In Expert Interviews

Teresa Bliss on Bullying In School

Mrs Teresa Bliss is an Independent Educational Psychologist with expertise in Autistic Spectrum disorders, management and intervention, Educational Tribunals and educational support, Literacy or numeracy assessment and support, Emotional or behavioural difficulties and talking therapies and Learning Difficulties and behavioural advice or coaching. She talks to about Bullying, Bullying In School and the Anti Bullying Movement in the United Kingdom.

Ciaran Connolly:  I would like to welcome Teresa Bliss to join us today to have a chat about bullying and education. Teresa is an educational psychologist with years of experience.  Teresa, I am going to hand it over to you and you can tell us a little bit about yourself.

Teresa Bliss:  I am an educational psychologist. I also have three children of my own who are grown up now and I really took an interest in bullying and anti-bullying through my own children’s experience being bullied at school and I realized what a huge impact that could have, not only on the children but on the whole family. My youngest daughter was very badly bullied at school and it affected us all for quite a long time and I was in a position as an educational psychologist looking into doing something about it in terms of supporting children at school.

Ciaran Connolly:  Very good. So, from a professional and personal background, how do you define bullying today again as everyone has a definition some people would class it as teasing and some as bullying what would be your professional opinion? What is bullying?

Teresa Bliss:  Well, bullying is intentional harm or hurt to somebody else and usually it is persistent. Teasing is fun perhaps but just as a one off, just as a joke but when teasing happens regularly, everyday it can be incredibly demoralizing for an individual as a child. So, bullying is something that is upsetting and distressing to an individual or a group of individuals actually, groups can be bullied.

Ciaran Connolly:  Of course, there is a lot of media attention on bullying at the moment, sadly some very tough cases happening up and down the country and across the world at the moment. Is this, in your opinion, helping highlighting the issue of bullying? Or is it still as big a problem today as it was five or ten years ago?

Teresa Bliss:  I think as a society we’re generally less prepared to accept bullying behavior, I see it as a part of the continuum of behavior. Steven Pinker published a brilliant book couple of years ago called “The Better Angles Of Our Nature” and his hypothesis in the book is that as a society, we are becoming less violent and it is a case he makes very well. Many years ago, back at the turn of the twentieth century for example, adults were regularly bullied in their place of employment. Employers hit their employees. Now, that wouldn’t not be acceptable today,

Teresa Bliss:  So, as a society, we are generally expecting better standards of behavior between ourselves and I see the whole issue of bullying amongst children as a part of this movement to generally improve behavior within society.

Ciaran Connolly:  As you mentioned children and adults, who do people generally bully today? And is it the same as it was five or ten years ago? Was it in different environment?

Teresa Bliss:  Same techniques and strategies are used as always, but what they’ve got with cyber bullying for example is just another way of bullying. So, teasing, name calling, isolation all those verbal methods of bullying are now used either through cyber bullying, through texts, mobile messages. It is just another form of bullying, it is not any different. Obviously, what you don’t have with cyber bullying is the physical aspect of bullying but it is more invasive and pervasive because before, children were bullied at school, they go home they had a relief. They had an escape from it but now it is in the house sometimes 24/7.

Ciaran Connolly:  And this is it we all know the old rhyme sticks and stones will break my bones of me but names will never hurt me but again, that was a time when name calling was for a short time and you are right. People could escape to a safe zone or get home if it was in school or school bus but with internet, it is not so easy. It is 24/7.  We were talking about the internet; do you think children are more aggressive online than they maybe would be offline?  Do you think the behavior is more challenging; they are braver online to like a post or make a comment, they might not make it to someone face?

Teresa Bliss:  I think what happens online is that they don’t see the immediate reaction. If you are name calling somebody, you can see the body language, you can see their physical reaction. So, it feels anonymous and of course we know it is not. One thing children are not always clear about is the fact that they leave an electronic footprint so anything can be traced back to their computer but it feels worse, I suspect, because children simply cannot escape it.

Ciaran Connolly:  From outside the home to inside the home, would you ever come across a case of bullying happening inside a family home or a family unit? Is that common these days?

