Rethinking anti-bullying: creating safe schools is key to addressing the ‘B’ word

The ‘B’ word

One of the most common questions school leaders are asked by parents is, “What are you doing about bullying?” In my role leading student welfare, it’s something I hear all the time. Of course, schools must have anti-bullying policies and procedures, but are parents focused on the most important message? I would say no. The question they should be asking is a bigger one: “What are you doing to create a safe school?” Building a school culture founded on respect, where students feel connected, and valued, and safe, is the foundation for student wellbeing and success. If this foundation exists, the answer to “What are you doing about bullying?” is already answered.

A few weeks ago I attended the Safe Schools Conference, organised by my local DEC office. The content of the day was a timely reminder about key issues related to student wellbeing, and its connection to school culture. The central message that the wellbeing of our students should underpin everything that we do in schools is not a new one, but it’s a message that teachers can lose focus on, when driven by curriculum, and assessment, and the minutiae of life in schools.

Whilst the conference was promoted as a chance to get up-to-date on all things “bullying” – the ‘B’ word – and I attended as Head Teacher Welfare with a view to get some advice on reviewing our policies and procedures, the message on the day was much stronger than that. Keynote speaker, Associate Professor Stacey Waters, Head of the Child Health Promotion Research Centre (CHPRC) at Edith Cowan University in WA, made it clear from the start that she wasn’t going to talk explicitly about “the ‘B’ word”. Instead she was going to focus on the evidence that suggests that creating safe and respectful schools, where students feel a sense of belonging (a better ‘B’ word), is a much more effective method of addressing bullying. Creating safe schools is certainly not just about having policies that address bullying. Creating safe and respectful schools means using positive strategies, and teaching social and emotional skills that increase the wellbeing of our students, thus preventing bullying, as well as providing a framework to address it when it does occur.

We need to remember that, for the most part, with the exception of our most gifted students, children aren’t coming to school completely focused on what they’re going to learn each day. Most of our students are not arriving at school excited about the lesson content: algebra, poetry, geographic skills. Kids, for the most part, are focused on the social aspects of school. Many students are keen to catch up with their friends, share stories and jokes. Others are worried about fitting in. Who will I hang with at lunch? Am I going to get along with everyone? Can I avoid conflict? Can I avoid being picked on? For the students who don’t fit in, or have friendship difficulties, school can be a difficult place.

How can we help these students to maintain a positive sense of wellbeing? How can we help all students to find a sense of belonging at school? The National Safe Schools Framework is a good starting point. While it has been around for a few years, Stacey Waters provided extensive research data to point to the importance of the elements of the Safe Schools Framework, and stress the benefits when of schools work with the framework to develop effective policy and practice.

Working with the National Safe Schools Framework

There are nine elements to the framework, which need to be addressed if a school is to provide a safe, positive and respectful learning environment where students feel connected and valued:

1. Leadership commitment to a safe school:

Research from the CHPRC at Edith Cowan University suggests that to drive change, schools must have a supportive principal. In fact, the principal’s commitment is the strongest predictor of effective movement towards creating safer schools. Once the principal is on board, effective culture shift requires whole-school support. The staff must be involved and feel that they are the drivers of change. Teachers must also be role models. Modelling the behaviours that we expect of young people is critical to the success of safe schools.

2. A supportive and connected school culture:

This element is critical in creating safer schools.

Students are more likely to succeed in school
when they feel connected to school. School
connection is the belief by students that adults
in the school care about their learning as well
as about them as individuals.

Wingspread Declaration on School Connections. 2004. Journal of School Health 74(7) p.233-2235

Teachers play an important role in fostering wellbeing at school, particularly for those students who don’t feel connected to their peers. Building a rapport with students is an important part of our role as teachers. Not only does creating positive teacher-student relationships benefit the student, but building rapport has positive impacts on all elements of the classroom environment: engagement, attention, behaviour, and academic outcomes . Students need to know that we care. They need to know there are adults at school who will listen if they need to talk, and who take an interest in their lives and progress.

CHPRC research suggests that students perform best when they are connected to school – when teachers clearly care about their learning, and about them as individuals. To create a connection to school, teachers must demonstrate high academic expectations, and provide the support for students to reach these expectations. Students need positive adult relationships to feel connected to school, and must feel safe, both physically and emotionally.

Connections to school and home are the most significant overall protective factors for children.

In a WA study, CHPRC measured connectedness to school. The study found that the connectedness established in the first year of high school was a strong indicator of continued connectedness throughout high school, and positive educational outcomes throughout high school.

