'Being there, helping is a good feeling'

27th February 2004 at 00:00
Children who are being bullied must confide in someone about the problem or nothing will change. But who to tell? That is the question.

Finding someone who can be trusted with sensitive information, someone who will not exacerbate the problem, can be hard, even in a secondary school. However, a community approach to tackling bullying helps.

At Castlehead High in Paisley, Renfrewshire's new policy acted as a catalyst on an existing buddy culture, whereby senior pupils take younger ones for paired reading, to generate a pupil-led initiative that now involves more than half of the senior students.

"It's called Always at Your Side," says sixth-year pupil Susan Kirkwood.

"We have two rooms at lunchtimes where the young ones can come to see us and talk about anything that's troubling them. Very often they want to talk about bullying."

"We can give them advice about social skills and dealing with people," says Maree McHugh of S5, "and can help by just being there and listening to them. If it's something really big we pass it on."

The Always at Your Side (AYS) volunteers benefited from the appointment last year of depute headteacher Ann Taylor, who came fresh from working with the authority on the Tackling Bullying in Renfrewshire policy. Her background in guidance and drama enabled the pupils' enthusiasm to be backed up by practical training in counselling skills.

"We practised in groups, taking turns to be the younger ones with problems," says fifth-year pupil James McParland. "We had to suggest what they could do and say and whether they should talk to a teacher."

This kind of role-playing forms the core of the training the students get when they join the AYS volunteers, says Ms Taylor. "It gives them practice in how to respond and what to do in different scenarios. It also yields an insight into how it feels to be a younger person who is being bullied."

It is a lesson not all of them need. "I was bullied when I was younger," says Dionne Doherty of S6, "and the training brought back to me what helped and what didn't.

"Some people say hit back and some say walk away and ignore it, but neither of those is right. It is difficult but you have to start talking to people.

"I know it has taken the young ones a lot of guts to come and see me. So I don't fire straight in with 'What's wrong?' I chat to them about normal stuff first and try to build a rapport."

For sixth-year student Kimberley Boney there is always a divide between pupils and teachers which does not exist between fellow pupils, irrespective of age.

"When I was younger and being bullied, it would have been so much better if I could have talked to an older student. Talking to a teacher feels threatening.

"I do paired reading with the first years and we can talk to each other, no problem. They're comfortable with us.

"We can't solve all the problems in a school; no one can. But being there for them and knowing that we're helping them is a really good feeling."

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