Why 'raising awareness' is doing nothing to beat school bullying

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

So what? Now what?

As a parent myself, I know too well these are rather blunt and perhaps confronting questions to ask, given that it could be my child that's on the end of the next act of school bullying. But, as the adults in this conversation, this is what we must be brave enough to do.

No longer can we stand by and convince ourselves that mere awareness raising as our reflex response to bullying will do the trick. Sadly, that's been our default for too long. 

The stated aim of almost every well-intended foundation established in the wake of a young person taking their own life after being bullied is to raise awareness.  And yet, the dent we've made on actual bullying prevalence is next to nothing.

We're already aware

We've all been aware that bullying is a problem for some time now. And yet, we continue to chase an enlightened tipping point at which awareness will be so high that we'll be consider the job done. But it just never is.

When I speak with educators and parents all around the country, I often ask them if they are aware that bullying is a problem in our schools.  The answer is a resounding "Yes".  In fact, there's emphasis on that "Yes" that makes it more akin to a "Hell Yes!"

Awareness matters but it only gets you so far. To draw a sporting analogy, batsmen for years were aware that Shane Warne was about to bowl them a leg-break. The problem lies in being able to handle it. Have we practiced enough?  Have we practiced the right stuff?  

So, there's the good news. We've already reached peak awareness, which brings us back to those blunt questions that we'd all rather avoid.

So what? Now what? What will we do once we're on the other side of awareness?

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An opportunity to make a difference

Well, I'd contend that there are two big opportunities for schools brave enough to answer those questions. One opportunity creates space and the other fills it with something meaningful.

To create space, let's resist the urge to hold events or run programs that struggle to get us past awareness. Let's be honest, did we really think that taking photos of kids on school ovals spelling out "stop the bullies" with their bodies would change their conduct?

Anti-bullying programs have been all the rage for decades now. One estimate has the global count at beyond 9000 of them. That's 9000 failed attempts to end bullying by plugging in a Wednesday arvo poster making session on bystander behaviour.  

What this does is improve our poster making skills – but it just doesn't reduce the likelihood that we'll bully.

Once we've created some room and freedom in the lives of our teachers, we can then get busy on what does make a difference.

In 2012, the University of London conducted some groundbreaking research on what was common amongst schools who were already doing well when it came to tackling bullying.

They didn't find zero tolerance approaches or punitive systems designed to do little more than make the grown-ups feel powerful. 

They found that schools who focus on cooperative learning, teach healthy conflict resolution, get parents involved and have a restorative ethos and culture are the ones that succeed. They succeed because these approaches build empathy and a sense of personal responsibility.

The solution is in our hands

These are approaches, including the famed Restorative Practices that came in at number one, that are available for every Australian school.  We just need to be courageous enough to ask those questions.  So what?  Now what?  The answers have actually been there all along.

Bullying is tough to talk about. It's possibly because we all know, deep down, that we'll never "defeat" it, because it's not actually not an enemy - and nor are the kids who we catch doing it.  

I think we also know that, deep down, every kid is capable of it in the right circumstances.

Our job, as parents and teachers, is to work together to create cultures where those circumstances occur less. That's it.

Our lack of success in deprogramming bullying behaviours from our kids, via failed, programs actually tells us that bullying isn't really a behavioural problem at all. Bullying is a cultural problem. 

When we're prepared to examine and change the cultures – in our homes, around our schools and across our country – that are making it possible for bullying to thrive then we might just be able to get fair dinkum reducing its catastrophic impacts.  

We can do this.

Adam Voigt is a former successful School Principal and system leader who is now the Founder & CEO of Real Schools.  Adam is also the author of 'Restoring Teaching', a groundbreaking book aimed at restoring esteem for the role of educators through establishing strong, productive and restorative cultures around Australia's schools.