Teresa Bliss:  I think one of the things we need to be aware of is that domestic violence continues to be a significant problem in our country and it is usually perpetrated by men on women, but also men are victims of domestic violence. When children are living in households where parental reaction to frustration or to upset, their response is to be violent, to kick the furniture, to hit the walls or hit each other.  Those parents are role models to their children and children can take those role models into school with them. Parents offer their children a blueprint for life and when they are very little, they are trying to understand what grownup behavior is and they take these strategies and methods into school. So, parents who use violence as a strategy or who use bullying or emotional bullying as well as physical violence in the home are acting as  very poor role models to their children and it is little wonder that these are sometimes taken into school. So, yes, children do see bullying in the home. Domestic violence continues to be a significant problem across all stratus of the society, it is not limited to particular social groups. It is a problem right across society. Most police forces across this country have domestic violence units.

Ciaran Connolly:  Sadly, as you say ,I am sure they are very busy  and again the media itself,  the social media; internet, mobile phones and online access that everyone has now from homes to schools to restaurants and may be it facilitates and makes it easier for people to bully victims?

Teresa Bliss:  If I can just pick up on the media just for one moment. The media is very good in terms of being a role model for bullies. You pick up any magazine, for example, and you will see pictures of celebrities who are there to be poked fun at because they are overweight, they are wearing the wrong clothes, because they are just being caught on a bad camera angle. None of that is very nice or very pleasant and a lot of celebrities struggle to cope with it but it is also giving a message, a hidden message, that it is ok to be unkind to these people. So, children are confronted with these images and messages all the time.

Ciaran Connolly:  Of course there are many cases in the last 12 months on Twitter particularly where people have poked fun or bullied people on Twitter and the police have got involved and there been some serious consciousness but you’re right. There seems to be a lot of unnecessary adult bullying which is setting a bad example. Back to your earlier point for children who can copy this behavior and see that’s maybe ok, I was thinking of a particular case and you mentioned the last book, Tom Daily, the swimmer on Twitter. There were some of very negative things said about him and his family when he was competing in the Olympics. The police got involved. What was shocking was how many people were involved in that, but then there was a public outcry in support of him, which was very good to see. Again, it fine to make fun of our celebrities and to look them in the paper, but again where is the line where we stand and are we, as a society making, a bad example for the young people who are coming behind us? Going back to Tom Daily, he had to move school because of the bullying that he faced at school.

More on Bullying In School

Ciaran Connolly:  Exactly and again, I guess we both know that some schools are amazing at dealing and tackling with bullying and some schools still have some work to do. They maybe don’t have the policies and procedures in place and the education for the teachers and the students. With your educational background you obviously have seen very good examples of how schools can educate young people. What do you think that schools should have to help?

Teresa Bliss:  It is a legal requirement for a school to have an anti-bullying policy and I would like to talk a bit about that in a moment but the schools that we have seem to have good things in place. First of all, have a leadership that is committed to be inclusive and to preventing bullying. It is absolutely crucial that this is led from the front by the head and by the senior leadership team. Without that, it isn’t nearly as effective. So, that is the first thing, and to develop an ethos where bullying is not accepted. We were in a school, Newton Farm in Harrow recently, and the children were absolutely adamant that they didn’t have bullying. It was sixth, seventh, eighth grade girls talking to us and one little girl said “It wouldn’t be our school if we had bullying”. It was lovely! It was delightful and it was very strong on anti-bullying work. All the language they encourage children to use, the way they spoke to one another. We noticed, when we go into schools for example, where there is good quality circle time, and where there is something called philosophy for children. The way children speak to us is very different to schools that don’t have those kinds of programs running. So, schools can do a great deal. They can do a lot of preventative work. Some years ago, the government had a strategy that was sent to all schools called “Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning” – SEAL for short, and schools have all of that at their disposal. They have been given all that information free. If they are using it, they would be doing very good anti-bullying work in school. Schools we would have expected them to have things like peer support schemes so that there could be peer mediation. It could be using a restorative practice script. Training children in itself is valuable in terms of preventative work and having peer schemes running in school help children manage things themselves which is actually much better if children could resolve issues at their level for themselves without being dependent on the external authority of the teacher. They are going to be much better equipped for when they move out into the wider world.

