Academic calling for change in handling of school bullies

Photo: Shutterstock.
Photo: Shutterstock.

An academic working to improve the wellbeing of children has called for change in the way schools handle bullying. 

Last week the Mandurah Mail revealed there were 763 suspensions at three Mandurah high schools last year, with one school having 10 per cent of students suspended in term two.

Telethon Kids Institute honorary researcher Kevin Runions said there was a reliance on punishment in schools, rather then looking at the bigger issue.

“Suspending the bully is usually a waste of time and will not help the situation,” he said. 

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“What is the student doing when they are not at school? How is the problem being resolved?

“It gets the student out of the school’s hair for a short time, but that’s all.”

Dr Runions said a recent study trialing an approach called ‘motivational interviewing’ had been conducted with school bullies helping them “deal with the problem they enjoy having”.

“Bullies get something out of it, whether it’s popularity or the fun of making people squirm,” he said.

Dr Runions said the approach encouraged the bully to find reasons to behave differently. 

“You’re never going to get meaningful change from someone if you don’t allow the person to make choices for themselves,” he said. 

“If the school conducts suspensions, they should also sit down with the student and have conversations about their behaviour.

“If you can get the bully to do things differently, that’s the key.”

But Dr Runions was aware schools were under-resourced and busy. 

“Schools rarely have time to work with with bullies, but schools that manage to do it see positive results,” he said. 

Telethon Kids Institute recently conducted a four year study on a Year 8 and 9 bullying program trialed in 12 Western Australian schools.

Dr Runions said the study worked with both the bully and the victim, and said it was successful in reducing both sides of bullying. 

“Fewer students reported being targeted, but also students were reported to bully less,” he said. 

“When both sides are reduced, that’s nice to see.”

Dr Runions said bullying affected the whole community, because the bully and victim were exposed to possible issues in the future.

“Bullying is a well established risk factor for adolescent mental health problems, self harm and suicide,” he said. 

“It can affect both the target and the bully.”

Dr Runions said bullying programs had more success if the whole school and community supported the cause.

“There can be things in the curriculum, but these programs will only work if everybody is on the same page,” he said.

A Department of Education spokeswoman said the majority of school students were well behaved.

“Schools are part of the community with students from a variety of backgrounds, so from time to time schools deal with wider social issues that are brought into the school environment,” she said. 

“Schools have plans for individual students, with a range of measures to address poor behaviour.

“These can include mediation and psychology services, through to suspensions and in extreme cases, exclusion.

“Schools use the most effective strategies to help students turn their behaviour around, but these strategies will only be effective if positive behaviour is reinforced at home.

“If a parent is not satisfied with the course of action taken by a school, they can contact their regional education office for advice.”