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Teach young children about bullying to stop it

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Stopping children from bullying each other starts with their understanding of it; telling them what bullying is and involves assists in stopping bullying from happening.

Bullying prevention expert Dr Lesley-Anne Ey says that bullying takes place in all forms from an early age. She says children have limited understanding of bullying and that more needs to be done to explicitly educate younger children about it so as to contribute to the prevention of lasting problems these behaviours lead to.

Dr Ey and Assoc Prof Barbara Spears interviewed 99 children, aged 5–8 years, from four trial and two comparison junior primary schools to assess their understanding of bullying.

Teachers from the four trial schools worked collaboratively within their schools to develop and implement a tailored 10-lesson bullying prevention initiative to meet the needs of their children’s level of understanding. The children were re-interviewed afterwards to determine if their level of understanding had improved.

Before the prevention initiative, the children showed a limited grasp of bullying. While over half related it to being aggressive, very few understood other core features of bullying, such as repetition, intent to harm, and an imbalance of power. As such, they confused bullying and non-bullying acts of aggression, such as a once-off conflict or act of “meanness”.

Children in the four trial schools were asked what bullying is: 17% mentioned repeated behaviour, 14% mentioned intent to harm, and 4% mentioned an imbalance of power.

After the prevention initiative, 51% included repetition in their responses, 30% included an intent to harm, and 16% an imbalance of power.

The children were also shown cartoon images of play, bullying, and non-bullying aggression (such as a once-off conflict between kids). They were asked to decide whether or not each image depicted bullying.

After the initiative, although children still demonstrated some confusion about bullying and aggression only scenarios, they were much more likely to use the core concepts of bullying in their reasoning for why they thought the scenario was bullying. For instance, their mention of repeated behaviour when viewing cartoons depicting bullying, rose from 59% to 78%.

Children who had been in the prevention initiative were more likely than those in comparison schools to recognise the concept of a single act of aggression in the non-bullying scenarios. They were also more likely to identify an intent to harm in images of bullying behaviour.

Ey said she was surprised to see how quickly the children improved on their understanding of the core concepts for thinking about bullying – particularly the youngest children in the group. According to her, these concepts are foundational for children to develop an accurate understanding of the issue. Such an understanding, in turn, is critical to prevention.

The 12 teachers who implemented the tailored prevention initiative all said they intended to use it again. Most found that it was easy to use and was very engaging for students, and the co-creation process was highly engaging for them. “[I learnt] more about what is going on in the lives of children with whom I work,” said one. “This is such an important area to work sensitively with children.”

Spears said that if teachers use data about bullying from their own classes to inform their practice, they can identify the areas which they need to explicitly teach, creating a suite of lessons tailored to their contexts, and which align directly with the Australian Curriculum.

“This research has shown that when teachers construct a program specific to the needs of the children in their context, it works,” said Ey.

“What we have done here is just the tip of the iceberg. Children as young as five years old have been able to learn the key concepts of bullying in a very short amount of time.”

“If an anti-bullying program was implemented from reception and built upon each year, I believe that children would have a clear understanding about bullying by the end of junior primary.”

“Further research to retest children’s knowledge after a period of time would strengthen these findings.”

The proof of concept study was conducted by bullying prevention experts Dr Lesley-Anne Ey and Assoc Prof Barbara Spears from the University of South Australia, with funding from the World Organisation for Early Childhood Education (OMEP).


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