As we come to the end of Anti-Bullying Week, our Children’s Writer Chris Thompson reflects on his visit to an anti-bullying workshop. With thanks to Kidscape for inviting us to attend and listen to the views and experiences of children who have been bullied.
“There’s no quick fix. Today is the start of a journey.”
This is what Gemma tells the group of children and parents who’ve assembled for today’s ZAP workshop run by children’s charity, Kidscape.
They’re all here because of bullying. Any nerves or trepidation are soon dissipated by a couple of icebreakers and I’m surprised at how quickly the children warm to one another, at how quickly their nerves seem to fade away.
There’s laughter and joyful silliness from the start. But it’s not hard to understand why. Today is a different kind of day for them. Today these children will not be bullied.
The purpose of the day is to help both the children and their parents. Although we start the day together, the adults soon break away to a downstairs space for a workshop with a parent support worker. Upstairs, meanwhile, the children get stuck into a range of activities. We start by listing what we’re good at. Everyone can come up with at least two or three, but with a bit of coaxing, the list gets longer. And it’s a great way of building up a bit of self-esteem before more difficult things are discussed.
Gemma then gives the participants a list of different kinds of behaviour, like flirting, hitting, isolating, and the children are invited to decide whether each one counts as bullying or not. I’m struck at how nuanced their answers are. They have clearly thought these things through many times before. They’re able to hold onto the complexity of some of the examples, although some of them, of course, are categorically classed as bullying.
Gemma uses the acronym STOP – “Several Times On Purpose” as a way to identify bullying. None of the children are asked to disclose their experiences of being bullied in this session. But they do – almost immediately. They speak with a devastating matter-of-factness, and the experiences, which we will keep private from this blog, are harrowing.
The tools and strategies they learn today might take time to make an impact, but what’s clear from the outset is the powerful therapeutic value of being in a room with someone who is going through they same thing. Bullying can be such an isolating experience, it’s often so arbitrary, unfathomable and bewildering, but here these children can feel that they’re not alone. The relief is palpable.
We reconvene with the parents and carers for lunch. As the kids show each other their backflip skills and compare Roblox tactics, I talk to the adults.
There are specific issues and questions such as CAHMS not being able to provide a service until things are really bad, or suggestions such as a specialist anti-bullying worker being placed in every school.
But the overriding, unanimous concern is that schools are not doing enough. Specifically, these parents feel their schools are downplaying the issue.
Some don’t even use the word bullying – one mother asked her school if they were doing anything for Anti Bullying Week and she was told they didn’t like the word.
An argument can be made for this in terms of focusing on kindness or highlighting positive behaviour. But it is dangerous to speak in euphemisms.
A refusal use the “B” word can be very damaging for the victims. Framing things as a “falling out” rather than bullying – resolutely refusing to call it what it is – denies the child’s experience. You’re effectively gaslighting them.
It also puts an unreasonable onus on the child to prove it’s happening. An example being that one victim was brought face to face with their perpetrator, who then denied it all, and the matter was concluded. The result here is the child in question feels like they made it up, and the school is effectively mirroring the bullying behaviour.
Bullies often ask their victims to take care of their feelings after they’ve bullied them. And by denying bullying behaviour happens in their schools, teachers and governors are doing exactly the same thing. They’re saying to the victim, “you brought this problem here, you make it go away.”
But it’s never the victim’s fault.
If anyone who was bullied at school could change one thing, it would be not blaming themselves. The danger is if you deny a child’s experience, if you erase the word “bullying”, you erase the truth for that victim, and the child is left with no one to blame but themselves.
Schools have a responsibility to grasp the nettle. Admitting that bullying happens does not mean they have failed as school. But by denying its existence they are failing the victims, and they are perpetuating a culture of fear, denial and blame.
The children I met today are as bright as they come; in a day free from the bullies, they were full of joy and laughter. They were also bewildered and baffled by the random pain and fear that has been visited upon their lives.
As Anti-Bullying Week comes to an end, it’s important to remember that workshops like these take place every two weeks, and they are always full.
So at the workshop, when Gemma says there is no quick fix, she is right: this is the start of a journey. Today these children realised they were not alone. They stepped out of the shadows and realised that they were not to blame.
And one of them declared, with giddy excitement, that they would all be best friends for life.