bullying in schools

What I know about racism. What I learned about bullying.

I am waiting for my daughter on the playground, amid the chaos of three o’clock, enormous backpacks hurtling over tiny shoulders, tenni balls are flying through the air and  kids are running to their mums, Dads and baby brothers and sisters. Finally the one I am looking for is bounding towards me. Her arms go about my waist and her head plants straight into my chest. I know immediately something is wrong and resist the urge to ask. I wait. Once we are a safe distance from the playground, out of the school, across the road and down the street my 7-year-old daughter begins to share with me an incident in school. How a group of girls, including her best friend, playing a seemingly innocent game in which the rules involve finding something of a certain colour, ended up with her friend, telling the other three girls, after a whisper to, “touch something brown”. Laughing, they ran to touch my Rosie’s face.

Rosie is African American.

Through silent tears as we make our way home, Rosie tells me she knows that I tell her to be “black and proud” . . . …”But I want to be white.”

I emailed her teacher, something I rarely do, and she called me straight away and then went to discuss the matter with the school deputy. She phoned me again to inform me of the school response, which involved a meeting between the girl and the deputy. She mentioned she ‘might’ follow up with a book and some additional discussion about ‘difference’.

“I don’t want to hear about ‘difference’ ,” said Rosie. “Every time they talk about it I am reminded of being different and I don’t want to think about it anymore. I thought we are all different”.

Valuing Difference: The concept of bullying in the early years.

We are all different, but the moment above is not really about “difference” it is about power and the perception that those who are “different” are less because of their difference. It is about bullying. Schools and early childhood programs are critical spaces for children to learn about social relationships, to explore their identity and value the identities of others. It is natural for children to explore their own power and bullying  behaviours may be part of this process. It is also essential that adults support them in this exploration.

Australian Institute for Teaching and Leadership (AITSL) defines bullying as Bullying is an ongoing misuse of power in relationships through repeated verbal, physical and/or social behaviour that causes physical and/or psychological harm. This definition is aligned with that in early childhood settings, with educators agreeing that bullying involves an imbalance of power, an intention to diminish or hurt another repetitively, bullying is not fighting, it is the ongoing expression of dominance over another viewed as weaker

A recent study of 95 early childhood educators showed that many were able to define the characteristics of bullying, yet unsure how to distinguish it from other childhood behaviour. When educators do respond, the focus is typically on addressing the actions of the child or children involved in bullying at the individual level. I think we need to do more and consider the learning communities we want to establish for every student.

As with children in other studies, my daughter did not want to be the focus of a discussion about bullying, she did not want ‘help’ from the teachers. This response makes her the problem and also problematizes the actions of the other children, her friends. The reluctance of children to report bullying is highlighted in recent research. My daughter did not want to “be a snitch” this would only have added to her low feelings of self worth as well as her value in the eyes of her peers. She was exercising her power perhaps not to disclose. Yet understanding what took place on the playground, how she felt about it and the other children’s feelings are essential to address bullying. 

The Problem of Bullying

It is important for educators and parents to listen to children share their experiences of being bullied and to talk about bullying. It is here that we can learn to identify bullying and understand its causes in each context as well as prevent children from engaging in bullying behaviors and developing their social selves in a way that respects others.

It is particularly important right now, as many of our children are learning online and we have seen a sharp rise in cyberbullying. The impact of Covid 19 on young people has made the need to consider all forms of bullying even more important.

I argue that as educators and parents, we need to explore these concepts early and throughout schooling. To engage children in social justice education and prepare teachers to understand, identify and respond to bullying as part of their professional development. My recent research included the use of puppetry to expand the play behaviors of a group of 4 year old boys. The boys were described by their teachers as engaging in bullying-like behaviours, with repetitive acts of aggression and exclusion of other children during outside play. A series of puppet workshops opened up the space to learn about the boys’ perception of their actions, to support their understanding about the concept of bullying and provide them with the support they needed to expand their repertoire of play. 

Bullying is about exclusion, it is about power. Educators are in a unique position to model caring behaviours and devote time to supporting children to value their own difference and the difference in others. This should include the classroom, when learning online and on the playground. It is here that we can understand and support children in learning how to interact and respect one another, to explore the factors that influence their behaviour and their intentions. While the evidence on the impact of anti-bullying interventions is mixed, some actions by educators have been shown to be beneficial for creating a positive learning environment. These include using pedagogical strategies that help children and young people to collaborate, learn from each other and work independently. In many cases, teachers may need to guide children and young people by creating spaces in which children can ask questions and feel equipped to take responsibility for their own learning.

All of which takes time, time for teachers to spend with students, time for schools to work with families and time for schools to work together in creating spaces that welcome and value all. This asks us to do much more than just respond to bullying after an incident, it requires us to cultivate relationships that are caring, thoughtful and a reflection of the classrooms we wish to build in schools and online. 

