23 Jan Is Switching Schools A Solution To Bullying?
In most cases, a change of school does not solve the problem for children who are bullied, and can lead to additional problems for the young person.
When children are bullied at school, parents understandably become very distressed and concerned. Each year, many parents seek advice from teachers, counsellors and principals about whether changing schools could resolve the issue and give their child a better outcome. Some parents, after long debate and continual questioning of their child, decide a ‘new start’ at a different school may solve the problem.
It can be easier to blame a problematic bullying child or peer group instead of looking at whether other factors may be contributing to the situation.
However, in most cases, a change of school does not solve the problem for children who are bullied, and can lead to additional problems for the young person. The reasons for the bullying need to be considered.
Most children will be subjected to teasing and negativity, and the majority will manage this without it becoming an ongoing problem. However, some children will not manage ‘normal’ negativity and may internalise it, take it to heart, respond aggressively or appear overly affected by it. It is these children who are more likely to be the potential target of bullying behaviour.
At its core, bullying is defined by repetitive actions intended to cause harm, and occurs due to a difference in power between the children, whether that be real (physical or age difference) or perceived (more or less popular or more or less clever). Bullying is not just children arguing or having a disagreement; it is not just one-off teasing. It is ongoing behaviour that involves unwanted or negative actions.
Moving schools is unlikely to change a child’s vulnerability to bullying.
If they already struggle to make friends or respond to their peers without getting into an argument, or if they already believe they aren’t popular and might not be liked, changing schools may not change this.
Unfortunately, children can continue to experience bullying at their new school, despite a new peer group. The other issue is that the child is often then in a worse situation, as they are the new kid in school trying to fit in with already-established peer groups and having to adjust to different teachers and catch up with schoolwork that may be taught differently.
There is no set answer to the problem of bullying, but it may help to take the following into account before considering changing schools:
- Always believe your child when they tell you they have been bullied. Validate what they say, express empathy, and don’t ignore them.
- Even if you believe your child may not have handled a situation in the best way possible, don’t blame them. They need encouragement to build new skills and learn how to deal with peers. When a child is upset about something that has happened at school, it is not the right time to teach new skills. Wait until they are calm and not emotionally drained to have the conversation about building resilience and so on.
- Never encourage a child to retaliate.
- Actively seek out how your child’s school manages and responds to bullying. Find out about their programs and ask the class teachers how they manage bullying. Try to find out what steps are involved in resolving issues and whether the teacher has already noticed or responded to the situation.
- Seek support from a mental-health professional. A school counsellor, community mental-health team or psychologist may be able to work with your child on their self-esteem, and how they are responding to bullying and any anxiety issues. The goal of the intervention is building resilience, and this can only benefit your child.
- Provide your child with safe opportunities to practise social interactions. Let them work out differences with their siblings and friends and praise them for managing difficult situations. Explain to them clearly what they did that helped them. For example, ‘I noticed that Joe didn’t want to play cricket with you. I’m sure you felt a bit disappointed, but I also noticed you didn’t get too upset and found something else to do. Perhaps next time you and Joe could find something else to do together.’
- Role-playing may be useful. Practise difficult situations in a fun, non-confronting way so the child can try out skills before needing to use them in real life. Talk about how characters in books or movies dealt with difficult situations, and point out alternative actions.
- Provide younger children with opportunities to work out how to deal with disappointment and difficult situations. More often, parents want to rescue children from disappointment or control their play so they don’t experience negative emotions. This leads to a child who can’t cope with the reality of everyday life. Say ‘no’ to your child, finish pleasurable activities early and allow your child to experience disappointment, as this will help them cope.
- For parents with older children who have experienced long-term bullying, seek professional advice on the right course of action, such as working closely with teachers, counsellors, a psychologist and some trusted friends and family, in order to help your child regain some sense of control in their life, which then leads to more hope that things may be different.
- Finally, and most importantly, provide your child with a loving and safe home environment.
Katharine Cook is a child and family psychologist who worked in child protection for 15 years. She now works in private practice in the areas of trauma, attachment, parenting and perinatal anxiety and depression.
Words by Katharine Cook // Photography by Agnieszka Boeske