Ciaran Connolly:  Of course it makes sense. So basically, through leadership, very strong leadership and focus from the leaders in the school, and to actually try and encourage the children to be more independent and solve the problem themselves. This one way we could educate the children to cease bullying.

Teresa Bliss:  The other thing of course I forgot to mention is staff training. Many schools duck the issue of bullying. They just don’t deal with it and it is simply because the teachers don’t feel well trained. They don’t feel equipped to deal with it. There is plenty of training out there for schools and when school staff are trained, they deal with it very well.  So, good leadership, a strong ethos, a high quality anti-bullying policy and well-trained staff will all contribute to managing issues of bullying in school.

Ciaran Connolly:  It is very important of course how parents and even teachers deal with a bullying incident and how to deal with the bully and the victim because you’re right. Dealing with it and closing it, showing strong leadership will actually send a message to everyone in the class and in the school, but actually brushing it under the carpet and not dealing with it and letting it go on will just let the problem fester and fester. It seems like it is OK to the children. It seems like normal behavior. So, as a parent myself and when I am sending my children to a school, what should I be looking for? What should I be asking to insure that the school has a good policy and a way of dealing with bullying?

Teresa Bliss:  Well, one of the things you could do is ask for the anti-bullying policy. If you pick a school for example that has the Anti-Bullying Policy Mark, they probably are advertising their policy. Look online, is there an anti-bullying policy on the website, because that will be a good indicator. Is it a good quality policy? What is in the policy? Quite often, we have been very unimpressed initially with a school’s policy. The government have said, I mean it is a statutory requirement a school have to have a policy – an anti-bullying policy – by law but there is not terrific amount of guidance about what should be in the policy. For the Policy mark, we will be looking for, first of all, a clear definition. We don’t give schools a definition of bullying because we feel schools need to do that themselves.  All the research on bullying work in schools, in it the process of developing the policy is more important than the policy itself. It is in that process of developing and the writing of the policy they’re all thinking about how to prevent the bullying, how to stop it and thinking about developing a culture within the school about how to stop bullying. So, we would look for, apart from the definition and the statement about the ethos in the school, we would look for clearly defined information about what bullying is. In the policy there should be information about staff training so staff can understand what is preventative in the school, and that they have been trained to deal effectively with bullying when it happens. Staff should be encouraged to challenge inappropriate language and behavior when they see it when staff are walking around the school. They shouldn’t ignore children misbehaving. They should intervene. Staff should be good role models. Watch staff when they are managing children and dealing with them, are they talking to them directly? Are they talking to children with respect?  As parents, we need to do that. If we role model respect and polite talk when we are talking to children, that’s what they will be giving us back. We should be looking in the school policy for the fact that the policy had been written in conjunction with all the members of staff that includes leaders, the supervisors ,the parents ,all the teacher staff and the pupils. The pupils are a fantastically rich source of information about what goes on in the school. Some schools for example, do surveys, playground surveys of where bullying might happen. Pupils are more likely to know about that than teachers. We will be looking for schools using things like mediation or restorative practices and also that schools welcome parents and encourage them as part of the school community because it takes a whole community to raise a child not just the two parents and children do live in a social context as do we all. So, the broad social context is inclusive and anti-bullying and that is how children are going to be behaving.

Teresa Bliss:  I think it actually very much depends on where the school is and how much in depth an inspection is going to be but yes. They are expecting to look into the policy but there is not a legal requirement for schools to record bullying incidences so most schools don’t, but that’s something we are encouraging schools to do and to look at the data. It’s very helpful to see when a bullying incident has happened, who is doing it and actually who is being bullied. The government had realized that it actually, when children are bullied and when they are bullies, both can have a significant impact on their later life. So, the outcomes for bullies and the bullied are similar, in that they are both at risk of school failure and dropping out, they both are more likely to turn to drugs and alcohol abuse, they are both likely to fail to reach their full potential. The bullies are more likely to commit criminal acts. The bullied are more likely to need mental health services later on. Now a significant feature of this is the children who are likely to become what we call NEET, I don’t know if you have heard of the NEET, (Not in Education Employment or Training). In 2009, the Department for Education published a report that found that within 10 years of leaving school, young people who were NEET (Not in Education Employment or Training), 15 % of those people were likely to be dead. Bullying has a significant impact on young people and their future lives and we know that from adults who have talked about their experiences of being bullied at school and how it has impacted them throughout their adult life.

