Friday, 4 July 2008

A case study for dealing with bullying?

I worked for some years as an advocate, and give intermittent guest lectures at the local university on using feminist ideas to inform advocacy and other social services work. Because complaints of bullying, abuse and harassment formed a large part of my advocacy work, I spend a lot of time considering them in lectures. Using the power and control wheel (featured in my last post), I argued that these different ways of mistreating others have something in common: they are all forms of violence which, as Stargazer aptly puts it, weary the souls of those who are mistreated.

Despite all these great insights into bullying from feminist thinkers, I suspected that when my own children faced it, I would want to kill the bullies with my bare hands. But when my daughter M., then only five, was bullied by an older kid in her class, I couldn't look at the other girl with the anger I felt for the girls who bullied me at school some twenty years ago. The bully, I., had been harassing various kids in her class, but was particularly targeting M. I arrived at school to pick M. up one afternoon, and when she cleared her belongings from her cubby, she found a note from I. containing various swear words and telling M. that I. didn't like her. I. was standing by, waiting to see M's reaction when she found the note. M. immediately burst into tears, and I. scampered away. It was a deliberately cruel act in an escalating campaign of bullying. When my little precious daughter told me in tears, 'I. hates me', it broke my heart.

M's school take an excellent approach to bullying, and were very proactive. Both M's teacher and the principal had been monitoring the situation for some time, and keeping M's dad and I informed. They told me they would speak to I's carers, her mother and grandparents, and did so as soon as they were able. I found myself comforting M., and unsure what to do. I reassured her that she was a great kid, and much loved. We talked about why I. might be behaving in this way. I explained that I. had a lot of unhappiness in her life – dad in prison, mum in and out of prison and hospital – and that kids sometimes behave badly when they're unhappy. I reiterated that it's not the fault of the bullied person. M. seemed to accept this, and we talked about things she could do in future if I. bullied her or someone else. I. had got herself into a vicious circle at this point. Her bad behaviour alienated her from the other kids, and she spent a lot of time feeling lonely and angry, which made her behaviour ever worse.

Having done that much, I wasn't sure what to do next. I've seen anti-bullying programmes which coach bullied kids to be confident, thus making them less likely to be targeted. I find this an inadequate response: it doesn’t stop the bullying behaviour, but simply transfers it to some new victim. As a family, we talked about the situation with I., and decided we would try to support I and her family – although we had no idea how! M's teacher continued to give me daily updates, and about a week later, she was able to tell me that I. had treated M. reasonably well that day. I sought I. out at school, and gave her some praise. From that point, I. became my little shadow. Each day when I appeared at the school gates, she had new tales of something she'd made or accomplished, or some good deed she'd done.

My family became friendly with I's, and it turned out that her grandparents – absolutely fantastic people – were having trouble coping with I. because of their age and health. They were getting some respite care for I. paid for by the state, but it wasn't enough. After talking with M., we started having I. over to play. Each time, we started out by talking about good and bad behaviour, and what we could do to avoid having problems or getting into arguments. There were lots of hugs for good behaviour.

It wasn't quite as fairytale-ish as it might sound. If I had a dollar for every tantrum, expletive, or moment of naughtiness I. has come out with, I'd be contemplating early retirement. But her behaviour has improved vastly and she's doing well at school. Much of the credit for this goes to the school. The school has a really strong ethical code, and has put in hours and hours and hours monitoring I., observing her behaviour and giving her encouragement and praise when due, and taking the appropriate actions when I. has reverted to bullying behaviour, which she does less and less often. Actions taken against I. have never been punitive in intention, but have been about protecting other kids and getting I. to understand the consequences of her actions; for example, she's been asked to write letters of apology, or (during a particularly bad patch of behaviour when her mum was very ill) she had to spend her lunchtimes apart from other kids. She's learned a lot about social behaviour, and shows a great deal more understanding of other people's feelings. Best still, the school kept us in the loop, as people with an interest in I's welfare. They'd let us know how she was getting on, what encouragement we might give I. that could be helpful, and how we could be consistent with what they and I's grandparents were doing to support good behaviour. When we got discouraged, the school gave us moral support too. The upshot is that I. is part of our family now. She gives me grey hairs, but I love her nonetheless. We are her respite carers for the school holidays to give her grandparents a break, and both I. and M. are learning from each other's company about how to live alongside different people from all walks of life.

Ok – this is all a bit 'To Sir With Love'. In a lot of cases, parents/carers don’t want to hear about their kids' bad behaviour, schools don't give a toss or don't have the resources to help out like ours has, and parents of bullied kids may not know about the bullying or may quite understandably be too involved in helping their own kids through to worry about bullies. Still, I think the moral of the story is clear: bullying is not some inevitable fact of life that we all just have to get used to, and the efforts of a proactive and ethical school can do a world of good.


Nikki (Mother of the Devil Child) said...

Oh Anna, that was an awesome story and if more people could take the initiative as you and your family have done, then our schools would be much lovelier places.

And while M. might have struggled with it at times, she will also be absorbing your reaction to the situation and might some day be able to replicate the approach you have taken. Or at least apply the values displayed.

I only hope that if I encounter a situation like you have been through that it works out as well as yours. (Not that hope has anything to do with it!) :)

stargazer said...

anna, i salute you. what an amazingly brilliant response.

Anna McM said...

Thanks guys - but I really do have to emphasise that nothing good could have happened without the school, which provided the foundation for a 'collective response' to I. If only every school was so on to it...