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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Ask Amanda: Why aren't they DOING something?

by Amanda Gray

It is a question that has been asked me by parents a number of times. It comes in different forms. But basically each question is getting at the same idea: "Why isn't the school/teacher stepping in and stopping the bullying?"

This is a tricky question, and for each family/school there is probably a different answer. But here are some things to think about if you are a parent (or teacher) who feels a school (or teacher) should be doing more about a bullying situation.

1. The problem of definition

If you ask five different people what they think bullying is, you will probably get five different answers. Their answer will probably depend on:
  • their own experience with bullying (which may lead them to be over- or under- sensitive to conflict and bullying)
  • their beliefs about resilience ("she should get over it")
  • their beliefs about independence ("he needs to learn to deal with it himself")
Even if we have policies that list bullying behaviour and identify procedures for dealing with these, it cannot answer questions like:
  • How often do you have to be teased before it becomes "bullying"?
  • When does meddling with someone's property move from being a practical joke to bullying?
  • When is refusing to play with someone bullying, rather than childhood conflict?
Policies can do their best to address these issues, but the difficulty lies in the dynamic nature of behaviour. It is not until you really know the individuals being bullied that you can accurately identify bullying.

In the words of Findley (2006):
"Being human, our thoughts, instincts and opinions often influence our decision making. This can be a problem, particularly when it comes to responding to bullying. What you think is trivial, may in fact be causing severe distress to the victim, and what you think is serious, may in fact be having little impact, or causing not distress at all. Bullying is determined by the impact it is having on the victim." (p16)
If you want more on this discussion, visit The Learn to be Buddies Series Blog.

2. The difference in perspective

It is a natural thing that parents and teachers have different perspectives. You might call it the difference between an individual vs global perspective, or an intimate vs professional perspective (Coleman, 1998).

So parents will see the impact certain actions have on their child in a different way than the school does. Here are some ways the perspective can differ:
  • At home the child may cry themselves to sleep, at school (when asked) they might shrug the situation off (perhaps not wanting to be seen as weak in front of peers)
  • Difficult behaviour may be seen at school as... well, difficult behaviour. Whereas at home, the parent, intimately knowing their child, may recognise it as a sign of distress.
So even if parents and teachers see the same signs, the interpretation can be different.

It is perhaps true that no parent wants to see their child unhappy, or having social difficulties. However, a professional view may be that social conflict is a necessary and healthy part of developing social and emotional intelligence (Rigby, 2002). Parents and teachers/schools may have a different perspective on where the line is between unhappiness caused by social conflict, and distress warranting adult intervention.

There is also the added factor of the school/teacher caring for many, whilst the parent is caring for few.


Schools will act when they judge that the behaviour that is occuring fits the criteria of "bullying". Further, their actions will be determined by interpretation of educational policies, and procedures in place to protect both the "bully" and the "victim". Further, teachers will act according to their individual philosophies and interpretation of policies as guided by the school leadership.

The ethos or social context of the school will be important. As West-Burnham, Farrar and Otero (2007) state, "some schools are better at being schools than others." (p19) Policies play a part in this, but so do the attitudes and philosophies of the school leadership.

It is also important to note that schools will act most strongly on tangible evidence. What they can observe, what they know. So for parents and children, it is most important to continually gather and record evidence of harm, whether emotional or physical. The stronger the evidence, the more likely the school will act - though these actions will always need to adhere to the policies of the school and Education Department. And the school will always need to listen to both sides of the story.

On the other hand, a parent's expectations will be shaped by their interpretation and perspective on their child's social interaction and development. If this differs from the school or teacher's perspective, then it is likely that the school will not be acting as strongly or promptly as a parent might like.

For this reason, parents have an important role as advocates for their child. Parents will know their child as an individual better than the teacher or school.

Schools that work best are those that listen to, and work with, parents - always with the proviso that they must work within the "rules" and guidelines of the education system.

This month I want to explore the working relationship between teachers/schools and parents. I want to find out what works, and what doesn't, and practical ideas to improve relationships between school and home.


Coleman, P. (1998). Parent, Student and Teacher Collaboration: The Power of Three. Paul Chapman Publishing: London.

Findley, I. (2006). Responsibility: Beating bullying in Australian schools. ACER press: Camberwell.

Rigby, K. (2002). New Perspectives on Bullying. Jessica Kingsley Publishers: London.

West-Burnham, J., Farrar, M., and Otero, G. (2007). Schools and Communities: Working together to transform children's lives. Network Continuum Education: London.



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