Bullying and cyberbullying

Children will often have arguments and fallouts with other pupils. Getting over these is an important part of learning about relationships and developing social skills. Bullying is very different. It is usually targeted behaviour that is repetitive, persistent and experienced as hurtful, or intended to be hurtful.

It is often related to issues such as race, gender, disability (including having special educational needs), body image, sexuality, religion/faith etc. Bullying can have long-lasting effects on children’s mental health, educational attainment and future life chances.

Bullying can take many forms, including:

  • making threats
  • name calling
  • physical bullying such as hitting, kicking, scratching, pushing
  • indirect bullying – leaving children out of social/sports networks, spreading rumours, telling lies about them
  • cyberbullying – online through email, texts, games, social media, messaging apps etc.
  • collusion with bullying through being a bystander (e.g. encouraging, joining in, passively colluding etc.)

Because bullying is a complex process, it is unhelpful to think merely in terms of bullies and victims. Instead it may be useful to think about the wider trends in the home and more broadly in society, that influence bullying.

Children who are both bullies and victims of bullying themselves face the worst long-term prospects.

The ‘bystander’: the role of all children

It is important to be aware of the broader group dynamics that perpetuate bullying behaviours in school. For example, incidents are often witnessed by other children who will adopt different roles, such as passively watching and colluding, encouraging, joining in, or defending the victim.

Although evidence remains at an early stage, there has been increasing interest in how we might better mobilise ‘bystanders’ to intervene and reduce bullying behaviour.

Spotting the signs

Risk factors for being bullied often centre on a child being different or being perceived as different, and can include:

  • Children who have been in care.
  • Children with early social and emotional difficulties.
  • Children exposed to harsher parenting who may be more unassertive, submissive and insecure.
  • Children from overprotective households.
  • Children who are new to a school.
  • Children with disabilities/special educational needs, or who are perceived as different in some other way (e.g. gender, appearance, sexuality, body size, ethnicity etc.).
  • Being a younger, physically weaker boy with under-developed social skills and few friends.

This doesn’t mean that every child with these risks may be bullied. It just means that there is an increased likelihood. Where these risks cluster together the chances increase further.  

When children have been bullied they may: 

  • avoid school
  • be withdrawn or secretive
  • not have friends
  • have property that gets continually damaged
  • appear over-sensitive or easily distressed
  • have explosive and angry outbursts.

Find out more about bullying

MindEd is a free educational e-learning resource for professionals on children and young people’s mental health. Resources can be used for individual professional training as well as prompting wider staff discussion. They have many useful e-learning resources including the following session:

ERSC and King’s College London have produced slides on the consequences of bullying, risk factors for bullying and on early intervention with victims to prevent poorer life chances.

Protective factors: what schools can do

Whole-school, sustained approaches work best to prevent and reduce bullying. This includes having:

  • Robust leadership that communicates clear messages about the unacceptability of bullying.
  • A respectful and caring school environment which reinforces the importance of values such as acceptance of diversity and tolerance.
  • School staff who role-model non-bullying behaviours.

Schools can also reduce bullying (and help perpetrators and victims) by supporting all children to learn effective social and emotional skills such as relationship building, empathy and tolerance. Key messages and learning should be reinforced across broader curriculum activity.

There are a number of assembly plans and PSHE programmes that can help teach children these vital skills. There is promising evidence too that where these issues are well covered, bullying can be reduced.

  • Regular use of approaches such as ‘circle time’ can help develop empathy, reinforce peer relationships and core school values such as respect. This guide from Kent County Council provides a useful whole-school approach to circle time.

Your school behaviour/anti-bullying policy should be effectively implemented and:

  • Have clear procedures for dealing with bullies and for supporting children who are bullied; including a timescale for following up reports of bullying within a prescribed period.
  • Set out how children and school staff should respond to any bullying incident.
  • Give explicit instructions about what children/adults should do if they witness any bullying. See, for example, these tips from an Australian website called Bullying No Way!

Because of the long-term effects of bullying, it’s essential that schools pay attention to the needs of children who’ve been bullied. This includes providing them with additional support via pastoral care/counselling to prevent escalation of poor mental health, or linking to external community support where children’s mental health is deteriorating.

Staff should also:

  • Explain to children that bullying is not acceptable and that all children should report it immediately to an adult.
  • Reinforce to a child who bullies that they must stop. Help them understand how their behaviour affects others. Encourage children who bully to put themselves in other children’s shoes (e.g. ‘perspective take’ ’ and develop empathy) and be kind to other children. Staff could ask questions such as ‘how would you feel if…?’
  • Recognise that bullying is usually a group process. Schools can help all children to understand what they can do to help a victim, speak out against a child who is a bully or avoid joining in or being a passive bystander. See, for example, these tips from an Australian website called Bullying No Way!
  • Be aware that a common concern among children and parents/carers is that – despite reporting bullying to school staff ­– nothing changes. Staff should make sure that all reports of bullying are followed up.
  • Make sure that they link closely and work with families to ‘skill up’ and educate parents to help their children use the internet and respond to social media effectively and safely.
  • Work closely with families of children both who are bullied and who bully as early as possible, adopting a collaborative approach with them to problem-solve how to respond most effectively:

Where bullying is part of broader severe and persistent behavioural problems, make sure that children who bully and their families have access to support to help manage bullying behaviours.


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