Q: Last week I was called into the school and told that my nine-year-old daughter was involved in bullying another girl. I was shocked as this came out of the blue. What seems to have happened is one girl in the class has fallen out with my daughter and a few of her friends. Now the other girl has no friends and the teachers say my daughter and her friends have been excluding her and leaving her out all the time. My daughter more or less told me this when I asked her about it. She was upset that the teachers were blaming her for it, when she says it was the other girl who didn’t want to play with them.
It struck me that it all seems to be more of a friendship dispute rather than bullying and that the school might be over reacting. I know the other girl might be unhappy but it is unfair to label my daughter a bully. Also, I don’t know what they are expecting. I told my daughter to keep away from this girl and not to call her names, but I don’t think they can expect them to be friends especially now after this has happened. What do you think I should do?
A: Bullying behaviours such as exclusion or intimidation are common in primary schools with over 40 per cent of children reporting having experienced or having been involved in bullying at some point in school. Bullying behaviours tend to be expressed and experienced differently by boys and girls. Girls are more likely to engage in relational bullying such as exclusion, talking negatively about a child to others, or the silent treatment, etc, whereas boys are more likely to engage in physical bullying such as name calling/slagging, intimidation and aggression.
However, bullying is also a complex issue that may not be as straightforward as it initially seems. While one child might be very hurt by being excluded by a group in her class because she feels isolated and dependent on these friends, another girl who has other friends in the classroom may not feel upset and can easily just let the situation blow over.
Or while one child may be deeply hurt by slagging and teasing, another might have a set of assertive replies and gives as good as he gets in a row. Equally, a child who is engaging in teasing another child may not know the impact of their behaviour and not realise the upset it causes the other child.
In addition, frequently it is not clear in some situations who is a “bully” and who is a “victim” and many children who engage in bullying behaviour do so because they have been “victims” of these behaviours themselves in the past.
Dealing with an alleged bullying incident is a sensitive issue that requires delicate handling and a balanced response in schools.
On the one hand you want to address a specific child’s unhappiness who might be the “victim” of bullying but on the other you need to take into account the needs of the alleged “bully” who can be damaged by any allegations.
Publicly, calling a young child a bully can be as damaging to them as some of the bullying behaviours that may have been perpetrated. In addition, such labelling can lead to a child being defensive and may not be effective in changing a situation for the better, especially if they are going to continue to share the classroom with the other child.
As bullying is such an emotive issue, in many situations it is best to avoid using the label and instead to concentrate on helping children learn to resolve disputes in a respectful way, while promoting friendship and inclusion in the school as a whole.
In your own situation, it does sound that following on from a falling out of friendship your daughter may have been involved in excluding the other girl, though she might not have realised the impact of her behaviour.
The fact that it was a group of children who were doing the excluding would have made it much harder for the other girl and made her much more isolated and this is something else your daughter may not have realised.
Rather than thinking your daughter is either a “bully” or “guiltless” or even a “victim” herself in this situation, it is important to help her think through her actions and to understand their impact on others.
You can talk to her about the dangers of cliques in schools and how easy it is to exclude someone.
It is of course important to hear her side of the story of how the friendship ended and to appreciate her feelings, but you want her to appreciate also how the other child might feel and to take responsibility for her actions.
You can’t know at this stage whether it is possible (or even desirable) for your daughter to return to being a friend with the other girl – this is for them to work out in the future. Either way you can emphasise the importance of continuing to be friendly and the importance of including people.
By having this conversation you give your daughter an opportunity to develop her empathy for others, to learn the skills of getting on with others and to think through the values of friendship.
In dealing with the school’s response, I would suggest that you try to be constructive and to work with them to resolve the issue. Keep focused on the specifics of the situation and avoid on any emotive language.
While it is important to present your daughter’s side of the story, it is important to take into account the upset of the other girl and then to think about solutions and ways forward.
Many of the solutions are in the remit of the school – managing the sub-groups in the classroom, doing teaching inputs on communication and friendship, etc.
For your part, you can say you have spoken to your daughter, have encouraged her to take responsibility for her part of the problem and will encourage her to be part of a solution.
The ideal is to manage the situation in as “low a key” manner as possible, to learn from what has happened and then to move on and put it behind you.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, April 2012. John writes in The Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.