Pastoral leaders are no longer simply dealing with straightforward playground issues. As digital technology becomes a greater part of pupils' lives, we now have to investigate incidents that have not taken place at school, but outside of school walls and hours, often in the comfort of our pupils’ homes. The variety and complexity of online incidents vary greatly: anything from a pupil being ignored in a chat room to online bullying (including fake profiles and stalking), sexting, pornography, grooming and radicalisation.
We are spending a lot of time being reactive in dealing with the aftermath of digital relationships going wrong. But what if we were to instead focus on preparing our young people for the digital world and on empowering them to create and sustain positive relationships? If we can teach pupils not to engage with unhealthy situations or relationships online in the first place, then we can stop being reactive and start taking a more proactive approach. Here are three steps in the right direction.
1. Develop awareness
In order to respond to risk, pupils need to be able to recognise it. It is important for pupils to be aware and mindful of the following signs of unhealthy relationships:
- Feeling the pressure to change.
- Feeling the pressure to do something you don’t want to do.
- Feeling you have to hide things, be secretive.
- Having to justify your actions.
- Making it difficult to maintain relationships with family or friends.
- Lack of common friends.
- Lack of respect for each other’s family.
- Verbal, emotional or physical abuse (using the ‘silent treatment’, disappearing, name-calling, etc).
- Controlling behaviours (excessive calling, texting, stalking, lack of privacy, etc).
Most of these signs can be easily applied to real life situations as well as the digital world. Parents and schools need to be working in partnership to educate young people about healthy and unhealthy relationships and how to recognise the signs. At the same time, although educating about the risk is a necessary preventative measure, it is not enough. It is important that young people act on this awareness. In order to do this, they need to act from the position of mental and emotional strength and be prepared to break unhealthy attachments.
2. Nurture mental health and wellbeing
It is when we are feeling vulnerable that we are more likely to engage in unhealthy relationships in our conscious or unconscious search to satisfy basic human needs, such as the need for belonging and acceptance and the need to feel valued and secure. Empowering young people to look after their mental health and wellbeing and creating secure environments at school and at home should be our number one priority.
3. Develop a moral compass and strong values
Healthy behaviours are underpinned by values and morals. This is especially true when forming positive digital behaviours and healthy relationships, as we should expect our young people to uphold the same standard of behaviour online as in real life, acting with integrity at all times. Schools must make every effort to include character education as an integral, natural part of school life. It needs to be reflected in the school ethos and values and incorporated into all parts of the day-to-day school life and routine, because “everything in a school’s moral life affects character, for good or for ill” (Gelpi; 2008).
Maria O’Neill is an advanced skills teacher, e-safety co-ordinator and head of PSHE. She is also a wellbeing coach, PhD student researching wellbeing and personal development, and founder of @HealthyToolkitand @UKPastoralChat