Olivia Karaolis teaches across the School of Education and Social Work at Sydney University. She completed her research at USYD after working in the United States in the field of Early Childhood Education and Special Education. Her focus has been on creating inclusive communities through the framework of the creative arts.

Girls ask friends for help first: a need to redesign online safety protocols

“put on some clothes and stop posting slutty photos”

Year 7 girl commenting about other girls her age on social media

Being a girl aged 12 to 14 is a risk factor for cyberbullying and sexting, however gender and age-specific protocols are not being explicitly promoted in online safety programs or anti-bullying campaigns. Instead, for more than a decade, Australian online safety programs have focused on generic strategies that encourage all young people to adhere to first responder rules which include blocking and reporting. The general assumption is that young people are ready and willing to step forward, that they have the courage and confidence to speak up against others.

However, my research demonstrates that when girls aged 12 to 14 experience stressful online situations with peers, they do not use these strategies. Time and again, girls in my research wanted to find their own way of dealing with online problems. Typically, they did not want to report the problem. Usually they asked friends for help and support. As one young girl said, “I’m not a snitch, I’d rather just put up with it”.

In their talk about online safety, the girls raise some key points.

Key findings from my research

Girls don’t want to tell their parents

First, telling parents is “social suicide”. Banning and punishment are two reasons given. Friends stand with you and support you, but adults blame you, punish you, and take away your phone. “They think you’ve done the wrong thing and they punish you.”

These outcomes explain, at least to some extent, why girls prefer to talk to friends about online problems not parents. This arrangement should come as no surprise given mainstream online safety messages are almost always framed in consequential terms and typical parent reaction is to restrict and monitor.

Girls look to friends for help first

Second, girls say the go-to, talk-it-out contacts are friends. Girls ask friends for help because they are supportive, trustworthy, and loyal. Girls want to be believed. They want someone to support them during their trauma, someone to be shocked over the incident, and someone to deny their personal culpability. They want things to get better and believe friends can help with that.

Likewise, girls want to help friends who are in trouble. As one said

I had a friend who was getting bullied. I tried to help her. I’d try to make her happy and get her away from all the bad stuff that was happening. In the end, I went and talked to the person who was bothering her.

But the ‘helpers’ also need help

Girls say supporting friends is not without concern. Indeed, support practices often place them in a position of pronounced vulnerability. They often feel worried and anxious about their friend’s wellbeing because the bullied girl is frequently very distressed, experiencing anxiety, feelings of helplessness, and/or the beginnings of self-harm. As one helper put it,

… (crying) I had to tell someone, I sent her messages and a letter to tell her she would be okay. I thought it was helping but then she started posting messages that sounded like she was going to do something like hurt herself. I feel bad I couldn’t help her. Now her mum is coming to school. I think she’ll be mad at me. I was only trying to help.

Support strategies also place the helper in morally challenging situations. On the one hand, she is bound by unspoken friendship obligations to be loyal and trustworthy. On the other hand, she has an ethical responsibility to report online problems to an adult. Neither position is without consequence, but most girls choose to support and comfort friends rather than report problems to adults.

One of my friends posts some really racy pictures and guys are always asking her for nudes. I tell her that she should tell someone, but she says her parents will take it away. I am concerned about her because she is always getting pervs messaging her.

It is different with bullying from people outside life at school

In contrast, the girls were quick to report online problems when the instigator was a stranger or someone who could not affect their life at school. This point demonstrates that girls deal with online bullying in different ways depending on who the bully is (i.e., peer or stranger). This distinction is significant and needs to be explicitly addressed in online safety programs because “a lot can happen” before girls report problems to adults.

My findings may seem strangely out of place next to research reports which indicate girls do report online problems to parents and do use social media reporting tools. In my research, the girls were no different in that most of them say they report online problems to parents and use reporting tools when needed. However, the girls seek friendship support first and only report problems to adults if this support is not effective, or the bullying escalates, and/or the situation becomes critical (e.g. suicidal thoughts).

A need to redesign online safety protocols

My research highlights critical trends in young teenage girls’ online safety and help-seeking approaches. Girls aged 12 to 14 clearly want to manage and self-censor their online life but these experiences are not straightforward. The securities of belonging and fitting in overlap with adult monitoring and protection and girls need to make choices that are not necessarily optimal. Online safety protocols should be redesigned so they complement both the realities of girls’ friendship practice and the nature of adult censorship.

Roberta Thompson is a Lecturer in the School of Education and Professional Studies at Griffith University, Queensland, Australia.  She is a sociocultural anthropologist interested in teenage girls’ everyday experience in and out of school, both on and offline. Her research explores the interplay between teenage girls’ everyday interactions with friends, gendered discourses, social media practice, identity construction, and online safety agendas.

