bullies would taunt me and call me names, especially saying nasty things about how I looked. I felt worthless and ugly. I didn’t really take care what I looked like because I felt there was no point and I didn’t want to look in the mirror. The bullies would sometimes follow me and spit on me. I had thought my problems weren’t bad enough and that I didn’t deserve help, but after contacting ChildLine I started to think that maybe my problems did matter and I could ask for help. I didn’t feel so alone.”

Last year bullying was the fourth biggest reason for young people contacting ChildLine, with 25,736 counselling sessions held on the issue. For children aged 11 and under, bullying and/or online bullying was the top reason for contacting the service, and for young people aged 12-15 it was third highest reason. The number of young people seeking help with bullying proves that we need to ensure children across the UK understand right from wrong and the effect that bullying can have on victims.

Ensuring your school has a robust and up-to-date anti-bullying policy and promoting a no-tolerance approach is essential to stopping bullying in its tracks. This can be done through regular assemblies, form time and PSHE lessons. At the NSPCC we believe that PSHE lessons are vital in helping children and young people understand the seriousness of bullying and the long-lasting devastating effects. These lessons can really help to ensure pupils know that if they tell someone about their concerns they will be taken seriously.

It is also very important that any lessons and assemblies reflect the fact that children aren’t just verbally and physically bullied any more – bullying is also increasingly happening online, often giving bullies the chance to hide and become anonymous. This anonymity means the bullying can be even more ferocious and damaging. The increasing popularity and 24/7 nature of social media now means that young people who are being bullied sadly cannot escape when they are outside school.  

Lola*, who contacted ChildLine, said: “When the bullying began my social anxiety worsened. Everything I said got knocked down so I stopped saying anything. At 14, all the comments triggered my eating disorder. As time went on I then began feeling very depressed. I found it difficult to go school. The comments continued on social media. This time I was also getting blackmailed as they would write things like ‘Your family hate you’.”

It is vital that all members of staff, working with young people, know what action should be taken if bullying is suspected or reported, whether it is online or offline. It is also vital that teachers record all incidents and report patterns of bullying, which can really help to identify whether you need to update your policies and procedures. The NSPCC and TES Safeguarding in Education Self-Assessment Tool (ESAT) for schools in England can help schools to audit their current safeguarding arrangements. It includes guidance on what to include in an anti-bullying policy and an example of a policy written by children.

Sometimes all a young person wants to know is that there is someone there for them to talk to. You can do this by displaying posters around the school which encourage pupils to talk to staff or a friend, or by putting in place worry boxes for children who would prefer not to speak directly to someone. We know that speaking out can really help. After Sally* spoke to ChildLine, she said: “One of the best things about ChildLine is that I knew it was always there when I felt low, when I didn’t have anywhere else to turn. I knew I didn’t have to face the bullying alone – there would be someone to talk it over with.”

I’m confident that Anti-Bullying Week 2015 will bring about some very positive action – such as the need for everyone in schools to be alert to bullying and to take proactive steps to tackle it. It’s an issue that needs to remain at the top of all our agendas every day of the year.

If you're a teacher and you are concerned about a child with regards to bullying and would like help or advice please call the 24/7 NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000, email or text us on 88858. You can also encourage children to contact ChildLine on (0800 1111) or direct them to the website – day or night 

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Kay Joel

Kay Joel is an NSPCC education consultant

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