This post is a summary of an anti-bullying workshop I gave at the British Council school, Prague, on 8th June 2016.
Why talk about bullying at all?
Like it or not, and no matter what we do, bullying is something that happens in our schools and in our classrooms. What we can do, however, is take steps to discourage it, and, if it starts, to stop it. Bullying can have a severe (and often long-term) effect on its victims – children who are bullied are more likely to:
- Have low self-esteem
- Suffer from depression or anxiety
- Be socially withdrawn or isolated
- Have lower academic achievements
- Be unable to form healthy, trusting relationships in the future
It isn’t only those on the receiving end whose lives are impacted – children who frequently bully are more likely to:
- Drop out of or be expelled from school
- Engage in criminal behaviour
- Suffer from depression or anxiety
- Be abusive as adults
Bullying is also a child protection issue – as teachers we are expected to ensure the safety and well-being of our students while they are in our classrooms.
It all sounds pretty serious, doesn’t it. It’s pretty clear that bullying is something we need to do something about.
What exactly is bullying?
When preparing for this workshop I encountered several perfectly well-meaning adults (teachers among them) who tried to tell me that bullying is a natural part of growing up – and that children shouldn’t be weird if they don’t want to be victims. I want to make it clear from the very beginning that children being mean/rude to each other, and bullying, are not necessarily the same thing.
As children and teenagers grow up they are developing their social skills – and yes, being rude, mean to each other or simply being inconsiderate is to some extent a natural part of growing up. As adults we don’t love everyone all the time, and so it’s kind of understandable that kids don’t either. A child calling a classmate names because they have had an argument at school earlier that day does not necessarily constitute bullying – they may easily be best friends again the following morning. So how do we know what is and isn’t bullying – when is it ok to assume a situation will swiftly blow over (perhaps with a brief word to the students involved), and when do we need to intervene more seriously?
The Anti-bullying Alliance (who produce some great resources about bullying and who provided many of the facts I used in this workshop) defines bullying as follows:
‘The repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power. Bullying can by physical, verbal or psychological. It can happen face-to-face or in cyberspace’.
So, what does this mean for our classrooms? Well, for a start it tells us that for something to constitute bullying, it needs to be repetitive. A one-off incident, whilst it obviously needs to be addressed (and depending on the severity, parents may need to be informed) does not constitute bullying. Likewise, bullying needs to be intentional. A child telling another that their hair looks weird simply because they haven’t considered that it may be hurtful the other person is not bullying – rather it invites a discussion about what are polite and impolite things to say to people. Bullying involves an imbalance of power – people are bullied as a result of a real or perceived difference and therefore a scrap between two equal friends is unlikely to be bullying.
Bullying isn’t only the traditional ‘beating someone up’ that we often think of. As this definition addresses, bullying can be:
- name calling
- violence of any kind
- intimidating behaviour
- intentional damage of possessions
- excluding people
- spreading rumours
- Messages or actions (for example taking photos or video recordings) that are designed to cause offence, anxiety or humiliation
How do we know if a student is being bullied? As an EFL/EAL/ESOL teacher we have the additional challenge that we do not necessarily speak L1. A student may keep quiet about bullying as they do not have the language skills to easily speak to their teacher and be understood. It also means that we can’t necessarily follow what is being whispered about who in the classroom. We can however notice some things – signs of bullying such as:
- Sudden changes in behaviour
- Students skipping classes
- Becoming nervous, losing confidence, or suddenly becoming withdrawn
- Not doing as well in school
- Exclusion of particular students (for example in group or pair work)
I think one of my students is being bullied. So what do I do now?
It has to be said that first and foremost the school has a lot of responsibility when it comes to addressing bullying. Schools need to have a good anti-bullying policy. They need to take bullying seriously, and all reports of bullying must be investigated. They need to encourage good behaviour (and to do so must explicitly address this with the children). They need to train their staff about it.
On the teachers’ level, teachers need to make sure students know how to report bullying behviour. They need to know the correct definition of bullying – this helps to know the difference between normal, everyday conflict, and genuine bullying. They need to take every report of bullying seriously, and stick to the facts. They need to ensure that they don’t stop until the incident is resolved, and maintain communication with everyone involved – this could be school management, the students involved, students’ parents, or all three.
In the grand scheme of things though this will vary depending on the school you work for – if you’re unsure who you should talk to if you suspect bullying or you don’t know if the school has an anti-bullying policy or not, ask someone!
How can I talk about bullying in my classroom?
There’s no ultimate ‘right way’ to discuss bullying with your students. Some suggestions might be:
- Discuss it at the beginning of the academic year or new semester – teachers often use the first lesson or so to discuss appropriate and inappropriate classroom behaviour and to create or sign ‘class contracts’. An activity or two about bullying could easily be worked into this.
- Tie it in with anti-bullying week. The Anti-bullying Alliance holds an annual ‘Anti-bullying Week’ in schools across the UK – this year it will be the 14th-18th November.
- When it links well with the syllabus. Often coursebooks contain topics which present personality adjectives, or discuss, for example, what it takes to be a good friend. This could link well with an activity about verbal bullying – what are nice things or mean things to say to (or about) someone.
- Don’t be afraid to discuss it as and when needed. I’ve had classes where students have repeatedly laughed at or teased a student for making mistakes or some kind of physical or verbal tic. Don’t be afraid to address rude or mean behaviour when it starts – this can help stop something before it becomes a problem.
What can I use in my class?
Stop A Bully: This Canadian site contains lots of resources both for schools and teachers. I particularly like the idea of the Anti-bullying comic strip – students could easily create their own, perhaps with an Anti-bullying superhero as the star.
Childnet International: Last year Anti-bullying week focused on the theme of cyberbullying, and there are some great resources available here. The ‘Safer Internet Day’ video (scroll down the page) could easily be used as part of a listening activity with a teen class.
Bullying. No Way!: An Australian site with lots of resources, including videos which could be used for listening activities, and ideas for creating roleplays and posters which could easily be done with EFL students.
Kamaron Institute: Another site with a variety of lesson plans for different ages or levels, including one specific ESOL lesson plan on friendship.
Bullyproof Classroom: I’ve used an activity along the lines of ‘Wrinkled Wanda’ before – it was a great addition to a couple of lessons with pre-teens on personality adjectives and describing people. I’ve also used some similar ideas to the ‘positive self-talk’ activity with teens – particularly useful coming up to exam season when they’re inevitably feeling pretty stressed! I also love the idea of getting students to research the meaning of their names – I think this would be a great thing to do in a multilingual class, when names students are not familiar with are often the first thing to mark children out as ‘different’.
TeachersPayTeachers: I often view this site as one of my teaching ‘secret weapons’! It has tons of great printables on different topics, and a search for ‘bullying’ or ‘anti-bullying’ throws up a lot of results. You need an account to download, but it’s free to sign up, and despite the name there are loads of things which are free to download (just remember to select ‘free’ in the side menu when you search!).
Finally, to find out more information about bullying, I’d recommend checking out the websites for the NSPCC, the Anti-bullying Allicance, Kidscape, this article from the Guardian and this page of TES resources.