In the first year of high school, connection to a teacher positively impacted academic performance, and this continued throughout high school. Connection to teachers also led to better mental health, participation in extra-curricular activities (itself a promoter of wellbeing), and attendance.

Students seek out teachers with a sense of humour, who are available, who listen, are relatable and empathetic. They want teachers who are trustworthy, non-judgmental, knowledgeable and who can give practical advice. In instances of bullying, the first time a student reports bullying, and the actions of the staff member to whom they report it, will have a lasting impact on the student. If handled well, the student will be more likely to report it again. If handled poorly, this can lead to negative impacts on mental health, connectedness and wellbeing.

Interestingly, family connectedness was the strongest indicator for successful transition to high school. If students felt supported at home, they were more likely to experience a successful transition from primary school to high school – something that is important to share with our parents.

Conversely, students who experienced a poor high school transition were less connected to school, had poorer mental health and poorer academic performance.

The priority that a school places on pastoral care predicted currents and future school connectedness of its students. If we care, and we show the students that we care, the students are more connected and have positive outcomes.

Studies also show that socio-economic status does not prevent students from being connected to school. Feelings of safety, respect and belonging at school are more powerful in creating connection than low SES in creating disconnection.

The key message is that connection to school improves mental health and wellbeing, academic outcomes, attendance and extra-curricular participation.

3. Policies and procedures

Safe schools need to use evidence-based policy. Safe schools have proactive behaviour management policies, and promote them constantly. Policies and procedures are communicated regularly to staff, students and parents. Policies should be reviewed annually, and invitations should be offered for stakeholders to provide input – staff, students, parents, community.

4. Professional learning

Effective teacher professional learning has five core elements: content focus, active learning, coherence, extended duration, and collective participation.

Active learning: teachers should be engaged in observing and receiving feedback, making presentations, regular collegial dialogue, and sharing of best practice.

Collective participation/Extended duration: studies have concluded that the best professional learning happens in groups of teachers, over an extended duration.

Professional learning to respond to bullying, and support student mental health and social and emotional skills, is critical, but WA and SA studies found that most pre-service teachers feel under-prepared to manage bullying. This was matched by an ACBPS study, which found less than 10% of teachers felt skilled to manage cyberbullying.

Regular professional learning is needed for teachers to integrate social and emotional skills into all content areas.

5. Positive behaviour management

Schools must have policy and statements on behaviour expectations, and clear consequences. A flowchart of consequences is useful. Punitive measures are least effective in reducing bullying. Early intervention techniques are critical, and must be known and implemented by all staff. Everyone in the school needs to have the same message, and every teacher can take action to stop issues from escalating.

Teachers can use positive behaviour strategies such as CoLATE:

  • Confidentiality
  • Listen
  • Acknowledge
  • Talk about actions
  • End with encouragement

Another strategy is motivational interviewing, which is a technique for eliciting change: finding triggers and working with change talk. Open ended questions elicit the problem, affirmations acknowledge the person’s feelings and strategies so far, reflective listening finds the conflict in the story, and poses it as a question.

6. Engagement, skill development, and safe school curriculum

Safe schools explicitly teach social and emotional concepts. Students must have an awareness of wellbeing and what positive relationships look like. CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning) is an excellent resource to examine the social and emotional learning core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Schools can target learning in these five areas across the curriculum.

The Australian Curriculum now includes ‘Personal and Social Capability’ among the general capabilities, which is good news for integration of social and emotional learning into the curriculum. Self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and social management are now elements that key learning areas must integrate into curriculum programs. This is a positive step in emphasising the importance of students gaining an understanding of social and emotional skills as they develop.

7. A focus on student wellbeing and student ownership

From the World Health Organisation:

Mental health: a state of well-being
Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.

A focus on wellbeing must be at the core of what we do in schools.

8. Early intervention and targeted support

With support, young people can change their behaviour. Bullying CAN be stopped. Successful early interventions must involve the expertise of external agencies and experts within the school to change bullying behaviours. We need to use an integrated, multi-agency approach, and remember that punitive measures are least effective at changing behaviour.

9. Partnerships with family and community

A health-promoting school will collect evidence and data from all stakeholders, and use it to inform practice. Safe schools involve parents and the community in transition activities, extra-curricular activities and school events, and ensure there is regular and meaningful communication between the school and the community.

What next?

The Safe Schools Hub is an excellent national resource for schools reviewing their policies and procedures. The School Audit Tool is an online assessment tool for schools to use to evaluate current practice, and indicate areas of focus.

At my school, it’s time to review our anti-bullying and student welfare policies and practices again, using the Safe Schools Framework. There are areas that we need to work on. After all, creating a safer school will enable us to confidently answer those parent questions about that ‘B’ word.

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