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The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Jack Procter-Blain

Bullying: don't play the Trump card

Negative role models may offer a convenient explanation for why bullying takes place, but schools have a responsibility to address the deeper root causes and promote a strong anti-bullying ethos.

The timing couldn't have been better.

A US election you could mistake for pantomime, with two distinct, polarising and sometimes comical characters.

Halloween, a night of uncanny resemblance and painstakingly-crafted costumes.

The result? A video showing one pair of young trick-or-treaters effortlessly imitating the presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

But over the last few months, Trump imitation hasn’t been much of a laughing matter.

An ever-increasing number of American schools have voiced concern over what they believe to be a ‘Trump effect’, contributing to higher incidences of bullying and inappropriate behaviour.

Is America’s president-elect, so infamously known for racist, misogynistic, homophobic and otherwise obnoxious behaviour, also responsible for inspiring bullies?

Forgive me for saying this, but I think Trump is a scapegoat here. Let me explain why.

The root causes

According to YoungMinds, ‘around 70 per cent of young people have been bullied at one time and one million children are bullied every week’. It's an inescapable problem that requires concerted action. 

The difficulty for teachers and pastoral leads lies in developing a whole-school approach to bullying, while at the same time remaining sensitive to particular incidents that may arise for any one of a thousand different reasons.

How can we recognise when bullying is happening?

  • Complaining of illness such as headaches and stomach aches.
  • Drop in attendance or academic achievement.
  • Loss of friends.
  • Alone at break and lunchtimes.
  • Eating and sleeping problems.
  • Self-harming.
  • Suicidal thoughts.
  • Often ‘losing’ lunch money or personal items.
  • Appearing depressed.
  • Unexplained injuries.
  • Reluctance to join in activities.

It's commonly recognised that bullies have often been victims of bullying themselves, and while they pick up negative traits from their environment the root causes are typically emotional.

They are of course susceptible to influence from what they hear their parents say, what impressions they get from the news and so on.

However, the idea of a ‘Trump effect’ can be easily exaggerated. Negative behaviour has been reinforced by negative role models long before ‘the Donald’ appeared on the scene. What’s often missing in schools where bullying is common is a robust effort to nurture the self-esteem of all pupils.

Blaming Trump for a rise in bullying is like throwing an effigy onto a bonfire in an effort to put it out, instead of a bucket of water

As Clive Stevenson pointed out at our recent Mental Health and Wellbeing conference, it’s ‘the oldest algorithm in the book.’ Give pupils an environment where they can feel understood and valued, and you will increase their self-esteem and encourage them to be more emotionally engaged (in all the right ways).

A robust, whole-school approach to prejudice-based bullying, for example, is more important than ever.

A crucial part of this is recognising that children who bully those of another faith or ethnic background haven’t necessarily picked up the firmly-held prejudices of their parents, or fallen for the divisive rhetoric of people like Trump. They may simply be confused, or unaware of how to approach cultural differences. 

Taking steps to promote diversity and challenge division, through lesson activities or 'buddy systems', can help reduce prejudice-based bullying. This can only happen if staff have the confidence not only to identify and deal with incidents as they emerge, but to teach diversity across the curriculum and work with parents.

Celebrate diversity

Get advice for talking to pupils about tolerance, respect and diversity, and creating a positive school culture, at our Celebrating Diversity and Promoting Equality in Schools conference on the 23rd February 2017. 

The shining lights

Anti-Bullying Week is a great initiative, not least because it shows how much difference pupils can make, and have made, in supporting one another. I'm glad we take the time to recognise those who make outstanding contributions to the wellbeing of their classmates, their schools and their communities.

Schools can benefit greatly not only from having anti-bullying ambassadors but also rewarding them for their work.

A 2011 report by Goldsmith's College into the effectiveness of various anti-bullying strategies found that peer-to-peer support systems have worked exceptionally well; particularly for pupils at transition or new to the school. 

The support pupils need

Donald Trump is unlikely to be an anti-bullying ambassador, on that we can all agree.

However, blaming Trump for a rise in bullying is rather like throwing an effigy onto a bonfire in an effort to put it out, instead of a bucket of water.

All in all, schools have a responsibility to model positive, appropriate behaviour; focusing on what unites pupils, and giving them the chance to talk.   

An embedded PSHE, SEAL and diversity-led ethos, reinforced by peer-to-peer and group support, is the solution to schools' bullying woes.  

Negative behaviour always has negative root causes, and these are what teachers should be looking for, and combating, if they want to see a difference.

Be the compassionate detective, and trace incidents of bullying to their roots.

Leave Trump, and others like him, out of the equation. If there have to be role models, let it be the shining lights (not the loudmouths) who take centre-stage. 

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