Play your part in eliminating bullying

PETER HUGHES
Last updated 11:07 24/06/2014

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OPINION: The Secretary for Education, PETER HUGHES, details steps being taken to tackle bullying in schools.

When I was growing up, bullying at school was a fact of life, almost a rite of passage. If you complained about it, you were told to toughen up.

I saw some pretty terrible things done to other children, and I know for a fact those things had a lasting impact on those lives.

It's good that today we don't accept that any more. It's good that today, parents listen to their children when they complain of being hurt or humiliated.

But we still have a long way to go before we eliminate bullying - from our schools, and from our culture.

The Press recently editorialised about the debate about allegations of bullying at a Christchurch school, and called for prompt action when schools do become aware of bullying. From our information on this issue, we believe the school is handling the problem appropriately.

We agree schools need to take quick action on bullying. It's obvious children who are scared or hurt can't learn well.

The problem of bullying in schools is one I've become increasingly concerned about, which is why last year I brought together a range of education and social sector leaders to set up the Bullying Prevention Advisory Group. I wanted to get some knowledgeable people together so we could give more support to schools to deal with the difficult issues surrounding bullying.

The group has written a how-to guide on preventing bullying and dealing with bullying complaints. That guide has recently gone out to all schools.

It's a mark of the importance with which bullying is now viewed that the Children's Commissioner Russell Wills, the Chief Human Rights Commissioner David Rutherford and senior representatives of principals, teachers, school trustees, police and NetSafe all saw this as a high priority and joined our advisory group.

The guide helps schools put in place policies and practices to address bullying. It advises that all incidents should be treated as serious. Schools are also encouraged to promote a "safe telling" culture in which students can report all bullying through confidential reporting. Parents, teachers and students should be involved in developing bullying prevention policies.

All bullying needs to be dealt with - whether inside or outside the classroom. Another measure that our working group suggests is students be surveyed on how safe they feel.

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Their responses can then be used to work on improvements. The guide also advises schools to teach staff to recognise and to respond to bullying, and shows them how to go about that.

Schools need to know at what point bullying is so severe that they need to seek advice from outside the school, for example from police, Child, Youth and Family or from NetSafe on cyber-bullying. They'll find that advice in this handbook.

As every parent knows, the internet is a new frontier where children and young people can be subjected to aggression. Schools are increasingly developing policies to deal with this challenge. One approach that is helpful is for classes to develop "class contracts" with students that include agreements on appropriate behaviour online and on cellphones, including outside school time.

As part of our bullying prevention work, I have asked Patrick Walsh, representing secondary principals, to chair a cyberbullying group drawing up a plan for schools on this issue. They will be particularly focusing on how schools deal with the issues of search and confiscation of student property such as mobile phones and digital devices. The group began its work in February.

A key part of the bullying picture is the school culture, and that's where another programme is playing a role in more and more schools. More than 500 schools are using the Positive Behaviour For Learning programme, an initiative that focuses on treating difficult and aggressive behaviour by students in constructive ways. One of its insights is that schools benefit from consciously putting energy into fostering a positive climate. That includes providing opportunities for kids to be caring and helpful towards each other.

Many schools have found the programme reduces bullying. At Naenae Primary School in Hutt City, principal Murray Booten has spoken of how bullying used to be a serious problem at the school. "We've gone from a situation where children were looking over their shoulder to see who was going to get them next, to now, where we have very few incidences of bad behaviour," he has said. "Staff and students are happier and the school's reputation has improved."

With the help of the initiative, students at Naenae Primary set up a friendship squad so everyone has a friend and joins in games. And, during lunch breaks, the school opened its library and set up sports and art activities so students were busier.

By 2017, more than 800 schools are expected to be using this positive behaviour programme with their students.

However these initiatives are just first steps. There are no quick fixes here. And there is much work still to do. Bullying is not something the ministry and schools can fix by themselves. It's also about parents and communities noticing when something is wrong, and taking responsibility for doing what they can do.

If we all play our part, we have a good chance of fixing it and of preventing the lifelong damage that bullying inflicts.

ACTION PLAN

If you're worried about bullying at school, the ministry advises the following:

Talk to your school, either a teacher, the principal or a parent representative on the board of trustees.

Taking a problem solving approach with the school usually works best.

Check the ministry's website page, Is my child being bullied?

minedu.govt.nz/ Parents/AllAges/UsefulInformation/IsMyChildBeingBullied.aspx

- The Press

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