What Canada's schools are doing about bullying

By Michelle Eades on July 23, 2012
It is painful for her to admit, but Christina, 25, says she was a childhood bully. “When I was in Grade 5, my friend and I followed this girl, called her a lesbian and made fun of her for crying all the time. We pretended to be her friend but made up a name that was code for her and talked about her in front of her face. Then we finally told her what we were doing. We even got notebooks to write bad things about her all the time. We bullied this girl so much that her mom called the police on us. I guess what made me pick on her and other people, was that they always seemed scared so it was easy. I finally stopped, for many reasons. One was that I moved, and I found myself alone and without friends and I knew how the girl felt.”

Seeing your child come home in tears after being picked on at school is a parent’s worst fear. On the other hand, no parent wants their child to intentionally hurt another as Christina did.

PREVNet (Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network) is an organization of 62 researchers from 27 Canadian universities and 52 national groups whose mission is to develop a national strategy to reduce problems of bullying and victimization throughout Canada. According to PREVNet, 12 percent of girls and 18 percent of boys report having bullied someone at least twice in previous months.

As schools and parents learn how to help the bullied, learning how to recognize and treat the bully is a key step in preventing it all together.

“Parents are an underutilized resource in the prevention of bullying,” says Dr. Wendy Craig, scientific co-director of PREVNet. She stresses that to prevent their children from becoming bullies, parents need to be on the lookout for the skills their children are NOT developing: self-regulation, verbal skills, problem-solving skills and a sense of how one’s actions are affecting others.

To help nurture these skills, parents can model and teach correct behaviour in an educative way instead of a punitive way. For example, instead of yelling at your child for being rude or grabbing, you could say “I think we need a re-do. Do you want to ask your sister for that again?” If they’re stumped on how to ask for the object politely, give your child the words to use so they can get it right. Dr. Craig tells parents to “trust your intuition and always start with the small stuff.”

The Finnish model

One of the most successful anti-bullying programs can be found in Finland. The schools that have the “Kiva” program proudly boast that there is no bullying in their schools. How? They use a universal, whole school approach in handling bullying and violent situations. They address individual situations in a way that supports the victims, but all students are responsible for their behaviour. In other words, bullying is everyone’s problem. (Read more about other successful bullying programs.)

Taking a cue from Kiva, the Canadian Research into Bullying Programs in Schools, through the National Crime Prevention Strategy (NCPC), stresses the importance of a whole school approach. Schools in Canada have historically approached bullying on a case-by-case basis. Now, with proven research, Canadian schools are beginning to implement programs that not only look at the bully and the victim, but also take into account school culture, peer pressure, bystander influence and family dynamics to create an overall environment of respect, empathy and safety.

According to Dr. Shelley Hymel, professor at the University of British Columbia, bullying peaks between Grades 8 and 10, when children’s social skills are fairly sophisticated but identity is still in development and kids are still in the pre-conventional stage of morality.

“Kids are in this stage through high school. The primary focus is ‘what’s in it for me’. They will do the right thing to avoid punishment or gain rewards. They have all the skills to engage in bullying, but don’t have the morality to see the big picture.” Teaching empathy with clear, consistent boundaries and consequences has been a useful approach.

Many school boards have a zero tolerance policy towards bullying. The bully, and in some cases the bullied, faces inevitable suspensions. The rigid model has many experts concerned.

“All situations are different,” says Dr. Hymel, recalling a story from Anchorage, Alaska, of a boy who was being bullied. Because of the zero tolerance policy, he was suspended along with the bullies. When the bullying happened again in front of a teacher, he felt sure that he wouldn’t be suspended again. However, the zero tolerance guidelines still led to him being suspended. Feeling there was nothing left to do, he attempted suicide. He survived, but will be in his parents’ care and on feeding tubes for the rest of his life. His parents’ lawyer sponsored a team of experts to come to Alaska to give a conference regarding bullying to fi nd other solutions that may save other families from their tragedy.

Whatever program is implemented in your school or community, PREVNet contends that a successful anti-bullying initiative needs to include all children, regardless of their involvement. This means that programs and strategies must address the needs and provide the necessary support for children who are victimized, children who bully, and children who watch bullying occur.

Vancouver-based writer Michelle Eades is interested in social issues of children.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, August/September 2012.

By Michelle Eades| July 23, 2012

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