Teachers and Bullying In School

Ciaran Connolly:  Are there any signs that you know of that parents and teachers should look out for in children that may be bullied or might actually be a bully themselves? Is there something that might set off an alarm bell or warning signs for parents and teachers?

Teresa Bliss:  Well, there are all sort of things. Things like children suddenly having tummy aches and headaches, not wanting to go to school on a regular basis or on particular days, that is classic. As I told you, my younger daughter was bullied at school and she genuinely had headaches. I could see it on her face; it did make her feel physically ill when she was being bullied. So, that’s a big sign and found in a lot of children. Marks failing or not putting in work on time. All those sort of things. It is very interesting when we go into work with schools and work directly with children and get them doing role plays and that sort of thing. They almost always do a role play about bullying the boffin; they are bullying the children who work hard or the children who are clever. I would say probably always, almost always definitely they choose a role play about bullying the boffin., So, actually you have to keep your head down and not to appear to be smart in your school.

Ciaran Connolly:  Again, just thinking about parents and that they are worried about their child, what would be the best way to approach the topic of bullying with children? We know children tend to talk to their parents about their problem, maybe they are the last on the list and sometimes the communication isn’t always open as it should be. Again, even now children are afraid to say that they are being bullied online, bullied on Facebook, that parents’ first reaction might be to take their internet privileges away or take their mobile phones off them to try to protect them. But actually, in reality, again we are punishing the victim, not actually solving the problem. So, as a parent, what would you suggest as the best way to have a chat with a child who may be bullied or has a friend that I am worried about?

Teresa Bliss:  Well, actually, parents, the research show that parents are likely, most likely to be the first that children will tell. Then their siblings and friends. So, actually parents are in the frontline there and it is rather nice to know that children are most likely to tell their parents. Parents know their children the best of anybody so they will be noticing signs to a change in behavior. Just a change in their demeanor, change in what they want to do, suddenly not wanting to go somewhere or staying in all the time, playing different music. Just look out for different signs and different changes. Not being so hungry. All those kind of little signs and just talk to your child if there is there anything wrong or talk to their siblings and say is there anything wrong.

Certainly, when my child was being bullied, I knew something was wrong. I didn’t quite know what it was and because she would say to me “No. Everything is fine, everything is fine” and it was her sister that actually told me she was being bullied at school. What she did was she started to self-harm which, again at 13, I didn’t know about because she was self-harming at the top of her arm and of course you don’t see 13 year olds in the shower. She was having a home tutor. It was her tutor that had a word with me one day for she had spotted it when she was rolling up her sleeves. My daughter was being very careful to hide that from me and I discovered she was going on the internet and discovering how to self-harm more effectively. There are internet sites that explain to others about how to self-harm. It was very shocking! The school refused to deal with it and they did it very badly. They had to confront it one day when we had a phone call to say she had been taken to hospital because she was physically attacked and they thought her wrist was broken, but again, it was not well dealt with. At no point did she say she was being bullied. What she said was that people were being unkind and they were calling her names. I used the term bullying and when she was back after her period of time off for being in hospital, her form tutor said to her “Now you have got to stop all this nonsense saying that you are being bullied”. She was absolutely furious because she did not use that term, it was me. The only way we brought to a stop, unfortunately, was by moving schools and I said to her she did not have to stay at this school. She thought she was trapped because our nearest secondary school is 10 miles away. The self-harming stopped and she has never done it since. Because she was thirteen , she thought she had another three and a half years to live with this bullying and there was no way out of it for her , so, on giving her a way out and another option, it brought some light back into her life and she knew she didn’t have to live with bullying.

