Is my child being bullied in primary school?
Parenting: How can you tell if your child is being bullied - what are the warning signs?
Bullying can happen to anyone, but some children are more vulnerable than others. Photograph: iStockphoto/Getty
If your child is being bullied, the temptation can be to rush in to the school, all guns blazing, and try to solve the problem. But sometimes a more delicate approach can be more helpful.
Bullying can happen to anyone, but some children are more vulnerable than others, including children with a disability or special educational needs, children from ethnic minorities, Traveller children and LGBTI children.
And of course, there’s a reasonable chance that your child may become a bully’s victim - or be a bully themselves.
How do I know if it is bullying?
Department of Education guidelines define it as “unwanted negative behaviour, verbal, psychological or physical, conducted by an individual or group against another person (or persons) and which is repeated over time… including cyber-bullying and identity-based bullying such as homophobic or racist bullying.” Deliberate exclusion and malicious gossip are also considered as bullying. Isolated or one-off incidents, the department says, are not bullying but should be dealt with under a school’s code of behaviour. tacklebullying.ie/
A school may indeed have a “positive school culture and climate that is welcoming of difference and diversity and is based on inclusivity and respect”, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be any bullying.
Pre-teen children don’t necessarily have the social skills to know how to interact in large groups, so what might seem like exclusion could simply be a child latching on to their preferred friend rather than working out the sometimes complex dynamics of larger groups.
What are the school’s obligations?
Under departmental guidelines, each school is required to have its own policy in place. Boards of management are required to make this policy available to parents, ideally on the school website or “readily accessible on request.”
If a school or teacher finds that bullying has occurred, they are advised to contact the parents of all parties and the actions that the school is taking in accordance with its policy.
If a child is being bullied, the teacher is first asked to calmly investigate and to try and restore the relationship between the two parties. Ideally, they should bring the two children together, if the bullied child agrees.
Problems tend to arise where a school puts the problem down to a “personality clash” rather than take any real or serious efforts to address it.
What if a parent isn’t happy with the school’s approach?
Schools should have a complaints procedure and the parent can escalate the matter to the school board of management. In practice, many boards can be reluctant to deal with this, particularly if it means going against a powerful principal. Parents can bring a complaint to the Ombudsman for Children and, while only a tiny fraction of these complaints will proceed to an investigation, the threat of an OCO investigation can prompt a school to take action.
What about cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying ideally wouldn’t be an issue for primary school children: they shouldn’t have unsupervised internet access, and the digital age of consent is 16 (although most experts think it should be 13). Nonetheless, the reality is that some primary school children are using social media apps and, even if yours is not, it doesn’t mean they can’t be discussed and cyberbullied by their classmates.
Positive steps parents can take
* Children who are being bullied can feel very isolated, but parents can help by encouraging their child to make new friends. Talk to the child about their interests and sign them up for a sports, music or drama club.
* If the bullying is because your child is (or perceived as) LGBTI, or because of their ethnicity, disability or membership of the Travelling community, the issue lies with the school, and it’s vital they address it in their bullying policies.
* If they’re being cyberbullied, be sure to keep screengrabs and compile evidence to make the school address it. Don’t let your child have unsupervised access to a phone or the internet
* Even young children can be worried that telling will get them in more trouble with the bullies, or that a parent will become angry and upset and unintentionally make the problem worse. Stay calm.
* Be supportive: let the child know that their home is a safe space and that they can always talk to you without fear of judgement or being in trouble.
* Keep listening: talk with your child about the problem and make sure to empower them by helping them look at solutions.
* Work on strategies to deal with the bully, including assertiveness, indifference and eye contact. Don’t tell them to physically fight the bully, as tempting as it is: they may simply get in trouble themselves.
* Help develop their social awareness: victims of bullying have their self-esteem chipped away and feel they have caused the problem themselves, but gently explaining that the issue lies with the bully, not them, can help.
* If your child is suffering from anxiety, stress or depression, counselling can help.