Monday, 15 April 2013

"The elephant in the room"

This is my first blog. 

My intention is to provide information and commentaries on school  bullying  that may be useful to schools, parents, students, researchers, in fact  to anyone who is interested in this pressing problem. One of the things that interests me is in identifying the questions about which people give different answers. Once we know where disagreements  lie we can focus on finding the best answers.  Largely for that reason, my site contains a quiz. Perhaps you have answered it. If not you can find it I am undertaking to provide analyses as the data accumulates and to discuss findings in later blogs. I think what is found will be very revealing and useful.

An elephant in the room

Here is a matter that really concerns me: something I have called the elephant in the room. It is about what needs to be done about school bullying.   The vast proportion of writers about school bullying tell us that it must be – and can be – prevented by taking precautionary measures. These include having an agreed whole school approach, better classroom management, bringing about a more positive school climate, promoting positive bystander behaviour, providing training in pro-social and interpersonal skills and  developing more empathic and inclusive attitudes among students. All these things are highly desirable and can help to reduce bullying.  But to date they have not stopped bullying in any of the schools where they have been applied.

While all this is going on, there has been a truly remarkable neglect of attention to what can be done about the many cases that do arise. This may well be described as an elephant in the room – an object so large that  it is truly amazing that it is treated as if it wasn’t there.  I mean the question of what do when cases of bullying take place.

Children are invariably told that if they are being bullied – and can’t deal with it themselves – they should tell -  and especially tell a teacher. The evidence is now overwhelming that most children who are bullied do not tell a teacher. Here are the results of a massive survey of some 520,000 children between grades 3 and 12, as reported by leading researchers in the USA, Olweus and Limber (2010). 

Only about 30% of children who are bullied ever tell a teacher, and it becomes fewer as children get older. Parents and other children are more likely to be told. Research findings from other countries, including  England, the Netherlands and Australia  where bullied students have been surveyed,  tell a similar story.  By and large, students simply do not believe that teachers will or can help, or they feel  that it is ‘weak’ to tell (Rigby & Bagshaw, 2003).

It would be nice to report that when teachers do intervene it really does help. But on at least half the occasions they seek help from them, the students report that things do not improve and sometimes they get worse (see the evidence summarised by Rigby, 2011).  Students who do not tell, a growing majority as they grow older, are not foolish or deluded.  They reason: why  on earth should we  tell a teacher?

I have just read a moving paper based on in-depth interviews with 11 parents who sought help for their children who were being bullied from the schools they attended.  After interviews with school officials the options for 10 of the parents were two fold:  remove their youth from the school or let the victimization continue. (Brown, Matthew & Ott, 2013).

The implications are very clear. Either most cases of school bullying cannot be successfully addressed by teachers – it is just too hard – or teachers are too  ill-equipped to take effective action.  I think it is the latter.

I have written a book called ‘Bullying Interventions in Schools: six basic approaches to cases of bullying’ in which I have set out the main intervention strategies that schools can employ. I have argued that each can be appropriate for some cases. The task is to make an informed choice – and to learn how to apply the strategy as well as one can.

I do not claim that I have the answers. But I do claim that I am asking the questions and suggesting answers that scarcely anybody else is doing.  And I am making a plea for educators to take the question of what to do about actual cases really seriously – rather than merely  posit what a good school/home environment would do so that the problem would cease to exist.
I will suggest a reason for this neglect. It is not, I think, because so many researchers in the field are blind, as one might perhaps suppose. An elephant is really hard to miss. It is because many thoughtful and sensitive anti-bullying campaigners  regard the alternative to promoting socio-emotional wellbeing  in children is the use of harsh disciplinary measures, an insensitive zero tolerance state of affairs. But it need not be like that.

Increasingly non-punitive measures in addressing cases of bullying are becoming better known and are being shown to be at least as effective  as traditional methods, if not more so.  For those who really want to see the evidence please read the ground breaking government report by Thompson and Smith (2011). For those who prefer a less demanding text see my book, Bullying interventions in schools: six basic approaches (Wiley, 2012).

These sources are not of course the last words on the subject, but rather among the first.  A great deal more work is needed before we can convince teachers that there really are better and more successful ways of dealing with the cases of bullying that come their way: ones that do not, as so often happens, result in disappointment  and  anger on the part of children and parents who were hoping for the help that was  promised but never delivered.


Brown,J.R.,  Aalsma, M.C, & Ott,M.A. (2013).  The experiences of parents who report youth bullying victimization to school officials Interpersonal  Violence, 28 (3), 494-518.

Rigby, K. (2010). Bullying interventions in schools: Six basic approaches. Camberwell, Vic: ACER. (American edition: Wiley, 2012).

Rigby, K (2011). What can schools do about cases of bullying? Pastoral Care in Education., 29, 4, 273 -285.
Rigby, K., & Bagshaw, D. (2003). Prospects of adolescent students collaborating with teachers in addressing issues of bullying and conflict in schools. Educational Psychology, 32, 535-546.