Parents and Bullying In School

Ciaran Connolly:  And hopefully students today are a lot more open and understand the risks and issue around bullying because I know definitely back in my day, I was told “Get on with it. Don’t worry everyone goes through bullying” and all those motivational phrases that we used to hear. But of course, today we realize that actually there could be lot of long term damages and impact on anyone’s lives being bullied because not only through child, you’re right even through the parent, their adulthood and working life. I guess there could be long-term psychological damage as well so the impact of bullying is very severe. In talking to a child that actually has been bullied, what advice can you give? You’re saying look at the options and try to open a door for them so that they can see that they are not trapped?

Teresa Bliss:  One of the things is, for example, talking to them about friendship group, encouraging them to make new friends and play with other children, to do different things at break times other than the things they are choosing to do currently.  Very often, children will go with the group that seems to be the popular group because they want to be a part of the popular group and children tell me time and again that the popular kids often do the bullying and because bullying is a power issue so those popular children have power over other children. I saw a very sad little boy recently who was, in fact, at a private school and at the end of the session I was testing him for dyslexia. At the end of the session I said to his mother “He has talked about the bullying that is happening at school”. She said “Yes, I know and I have talked to the teachers but they say they are very nice children”. Well, they might be nice children but they are not doing very nice things to her son and often teachers will say “..But they are such nice children”. I heard that and lovely. They might be lovely children but children can be little beasts to one another and they need help and guidance in terms of how to behave nicely and more appropriately to one another. Bullying has been with us since time immemorial (beyond memory).Probably the most well-known book about it was Tom Brown’s School Days and when you read about things that happened in the public school system back in the 18th-19th century, life was pretty cruel and pretty hard in those institutions and some dreadful things happened to children in poorly supervised boarding schools. So, bullying is something that has always happened but as I said earlier, it is something that we are less prepared to accept now. So, for a parent I would say talk to your child, go in and talk to the teachers, tell them that you want your child to be kept safe, ask to have a look at the policy, ask the teacher which part of the policy they think they are implementing. A good school should have something like a peer support system going on. Even good infant schools train some of their children to be peer supporters. I will be certainly expecting to see a peer support scheme going in in the junior school and in the secondary school.

Ciaran Connolly:  Very good. Some great advice for parents. We talked about the potential of long-term impacts that bullying might have, have you come across some examples of that or seen anything of that in your reading and research?

Teresa Bliss:  There is lots of information and research about the long term impact. It affects people’s confidence, confidence socially, confidence to apply to jobs. It affects how they react and respond to other people. It ultimately brings breakdown and suicide. We have had examples in this country of children committing suicide and not so long ago because of bullying at school. You know, these days there is absolutely no reason why a school should not tackle bullying. There is plenty of advice available. Over the last decade, pervious governments have given schools lots and lots of advice about bullying in school and how to manage it. If they followed that advice then they would be dealing successfully with bullying in schools. They could join the Anti-Bullying Policy Mark and it can get even more support.

Ciaran Connolly:  That will be brilliant just to see what is involved. I am sure anyone would look it up as well but just to give higher level it will be brilliant.

Teresa Bliss:  Well, so what happens first of all is that each person explains what happens from their own perspective or point of view. The rules are that they have to allow each other to have their say and then each person explains what they were thinking and feeling at the time. Now, this is a really key thing to do because quite often people make assumptions about what the other person was thinking and feeling and it’s not the case at all. So that question, what were you thinking and what you were feeling at this time – is very important in this process. The next question that they answer is “Who else is being affected by what happened? And how have they been affected?” So, when you are dealing with this in school, it can have a quite wide ripple effect when you are thinking about who is being affected. Within families actually and siblings, again that could have a quite wide ripple effect. So, that is another important question. Then the next one is “What is your thoughts and feelings now?” because both have the opportunity to explain things from their own perspective. It is probably the most powerful technique that I‘ve used with children and young people. Having practiced it in my own family, I can recommend it to families too.

Ciaran Connolly:  I guess we have covered a lot of information today and I know you have worked and written about many of these topics. If anyone wants to reach out to you or talk to you or to find out a little more of what we talked about today, and they can reach you on your website of course.

Teresa Bliss:  For anti-bullying, they could look for the Anti-Bullying Mark Website, and find out information about bullying. If parents are interested in things from the psychological perspective

Read More from Teresa Bliss on Restorative Justice Here

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