Bully for you...

Hello everyone and congratulations for surviving another week of lockdown madness!  If you've been following me on twitter (@Mr_M-Musings), you'll know that I recently began a campaign to raise some money for the Little Princess Trust.  Not only do these guys help to support childhood cancer research; they also provide wigs for children who have lost their hair through chemotherapy.  I know there are lots of good causes out there, and I know Coronavirus funding has been asking people for donations, so I'm not going to pester you.  Having said that, I am 1/3 of the way to achieving my donation goal, so if you have a couple of pounds, dollars, yen, anything at all to spare, you can donate here.  Oh, and as a direct result of this campaign, my hair is now blue.

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This week's podcast has been inspired by a couple of things.  Firstly, by a conversation my wife and I were having at the breakfast bar this morning and secondly by a post from mumsnet.com user, SMSA.

SMSA write about a recent situation where her child had been involved in an accident involving outside toys and resulting in another child receiving a bit of a bump.  Everyone was okay and the school seemed to acknowledge that this was indeed an accident.  So far so good.  However, when SMSA picked up her other child, they discovered that the event had been discussed with children outside of the immediate situation.  Delving a little deeper, it turns out that the incident had been called into question by no fewer than four teachers and a member of senior management. On top of this, the school had told other children than SMSA's child was 'naughty.'  

The post (here for context) concludes with SMSA failing to find any of this procedure in the school's behaviour policy.  Understandably (her Year 1 child was in tears),  SMSA is not impressed  What grabbed my attention was the post being nested under a label entitled BullyingSMSA hasn't suggested that her child is being bullied, and is merely questioning the school's professionalism, but it made me think.  What do you do as a parent if you feel your child is being bullied, either by other children or by an adult?

Well, I've had some experience with this sort of thing, so I figured I would throw my hat into the ring!

Bully for you...

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Make sure your child tells their teacher if they're being bullied
Don't be afraid to go beyond the school if you think you're not being heard
once your child is happy... stop!

What does a school consider bullying?
Bullying might seem like a rather subjective term but it actually has a very definite and objective definition in school.  An action is considered bullying if it meets these criteria:

  1. It is targeted at one child or group
  2. It is chronic (happens over time)
  3. It is deliberate
  4. It is intended to cause emotional or physical harm
I've had a lot of conversations with concerned parents who unintentionally label a one-off incident as bullying.  It's not.  Obviously, it would still need to be dealt with but it isn't bullying.  Mislabelling it can be very problematic.

Scenario 1:
Let's say a child in the class above takes a dislike to your kid.  One day during playtime, they go over, call them a poo-poo head and push them over.  Your kid is hurt, embarrassed and upset.  This is not okay.  The child in question needs to be spoken to and the behaviour addressed.

But is it bullying?


But the kid is older than my kid.  That's bullying! 

No, it isn't.  This is a one-off event and needs to be handled as such.  Exactly how it should be handled is a matter for another blog post but it is not bullying.

Scenario 2:

There is a child in your kid's class who calls them a nickname every day.  Let's say they call your kid Monster Munch (kids do weird things).  They do it every day and after a week or so, your kid comes home very upset and explains what has been going on.  That's bullying, right?


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It is targeted, chronic and deliberate, but whether or not it is intended to cause harm is a sticking point.  Sometimes it is obvious (if it is a clearly offensive name, for instance).  Other times, it can be open to interpretation.  This is why one of the first things a teacher will probably ask is: Have you told them to stop?  

I can totally understand why this might be infuriating for a parent to witness.  Arguments about how the victim shouldn't have to tell the perpetrator to stop abound.  It is important to ascertain the intent behind the behaviour though.  By letting the supposed bully know that your child doesn't like the name, they have the opportunity to stop and even apologise.  I've had children in tears because they had no idea they were upsetting their friend and honestly thought they were just using a nickname.  

If the name-calling (pushing, kicking, biting, spitting - yes, these are all deplorable actions but the 'victim' must make it clear that they don't like it) doesn't stop, then we're on to something.  

Scenario 3:
That same child has been told that your kid doesn't like being called Monster Munch (if it were my class, I would make it clear that this applies any name other than your kid's actual name - this rules out them being called Hula Hoop instead).  After a day or two, they start up again.  Maybe a slightly different name.  Maybe this time they've got a couple of other kids joining in.  That's bullying, right?  I mean, right???

Yes.  That's bullying. 

The school should step in and do something at this point. For what it's worth, I'll tell you what I have done in the past.

Firstly, I make sure that I am dealing with all the children involved.  Any hangers-on or on-lookers are sent away.  Next, I get everyone involved to write down exactly what happened.  They don't have to worry about spelling or swear words; I need the whole truth.  I'll then read each of the accounts.  This can take some time, so I will make sure the children know that it is being dealt with.  If necessary (and it has been), I'll deal with it after school and make sure I let the parents of the children know what's going on.  

Here's the first place where SMSA's school slipped up (in my opinion): they talked about it with other children.  Nobody else needs to know.  That's why I send all other children away.  If any child or parent who is not directly concerned knows about how the situation is being handled; you have a right to complain.  

