Is changing schools the answer to bullying?

bullied
bullied Photo: Getty

Melissa* was only seven when she asked her mother if she could be homeschooled. For most of Year Two her hair was pulled, she was pinched and verbally abused.

The young girl kept the bullying to herself until her increasingly aggressive behaviour and failing grades alerted her mother, who was horrified to learn the extent of the bullying included Melissa being pushed into a bin, and the lid placed on top. Her daughter admitted the girl sitting next to her in class was the culprit and a request to separate the two girls was granted.

One week later they were again, seated together. After Melissa’s mother complained, the teacher advised her that ‘it builds resilience in children’. It didn’t; instead Melissa began wetting her pants in class. A visit to the Principal proved unsatisfactory. He told the young girl’s mother he had bullying policies in place but his ‘hands were tied’ until Melissa approached him herself.

According to research commissioned by the Australian Federal Government, one in four children in Australian schools is affected by bullying. Psychologist, Tania Dickinson, sees victims as young as six. Her clients have been targeted because of their appearance, sporting and academic achievements, popularity or mental or physical illness. Dickinson says, “In some cases, it could be that something very personal about the perpetrator is triggered by something within the victim.”

Melissa, a quiet, shy child, didn’t have the confidence to speak up. Her mother spent six months visiting the school and writing letters asking for her daughter to switch classes, but nothing changed. “The teacher and school, in regards to supporting my daughter or helping her, were, as far as I’m concerned, useless,” Melissa’s mother says. She believes her expectations were not unreasonable and the lack of action from the school was the motivating factor in her decision to move her child.

The difference was dramatic. The teachers and principal at the next school created an environment where Melissa felt comfortable and safe. She encountered further bullying a year later but with the help of friends and support from the school, she was able to deal with it. Now 13, Melissa is in high school and socialises with a small group of friends. She lacks confidence and suffers normal teenage angst but her mother insists changing schools was the right thing to do for her daughter.

Dickinson says, “It is important to consider all aspects contributing to the bullying behaviour when contemplating whether or not changing schools is the best option for your child.” The reason for bullying needs to be identified as being either due to internal factors – the child’s social skills, vulnerability, reaction to conflict, ability to cope with difficult situations or external factors – who the child interacts with or is surrounded by. She states that if the child doesn’t possess the skills required to deal appropriately with the bully, then relocating them will not resolve their personal issues. However, if the bullying behaviour is largely due to outside influences and the school is not supportive, then moving may be warranted.

Ben*, 39, enrolled in three schools but when asked if he ever attended a school reunion, his answer was a resounding, “No, definitely not!” He was picked on almost immediately his education began. “A lot of factors played into my bullying,” he says. Ben grew up with older relatives, so interaction with children his own age proved difficult plus he suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia and ADHD causing further problems.

Struggling to fit in, he was a prime candidate for bullying. Initially kids broke his pencils and stole his lunch, then they progressed to physical assaults. “I always ate my lunch on my own or went and hid so nobody could find me.” He took different routes home, sometimes jumping fences and running through bushes to escape being beaten.

Ben says, “In Year Six, the teacher would leave the room, walk outside and go and have a cigarette ... then it was open season [on me].” The other kids kicked the chair from underneath him and threw his pencils around the room. He kept the incidents to himself but once his parents were aware, they met with the Principal and were advised that unless Ben approached him directly, there was nothing he could do.

As both victims refused to come forward it is interesting that the Psychologist noted that a common personality trait is evident in each of her clients: they tend to be passive - internalising the experience, taking a direct hit to their self-esteem rather than confronting the bully or retaliating.

Toward the end of Year Six Ben moved from the state school to a private school in a different suburb with a different demographic, but within a month the bullying started anew. It took time to develop but reached the same intensity and continued throughout high school. His dyslexia, diagnosed in Year Seven earned him a place in the special needs class and aggravated an already bad situation.

Ben’s bullying was extreme, and his school life traumatic but he feels that the problem lay with him. “It was me, not the other people. In my own opinion the bullying was centred around the way they see someone that’s a bit different, which I was.” He says that changing schools made no difference owing to the fact his learning difficulties were not addressed. Had he been diagnosed at a younger age and treated appropriately whilst left in mainstream classes, Ben believes his school years may have been very different.              

Dickinson stresses that moving schools comes with its own challenges and although the bullying might cease, it can have a lasting impact. According to the Australian Psychological Society, 2014, an individual who has been bullied before, can be at a greater risk of being bullied again. Dickinson says supportive counselling is often necessary to help build self-esteem and develop the social skills required to handle bullying, should it confront them again.

*Names changed