Roberta Thompson is presenting on “I’m not a snitch”: Teenage girls, friendship and online safety and on Design-based methods for qualitative research with teenage girls at the AARE 2019 Conference.

Hundreds of educational researchers are reporting on their latest educational research at the AARE 2019 Conference 2nd Dec to 5th Dec. Check out the full program here

Persistent bullies: why some children can’t stop bullying

Bullying is a universal problem that affects individuals of all ages. To date, interventions in schools have achieved mixed results with some students engaging in persistent bullying throughout their schooling and into adulthood. Others are targeted with what at times appears relentless bullying.

Persistent bullies

A plethora of research has provided insight into this social phenomenon accompanied by a range of interventions aimed at reducing bullying in schools. Despite this, there are some bullies who persist: those who increase their behaviour over time and those who consistently bully at moderate or high levels. These individuals adversely affect the mental health, wellbeing and schooling experiences of their peers. Although we often focus on the impact on victims, persistent bullies themselves experience long-term negative outcomes as a result of their ongoing bullying behaviour. Such effects include academic difficulties, higher levels of criminal involvement and engagement in various risky behaviours.

Persistent bullies continue bullying in spite of interventions and sanctions employed by schools. Why they persist remains unclear. These students were the focus of our research. We believe understanding their behaviour and why they may be resistant to change will be gained by accessing their lived experiences.

Our research

Our project explored multiple perspectives of bullying in a quest to further understand this social phenomenon and why some individuals engage in persistent bullying.

We used a case study approach to collect narratives from several South Australian University and primary school students. A pictorial mindmap ‘About your life’ was used as a unique recall-trigger to gather data. The pictorial template consisted of few words and enabled participants to tell their stories in their own way with little or no questioning. This provided deeper insight into the lives of individuals who engaged in, or were the victim of, persistent bullying.

What we found

We found that participants, both the victims and the bullies, had a sound understanding of bullying. They identified characteristics of both typical (those who do not persist with bullying behaviour) and persistent bullies.

The perceived differences between these bullies related to their peer relationships, degree of empathy and the way that they attribute blame for things that have happened to them. Certain environmental influences such as negative home lives were also perceived as reinforcing persistent bullying. The relationship between adults in the school, particularly teachers, and those who bully, can affect the way the peer group views and treats these students.

Students reported the actions of persistent bullies as negative, intentional and malicious. The bullies are aware of such attributions. These attributions influenced the peer group’s reaction, which in turn affected the way the bully behaved, fulfilling earlier expectations.

Persistent bullies also developed a negative self-concept and looked to verify this by acting in a manner that was consistent with their negative self-view. We argue that the expectations of the school community coupled with self-verification may serve to reinforce persistent bullying.

Persistent bullies also reported differences in both the quality and quantity of their relationships at school and at home. Their actions were often motivated by a strong need to belong and be accepted by their peers, a basic human need. Often they engaged in bullying to gain some acceptance, albeit negative, from peers and teachers.

The stories from persistent bullies have highlighted the significance of belonging, together with the role that others, and their beliefs, have on determining and reinforcing persistent bullying behaviour.


Deborah Green is a Lecturer in Humanities and Social Science in the School of Education at the University of South Australia. Deborah holds a Bachelor of Education (Hons.) and Doctor of Philosophy, where her thesis focussed on students who persistently bully in spite of interventions and sanctions employed by schools to reduce this behaviour. Deborah’s research interests closely align with her teaching. She is particularly interested in areas of social justice, inclusive and special education, bullying, cyber-bullying, bystander behaviours and resilience.

Deborah Price is a Senior Lecturer in Inclusive Education and Wellbeing at the University of South Australia with research, teaching and scholarship which advocate a capabilities approach and valuing of the diversity of young people. As the School of Education, Program Director Master of Teaching, her vision is to work collaboratively to equip graduates with qualities that promote learner achievement and wellbeing which transfers to productive citizenship. Current research contributes to the broad themes of social sustainability and citizenship for young people, in particular wellbeing, relationships, identity and educational influence. Social justice, inclusion and wellbeing are integral priorities in teaching, scholarship and research.

 More in our book  Multiple Perspectives in Persistent Bullying: Capturing and listening to young people’s voices. Routledge, United Kingdom. ISBN: 1317335775, 9781317335771. Authors: Green D., & Price, D. (2017).


Bullying is considered a socially unacceptable form of aggression that is described as a ‘physical, verbal or psychological attack or intimidation that is intended to cause fear, distress or harm to the victim; an imbalance of power (psychological or physical) with a more powerful child (or children) oppressing less powerful ones; and repeated incidents between the same children over a prolonged period’.