How To Support A Student Who Displays Bullying Behaviour
At The Diana Award, we define bullying behaviour as
‘repeated, negative behaviour that is intended to make others feel upset, uncomfortable or unsafe’.
It is important to have a mutual understanding of bullying behaviour across schools so that we can help not only those being targeted, but also those displaying these behaviours.
We believe that young people should never be labelled as ‘bullies’. This is because it is the bullying behaviour that should be confronted, and not the person. Labelling a young person as a ‘bully’ can cause them to feel that they cannot change their actions or that it is just who they are. We believe that behaviour is a choice, it can be challenged and it can change.
Why do young people exhibit bullying behaviour?
There are many reasons why someone might display bullying behaviour, and it can often be due to a combination of factors. As an educator, it is important to remember that a young person targeting others with bullying behaviour might need support with their own feelings and experiences or help understanding the impact of their actions.
Here at The Diana Award, we have researched and compiled the following key causes for bullying behaviour:
Young people’s behaviour online and offline can be influenced by the media and current ‘youth culture’. This is the world they interact with each other in, where they seek to find acceptance from their peers and begin to find their own sense of self or identity. A young person could mimic negative language or behaviour from popular music, gaming platforms, YouTube, TV, and social media in order to ‘fit in’ - for example, TikTok trends or Fortnite dances.
A young person might realise that they receive more recognition from their peers by exhibiting bullying behaviour and so do this as they feel it can increase their social status. It is important to remember that this could stem from a general lack of social skills or understanding of the impact of their actions. For example, a young person might misbehave in class to be perceived as ‘cool’.
If bullying behaviour is frequently not taken seriously or addressed in a preventative approach in a school or institution, a young person might begin to join in as it is seen as the norm. For example, the negative use of the word ‘gay’ (i.e., ‘That’s so gay!’) is homophobic but can sometimes be normalised as part of a school’s culture, so young people might start to use it themselves instead of challenging it.
A young person might become aware of power dynamics in their peer groups and start to exhibit bullying behaviour to be in control or to avoid being targeted themselves. For example, protecting themselves by threatening their friendship group with negative behaviour if they do not join in and abide by their demands.
Blaming the Target
Young people displaying bullying behaviour often claim that the target has provoked the behaviour or brought it on themselves, often using this as an attempt to justify their actions. For example, “They were asking for it!” or “I wouldn’t have said anything to her if she wasn’t so weird!”.
A young person experiencing a negative or dysfunctional home life could cause them to exhibit bullying behaviour as a coping mechanism. For example, they might behave violently towards their peers to cope with violence they have seen or experienced at home.
Many personal experiences can contribute to a young person displaying bullying behaviour towards others. For example, external pressures like exam stress, extra-curricular activities or social rejection, or insecurities such as a lack of confidence or self-esteem.
A young person being targeted with bullying behaviour might replicate that behaviour towards others. This might be because they see those actions as the norm, or to try and distract from how the bullying behaviour they are experiencing elsewhere is making them feel. For example, a young person might ‘pass on’ bullying behaviour they are experiencing from their friends to other peer groups in school.
Punitive vs Restorative Approaches
Here at The Diana Award, we believe that young people should always have the opportunity to understand the impact of their behaviour and how to change it, no matter what the cause is.
A restorative approach to tackling bullying behaviour allows all young people involved a chance to express their feelings and talk to each other about conflict resolution. This can enable the person or people displaying bullying behaviour to understand the consequences of their actions by acknowledging the harm caused and helping them begin to take steps to repair it (Anti-Bullying Alliance).
A punitive approach involves using actions that ‘are intended to punish people’ (Collins Dictionary). Many traditional ways to tackle bullying behaviour in schools involve punitive actions and don’t necessarily allow for the young people involved to express themselves and choose to change their behaviour – instead, they are told to.
Below is a scenario of bullying behaviour and an example of punitive vs restorative approaches to tackling that behaviour choice, so you can see the differences.
You’re walking to your first lesson of the day when you notice one of your students, Joe, looking like he’s trying to hide himself next to a set of lockers. He looks very upset. You ask him if he’s okay, but he squares his shoulders and says ‘Fine.’
As you walk into class together, you hear lots of whispers and a few students point fingers at Joe.
Later, on the playground, you see Joe walk up to another student, Clara, and push her onto the ground. You know that Joe has done this to Clara before. You immediately go over to them and check that Clara is alright.
Punitive Approach: You know that Joe has caused harm to Clara and that’s against your school code of conduct. You tell Joe that what he did was very unkind and that he is already on his third warning, so he now has a lunchtime detention. You instruct him that he must apologise to Clara, which he does.
Restorative Approach: You tell Joe and Clara that you are there to support them and ask if they would like to come to your classroom to talk it over. They agree. You all sit down at a table, and you let them take it in turns to explain what happened. Joe looks upset while Clara is talking. After hearing her describe how he made her feel nervous and scared to come to school, he says that he didn’t mean for her to feel that way. A while later, Joe says that he feels sad a lot of the time and just doesn’t have any friends at school. A lot of students at school are mean to him and sometimes he feels upset and angry about it; he doesn’t have anyone to talk to, so he tries to take his mind off those feelings, however he can. They talk a bit more, and Joe apologises. You tell them both that your door is always open, and they schedule in some more times to talk with you for support, both separately and together.
What can your Anti-Bullying Ambassador team do to help?
Your Anti-Bullying Ambassador team are in the prime position to implement strategies that help and support people who are displaying bullying behaviour, alongside the restorative approach to tackling it. While there should absolutely be help available for those experiencing bullying behaviour, it is important to have wellbeing support in place for those exhibiting it too – every young person should feel safe and supported in school.
Here are some top tips for your school’s Anti-Bullying Ambassador team to help you support young people displaying bullying behaviour:
- Set up a ‘safe space’ at break times for any students who are struggling, feeling overwhelmed, or just want to talk to someone.
- Run a workshop/lesson about the definition of bullying behaviour so that every student knows what it is and how to identify it. This understanding will enable every young person to recognise those negative behaviours in themselves as well as others and allows them to choose whether to continue doing them.
- Conduct a whole-school survey about bullying behaviour and how students are feeling, to gauge how prevalent those behaviours are, and how best the students would like to access support and tackle them. You could include a section that asks students if they have ever displayed bullying behaviour to someone else, how it was dealt with, and how it made them feel. By ensuring the survey is anonymous, it will allow students to be more open and honest with their answers, and not worry about getting into trouble.
- Find ways to build every student’s confidence – Ambassadors could run activities to celebrate everyone’s differences and uniqueness and encourage everyone to talk to another student they don’t know. For example, a ‘Compliments Day’ to encourage kind words, or a ‘Meet Someone New Day’ where students are paired or grouped together with peers they don’t know very well and given a fun activity to work on together.
- Display posters around school to signpost where young people can find support – The Diana Award Crisis Messenger Service provides free, 24/7 support for any young person who needs it - just text DA to 85258. You can download and print posters for free here to use around school.
- Check out our Resource Centre for lesson plans, activities and more for you and your Anti-Bullying Ambassadors to use for free. Promoting a culture of kindness and respect in school and encouraging young people to express their feelings and access support can help those displaying bullying behaviour to realise the impact of their actions, help them feel supported and encourage them to choose kinder actions next time.
Resources and Further Support
- The Diana Award Resource Centre
- The Diana Award Crisis Messenger – Text DA to 85258 and trained volunteers will listen to how you’re feeling and help you think through the next step towards feeling better.