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Anti-bullying: is it enough?

As we approach another Anti-Bullying Week, I question whether anti-bullying is still the most appropriate phrase. 2020 has been the most challenging of years, and school-based bullying has been going on since schooling itself began, but it seems curious that we persist in describing what we don’t want, rather than what we do want, especially if we restrict this to 5 days out of 190.

I was once teased by an uncle, who suggested that I should stand in the corner until I didn’t think about an elephant.  If our focus persists in terms of describing how we should not treat other people, we will remain stuck, just at a time when so many children and young people – after various burst bubbles, self-isolations, lockdowns and the rest – need us to re-establish the systems, routines and benefits that school brings. Calm, purposeful learning interspersed with excited vibrant activities is the stuff of memories and what great schools do.  So many of our pupils – not just those towards one end of a disrupted attachment continuum, or those with ADHD or autism – welcome and rely on systems that they know and can trust and help to keep them safe.  Is this just an adult perspective?

A couple of years ago, I was reminded in an article that was, I think, in The Guardian, of how brutal some children’s lives can be. The journalist suggested that if you popped out of the office (how pre-COVID is that?) for a cranberry and brie baguette (so it probably was The Guardian), the chances are that nobody would steal your sandwich, stamp on your jumper and throw your bag on top of the bus shelter… just because they could.  For some of our pupils this remains an ever-present threat.  Is this sort of damaging unpleasantness likely to be addressed by an anti-bullying week?

A re-focused policy

I’ve had the privilege of working with some wonderful schools over the last few years, who have upgraded their ‘behaviour policy’ for a ‘relationships policy’, based on shared values which have been mutually developed and agreed.  Such a shift takes time and effort, but changes the narrative from discipline and punishment to discussion based on high expectations and a shared understanding of what it means to be a caring, contributing member of our learning community, during school times and beyond.

I mentioned above ‘school-based bullying’. Although the research suggests that this is where mean comments and naked aggression may start, this can all too frequently become omnipresent – online.  Although schools have a statutory responsibility to deal with online and out-of-school incidents, sanctions and punishments (especially in times of mind-boggling fluctuations of rooms, and staffing, and illness and absence) seem slightly anachronistic.

Fostering healthy relationships

We know that trusting, positive, affirming relationships can ameliorate some of the impacts of trauma and adverse childhood experiences. So: creating a climate of respect, even when we disagree; curiosity, that persists in wondering what might be causing that speech, reaction or distress; love, even when somebody is being completely unlovely; and compassion to help others whose struggles we do not yet know, seems a more thoughtful, nuanced and intelligent response.  It is also likely to be more effective. Should we not be thinking about a kindness week, a respect or inclusion month or even weaving this into our school mission statement that describes how people in our learning community expect and do treat each other?

Surely one of the saddest things in this, the most challenging of years, would be for us to fail to learn the lessons offered from this pandemic: for the need for calm, caring and compassionate but resolute responses to the way we treat each other.

John Rees is an experienced PSHE consultant and is passionately committed to improving the learning and life chances of young people. 

Collins has a range of exciting and flexible resources to support you in the development of qualities such as kindness and respect in PSHE lessons. Click here to view and download free samples of our award-winning series My Life for primary and Your Choice for secondary schools. 

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