There are many myths and misconceptions around the issue of bullying. Covert bullying behaviour is one of the most insidious forms of bullying that is largely unrecognised and therefore deeply misunderstood. Hard to pin down, hard to prove and very hard to even articulate by the person who is feeling it being perpetrated against them, covert bullying behaviour can go on for far too long with deeply damaging psychological effects clocking up for the victim before they themselves begin to realise what is really happening to them.
We have all heard stories about children who have felt left out, not popular, just not fitting into their peer groups. Many children keep these feelings to themselves, too ashamed and embarrassed by what is to them their lack of ability to connect with strong social groups. In reality, it can be a concerted and carefully concealed campaign of exclusion, isolation and wordless ridicule led by one perpetrator and supported by a bystanding group terrified that they will suffer the same fate if they don’t fall in and follow suit.
Adults who have been bullied in this way often talk about a feeling of something just not being right within their peer group before the proverbial penny drops and they realize that there was actually a deliberate silent campaign against them by one or more people over a period of time. For children, it is much harder to express this experience verbally, to find the right language to help themselves feel understood.
If a child begins to try to explain feelings of exclusion, being left out of games in the yard, cosy chats in the corner, birthday parties and even small things like being asked for a loan of a rubber or pencil in class, it is possible that they have become the victim of covert bullying behaviour. This ‘death by a thousand cuts’ experienced by the child eventuates in feelings of deep inadequacy, self-doubt and often self-disgust. All this is happening silently, hidden from view and supported by our lack of recognition of the phenomenon.
Here’s my tip – Along with putting up bright Anti-Bullying Postersand teaching children what bullying is, a regular class climate testing survey is a brilliant tool for letting you know if there are any issues amongst the group that need addressing. It’s much better not to wait for a problem to rear its head; we can ask children how they are feeling as they go about their daily school routine. Three or four simple questions printed on a brightly coloured page such as are they happy at school? Do they feel included? How do they feel at break time? This kind of flash climate testing can help to keep teachers in the know about the health of the social climate amongst the class group. Any negatives that show themselves in a simple survey like this can be explored through a carefully planned awareness raising lesson centred around the issue of covert bullying.
Often teachers are daunted by the prospect of investigating a bullying issue. It’s such a sensitive area, who are the perpetrators? Who joined in? What questions to ask? And when you interview alleged perpetrators, what to do if there are counter-claims of bullying by those who have been engaging in the behaviours. It’s a minefield, and the one outcome that every teacher and school strives for is a peaceful restorative one.
Educating Essex is a fly-on-the-wall reality TV show featuring a large post primary school in the UK. I recently watched an episode of the show centering around two different bullying issues between students in the school. One with a cyber-bullying component and one with just plain old ‘non-technologised’ bullying. Interestingly, both bullying stories emerged between friends, as is often the case in our own schools. An rejected girlfriend, a jealous boyfriend, one of the group members feeling threatened by a new face on the scene, someone resenting someone else’s academic prowess or sporting achievements, or just disgruntlement at a new pair of expensive runners.
Usually, when teachers delve into reasons for repeated bullying acts against a student, they discover that at the origin there is a simple breach of the healthy social norm and then the group divides into perpetrator/s, victims and bystanders. In Educating Essex, it’s jealousy over one boy’s girlfriend being hugged by the boy’s friend too much. This emerging repetitive bullying pattern is caught on camera as names are called across a sea of witnesses who outwardly just carry on about their business, but inwardly are summing up where to position themselves in the social scheme of things that is fast becoming toxic and damaging to everyone. As relationships between the two boys change from balance to aggressor and victim, no one intervenes, no one says stop or moves to support the now victim. It is obvious that there isn’t a collective understanding amongst peers that they have a role to play in what is happening. Without them it couldn’t happen, they are the circle within which this issue is being played out. The bullying needs them, feeds on them.
A further somewhat shocking twist to the situation evolves as the parent and sister of the victim bring their concerns to the Deputy Principal. At this meeting , there is bubbling anger, blame at what the sister feels her brother has been subjected too, and she leaves the room crying with suppressed frustration. Viewers are in for a treat – you know that she means business, someone is gonna get it! Outside in the corridor, just by chance, her brother’s perpetrator walks past bragging loudly about what he’s going to do to his friend and the sister pounces. We watch as things escalate, threats and intimidation are meted out as if this is going to solve the problem, she’ll ‘sort him’, she says, ‘don’t mess with me’, she says, and the outer rings of the bullying issue grow and spread as she engages in the very behaviour she wants to save her brother from. Rapidly, a second tier to this bullying investigation develops. The secretary comes along and breaks up the row before things get really ugly. I suppose this is what the makers of the programme want us to see, the stuff that makes us want to watch more, is the sister going to attack? Will there be a full-on physical fight right outside the door of the room where attempts to address the original issue peacefully are taking place.
We don’t see how resolution is reached or how the teachers have investigated the issue. We are treated to a pleasant few minutes of the two boys sitting together talking about how they’ve come through and are now friends again. We don’t get a clear picture into how the by-standing group are addressed; we just have a feeling that all is well again and that we are all friends. I’m not so sure it is ever that easy, but showing this episode to a group of engaged school students raising some of the questions that I have raised here might be an exciting way to open up dialogue on the roles we can play in a bullying situation and how students feel the issue should be investigated and then resolved. Let them tell you what they think really happened, what they think should happen, make them a part of what’s going to happen. Have fun!
Educating Essex can be watched on Channel 4 4oD or NetFlix.
This article was written by Monica Monahan.
Did you know that the happier children behave the less likely it is that they will engage in bullying behaviour. Many schools in Germany are now running ‘Gluck’ or ‘Happiness’ programmes in their schools as an anti-bullying prevention strategy. These programmes are helping students to focus more positively on their future goals in life, their purpose, visualising a happy and fulfilled selves, beginning an inner awakening of that good feeling that positivity brings.
This clever direction of young peoples’ energy towards good things and doing good things has proven to reduce negative behaviours in school. So, our first tip for this academic year is just that. Begin happily. How?
- Create a Happiness corner in your classroom where students can display positive messages, pictures and anecdotes.
- Make a habit of using this corner as a reference point during the day, reminding everyone to smile and to try do one kind thing for someone once a day.
- Begin a happiness diary, where students are asked to make one positive entry a day.
- Ask students to use the internet in a positive way and to search for a Random Act of Kindness video, you can show the appropriate results to the class on an ongoing basis.
So good ‘Gluck!!! Smiles! And have a very happy beginning.