Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Why is it important to define bullying? What can we learn from using an integral lens?


5 February 2015

There are many resources on the web about bullying and all have slightly different definitions.  The Safe Schools Support Framework has developed definitions for each age group. (eg. Grades 5 - 9). Most definitions that you might see include the following aspects. 
Bullying is:

·         repetitive
·         intentioned
·         physical, emotional or social behaviour (including on-line)
·         causes harm to another
·         in situations where there is a power differential
·         the “victim” feels powerless
·         can be overt or covert

Bullying does not include one-off events or aggression/conflict between those of equal power. 

Not all definitions specify that the bullying has to be intentioned to cause harm.   However, in some states in the USA this is part of the definition in order to link in with legal processes which rely on demonstrating intent.  These states have passed laws to mandate specific actions that schools must take.


For example, New Jersey law requires principals to investigate every incident of bullying within one school day, and complete a formal report within 10 days that must be submitted to the superintendent within 2 days of completion. Results of the investigation must be presented to the school board at the next regularly scheduled meeting. Students in Georgia who are found to have bullied others for a third time are sent to an alternative school.
Posted by Justin W. Patchin on September 3, 2013, http://cyberbullying.us/unintentional_bully/

There is also specific language around bullying that is used in some approaches but not others – “the bully”, “the victim”, “the target”, “bullying behaviour.”  I wonder, does the way we define or think about the issue lead us into particular ways of dealing with it? 

When dealing with complex issues where there seem to be conflicting positions I like to bring different theoretical lenses to help articulate the different mental models and approaches people might be bringing. The following is one of the lenses of Integral Theory where each quadrant represents a different way of considering experience.



IT Quadrant


When we consider bullying as an unwanted behaviour (IT quadrant) then a response approach might be on naming it up, ensuring everyone knows it is not OK and stopping it. The school may have a set process for reporting and intervening, with a hierarchy of consequences or punishments for “the bully”. Bystanders can play a powerful role in naming the behaviour and stopping it. A preventative approach could be how to make the school's physical environment safer – consider isolated zones, remove crowding around lockers, teachers on duty. How to make on-line environments safer - code of ethics, parental supervision, student training in cyber-bullying.



I quadrant


If we consider what motivates “the bully” (I) and why they might need to control others, put people down, or exclude others we might see a range of issues such as boredom, low self-esteem, identity issues, not realise their impact, reacting to stressful life circumstances, betrayal or suppression, repeating patterns that are done to them, psychological trauma, or developmental roadblocks.  Response approaches include working with the person who is bullying and their family to help them to address causes, as well as working with the person who has been harmed to help build up their resilience.  Whole school  preventative  approaches  can include delivering emotional literacy programs for all students to build up self-esteem, self-awareness,  and empathy.

ITS Quadrant


When we see bullying as an unhealthy relational dynamic or power/energy drama (ITS) between two or more people then we might ask what starts and sustains the dynamic. What assists the development of more healthy dynamics? For example, one response approach is “Bully Blocking” which helps  “the target” understand the game and remove the “wins” for “the bully” through adopting certain behaviour.  The method of shared concern does not name the dynamic as bullying, but rather enables the participants and others to find ways to restore a more healthy dynamic. A psychodrama approach sees the person doing the bullying and the the person being bullied both as "victims" in a drama that has captured them both.

If we see bullying as part of spectrum of relational dynamics, then prevention measures may focus on helping children build better relationships and greater social literacy.  This might include developing everyday processes for dealing with dilemmas, unhealthy dynamics or conflict, such as using conflict resolution skills.  Such dilemmas would be seen as learning opportunities for social and ethical development. Parents could engage in everyday non-blame conversations where children can admit to dilemmas/mistakes, take accountability, apologise to those impacted, restore if needed, take learnings and then move on. Given that bullying is about power, the school could also look at their pedagogy and see how they might be giving opportunity for student choice, agency and control.

WE quadrant


If we consider the culture (WE) in which the bullying takes place, then we may see that the normative behaviour – “how we do things around here,”  “everyone does it” - such as teasing, put downs, physicality, cliques,  jokes on mates, blame and shame  - may support more intentional and malicious bullying incidents.  The line between everyday behaviour and bullying is blurred. Schools may have clear values such as safe, respectful, friendly, caring schools. However, there may be a gap between what is happening and what is espoused. Further, in an effort to stop bullying, schools may set up a culture of “blame and shame” which can act to reduce reportings of incidents  as it becomes too onerous for those who have negative experiences.

Preventative approaches often include awareness-raising that seeks student commitment to cultivating positive school cultures through explicit actions (such as smile to others, include people in your groups), with positive reinforcement by students and teachers.  For example, an approach to challenge discrimination and harassment behaviours might create opportunities for students to experience and value diversity, understand the construction of identity and stereotypes that can lead to exclusion and recognise their power in creating the environments they want. Mindmatters is an example of a whole school approach to cultivating a friendly school culture. 

Active bystanders become very important in modelling the preferred behaviour, helping to shift the existing culture and providing safe intervention if needed.

An integral approach?


An integral approach would draw on all four quadrant lenses.  Many of the approaches articulated above are complimentary.  Some of the preventative measures address different aspects of Maslow’s human needs – need for safety (no fear), for belonging (inclusion, friendship and love), for self-esteem (respect and mastery), for self-actualisation (agency, self-awareness, meaning). However, some approaches are coming from different philosophical stances which can be counter-productive if used together. In developing a whole school approach perhaps there needs to be careful testing of the alignment of various approaches and paradigms with the school ethos. 

  • What processes need to be in place when an incident occurs, and what preventative approaches are needed? 
  • How are the approaches evaluated for effectiveness, and how can continual learning happen? 
  • How are parents engaged?
Professor Donna Cross, in a workshop to Tasmanian Principals, said that many anti-bullying strategies have been in place over the years and now evidence is coming in about what does and doesn't work. Where efforts are made to build up resilience of those likely to be bullied, what has been found is that while many of these children are now better equipped to avoid bullying situations, there are a group of children who do not avoid it, and are targeted even more. She says that this strategy is not enough and recommends a whole school approach, including transforming culture, training students to be active bystanders, considering the physical environment, using method of shared concern and reflective listening, and engaging students in the issues and coming up solutions.

We are focussing here on bullying. Should bullying be the driver of developing a whole school approach? Are there other ways of looking at it?

  • The  National Safe School Framework is a whole school approach to help create safe schools with 9 steps for leaders to consider.
  • The Tasmanian Respectful Schools Framework provides schools with a range of models, processes and check lists that promote respectful schools.
  • The Friendly Schools initiative, developed by Professor Donna Cross to address bullying, provides a whole school approach that enables schools to identify gaps and put in place preventative emotional and social literacy programs as well as adaptive response processes with the aim to develop a friendly and safe school culture.
Dr Sue Stack

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