Once I've gone through the written accounts, I call children up individually and ask them to tell me verbally what happened (to spot inconsistencies).  Then I'll have the bully and the victim both together and discuss the situation with them.  

I calmly go through the rules about gossiping (a blog post for which is on the way) and being respectful.  This is key because being respectful is one of every school's Golden Rules.  Go and check your school's website, it'll be there in some form or another: I respect people.  The reason this is key is because calling someone a name, despite being told to stop, is disrespectful and no-one can object to the child being disciplined for not following the school rules.  I have been in many a situation where the bully's parents suddenly spot several places where their child is, in fact, the victim.  If they've broken a school rule, then it is cut and dried.

So... what next?

Next is what you do about it.  As a parent, it can be very tempting to become the avenging angel and swear to never stop until the bully is sent home crying every night.  Don't do this.  In most cases, it is much, much better to let the school handle it.

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In the past, I have always started the school year by agreeing as a class what sanctions should be imposed when people break the rules.  The children are usually very sensible and often come up with the same three steps: 

  • Remind the person of the rule
  • Miss a playtime
  • Miss a lunchtime
However, in this case I tend to add a fourth measure.  I make the child write a letter.  In the letter, they have to explain why they have been asked to miss some playtimes (or whatever the punishment is), leaving out no detail.  But I never ask them to write an apology letter: apologies can be insincere.  I give them a lovely piece of paper with the words:

Dear mum, I...  

For some reason, the reality of explaining their actions to their own mother is far more impactful than writing apologies to anyone else.  

Then you leave it.  It has been dealt with.  That child has made their mistake and they've had the consequence.  You don't call back to it.  You don't judge them negatively for it.  You don't use it against them if they become a victim of someone else.  I have never and will never use the phrase 'well, it serves you right.'  That's not fair, we are, after all, dealing with children who are learning.  Not just English and maths, but social rules as well.  Obviously, if they continue to do the same thing, then that's a different matter, but I would argue that continual bullying is a symptom of something much deeper.  And you don't discover causes by dealing with symptoms.

Also, it is key that, at all times, you separate the behaviour from the child.  They have chosen to act in a certain way.  They have made a bad choice to behave maliciously; they are not a malicious child.  Please don't label children!  Not even positively.  Label behaviours or actions; not people.

That's great, Mr M, but what if the school is rubbish?

This can happen.  In fact, a school can be so bad that the victim ends up having to apologise to the bully!  I've seen it happen!  Worse still, the child might be being bullied by an adult.  If either of these is the case, there are a couple of things you can do as a parent.

You can go to a teacher you trust and ask for their advice.  It might be that things are going on behind the scenes that you don't know about and this teacher might be able to ease situations a little bit.  At the very least, they could offer a different perspective or reassurance that procedures are being followed.

I once had a child who's parents were horrified to learn that they were being asked to apologise to a bully, only to find out that it had actually been their own child who started the whole thing off.  It happens; children don't always tell you the truth!

If this is not an option, however, and sometimes it isn't, then you have a few avenues to explore.  The following should only be used after you have tried the class teacher and the Headteacher and gotten nowhere with either.  

You can contact the school governors (their details should be on the school's website; if not, contact the office and ask.  They are obliged to provide you with an email address.  Tell the governor, as calmly as you can, what is going on and request a reply.

If that doesn't work, or you still feel that you are not being heard, then you can go straight through the local council.  State schools and academies are publicly funded - your taxes pay their bills - go to the source.  Again, be very clear and state the measures you have already taken.  If it is a problem with an adult, and other parents have similar grievances, try to get a few names together.  The results might not be pretty but they will be worth it.  I know of a Headteacher who was bullying everyone who wasn't in her clique, children and adults alike.  It took three years, a lot of emails and rallying support of affected teachers, but she was eventually asked to resign her post.  Don't suffer in silence!

Before I close off this week, I have one more thing to add.

I have used a word I don't like very much: victim.  In my class, we don't have victims.  Or rather, we don't let ourselves become victims.  It is so important to reassure your child that they are allowed to speak up.  If someone is doing something they don't like, they have to tell them to stop.  Say it clearly and with purpose.  Stop calling me Monster Munch, I don't like itLoudly and publically.  So that when teachers ask did you tell them to stop? your kid can say yes.  Yes, they did, and there are several witnesses to it.  You have no idea how many times teachers are the last to know!

The other thing is this: teach your child (I used to go over it at least once every half-term) that they cannot change what they can't control, and that they cannot control other people.  They can change how they react to other people by asking or telling them to stop, or by walking away, or by telling an adult.  It's worth remembering for yourselves as well.  You can't change other people's children.  You can't force them to feel sorry or to be better behaved.  You don't know them; you don't know their life.  So, at all times, act in the interests of your child.  Don't concern yourself with how the bully will be dealt with; worry about whether or not your child has stopped being bullied.  Be the change you want to see.

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Thanks for reading all the way to the end!  I had a look at my stats for the past few days and I'm always flattered that anyone reads this blog!  If there is something in particular you would like me to write about, let me know about it in the comments below or on twitter or via email.  All links below are active.

Look after yourselves and enjoy this government-enforced time with your children!

Carl Headley-Morris