Bullying in school: now is the time to act
Theatre companies in Cork use drama to help students prevent bullying
Marie O’Donovan, Luke Barry, Cian Kinahan, Peadar Donohoe and Angelina Ryle take part in a bullying-prevention session. Photograph: Joleen Cronin
When it comes to bullying-prevention interventions in schools, allowing the pupils “to take ownership of the strategies” is crucial, says Peadar O’ Donohue, artistic director of Cyclone Rep. This Cork-based theatre company, best known for its productions of Shakespeare’s plays for secondary school pupils, is now rolling out its Bullying-Prevention Sessions (BPS) for both primary and secondary schools.
O’Donohue, who is working on a PhD at Trinity College entitled The Use of Role Play as a Bullying Prevention Aid in Primary Schools, says that key to successful interventions “is that the kids are very much part of the process”.
By getting children to take part in role-playing sessions involving bullying and its effects, they can relate to it and can empathise.
“Pupils are not always aware of the effects of bullying behaviour. They engage in it and sometimes it’s seen as a bit of fun or it’s modelled behaviour. Maybe they learned it from other kids in school or from older siblings or, God forbid, from their parents. So it might be unquestioned behaviour. People might say that that’s just how things are. Bullying has become too accepted.”
O’Donohue started looking at bullying through role play while undertaking his masters in education at University College Cork 10 years ago. Working with a teacher, he introduced a role-playing session in a classroom. This is easy to do, he says. Teachers don’t have to be drama teachers.
“Through role playing, the kids became mini scholars on the subject of bullying. By the end of the intervention, they were able to say what bullying is, the different types of bullying, who the players were and, most importantly, how it affects people. I thought the work had enough merit to go further.”
For his thesis, O’Donohue put together a bullying-prevention pack and gave it to teachers at a “research” school. As part of his experiment, he lined up a “control” school as well. The two schools had similar demographics and were following the SPHE (Social, Personal and Health Education) programme. As a result of following the five-step bullying-prevention pack, with its emphasis on role play and encouraging pupils to become defenders in bullying incidents, there was a 53 per cent drop in reports of pupils being targeted by bullies in the research school. At the control school, rates of bullying went up by more than 20 per cent.
“I use role play as the main learning resource for kids. It’s enjoyable for them. It doesn’t become a didactic lesson where kids are told the rules. The kids become immersed in role play. They’re not sitting at desks. They’re on their feet, listening, seeing and doing, which is probably the best way to learn.”
Cyber-bullying is also referred to. “While cyber-bullying in on the rise, it tends to happen outside of school. In primary schools, physical and verbal bullying are still very prevalent.”
One of the issues that Smashing Times Theatre Company deals with as part of its Drama for Educators training course is bullying. “We present performance pieces and run workshops where young people animate their own stories and experiences,” says Freda Manweiler, company manager.
“We work with a psychotherapist and a drama facilitator to help guide young people. We don’t try to present what we think bullying is. What’s interesting is how subtle bullying can be. There’s a complexity of relationships within the school environment.
“We get three or four young people [aged from 14 years upwards] to present an improvisation. The rest of the class becomes the audience and it’s a way of talking about things that the teenagers might not normally talk about. Because it’s done through a creative process, it’s a bit of fun too.”
But Smashing Times is attuned to the devastating nature of bullying. “We don’t just parachute into a school and leave after the performance. The psychotherapist is there as backup in case things get too much for somebody or something is raised that the teenagers aren’t ready for. The psychotherapist makes herself available for an hour afterwards to talk to the young people.”
Confidentiality “is never promised. If there is concern within the workshop process, the psychotherapist will pass it on [to the school authorities]. The young people know this. It’s all about looking out for each other and realising that some problems are too big for the young people to manage themselves. They may need to bring in an older, responsible person who they trust.”
Maeve Keane is the home school liaison officer for Coláiste an Chraoibhín (a Deis school) and St Joseph’s primary school in Fermoy, Co Cork.
“It’s a relatively new position,” says Keane, who used to teach English and maths at Coláiste an Chraoibhín.
“With Cyclone Rep, we do a lot of bullying prevention, which we find works great. We don’t have a bullying problem in Coláiste an Chraoibhín. Obviously, kids can be mean to each other. We try to educate them and prevent that rather than trying to fix it afterwards.
“Cyber-bullying is probably the biggest offender at the moment because it’s easier to do it anonymously. In our school, as in most schools, there is a firewall which means pupils can’t go on Facebook or Instagram. Cyber-bullying tends to happen when students go home.” The school brings in internet security specialists to speak to pupils, parents and teachers.
Being a bully “has a lot of stigma attached to it at the moment. People don’t want to be seen as a bully. In our school, it’s seen as a very negative thing,” says Keane.
If there is bullying, parents are contacted. “Sometimes, the bully might have their own issues going on. Talking it out with parents and teachers can help to work things out. Bullying is never a straightforward case. Kids are hyper aware of it but they don’t always realise what constitutes bullying. Kids mess all the time. They call each other names, they slag each other, the same way adults do. It’s important they understand where the line is.
“Coming into first year at secondary school, it’s important that students take part in bullying-prevention programmes. We have a mentoring programme with the older students supporting the first years as opposed to picking on them. The idea is that best practice is disseminated throughout the school.” Cyclone Rep’s Bullying Prevention Session will be performed at Cork’s Everyman Theatre on November 11th. See cyclonerep.com; smashingtimes.ie