The challenge is that a policy is one thing but policies don’t always play out on the ground. What to do when a problem is systematic but treated as an isolated incident? What to do when the situation is he said, she said? What if children are too scared to speak up, or their parents don’t want any trouble? How can you know what actions to take? Are frightened children supposed to become detectives, with schools insisting on ‘proof’ or refusing to listen.
While it is vital that children should not be unfairly accused of bullying, it’s equally important that those who have experienced bullying are treated as if that experience matters, and that they are being heard. It can also be challenging when an accusation of bullying is turned around and made issue of race, ability, wealth or any other label. Our children need to be taught that it’s not OK to pass the buck, or assign blame to someone else – they need to learn the importance of taking responsibility for actions and their consequences.
Bulllying involves action but it also involves inaction. Who stood up and took a stand, who let bad behaviour go because it wasn’t coming at them? We need to teach children that we can work together to solve problems – and the way in which bullying is handled sends messages to all the children it affects.
One of the most potentially damaging issues is perhaps that of defining children as bullies or victims. It’s rare that any situation is ever truly that simple. Those that bully usually have other problems, at home, with self-confidence, with how they have been taught to address problems. Those who are bullied are made to feel helpless and disempowered. Most of all it’s a system which points fingers at individuals, rather than addressing the systemic problems behind the behaviour in the first place. Given what we’re seeing in the US and UK right now, where politics seems to be defined by blaming others, is that a lesson that we want to teach our children?
There are other ways in which bullying behaviour can be addressed and one of these is to take the idea of restorative justice and support children in solving their problems themselves. As Jenni Newcombe, founder of The MindTrust says, “The restorative justice idea is quite simple: those who have been harmed are able to convey the impact of harm to those responsible; those responsible acknowledge this impact and then take steps to put it right. This sounds simple. In order to used the methods and skills, it is important for those involved to practice (learn) these and to understand the principals for both prevention and for resolution when conflict results in harm.”
The purpose of restorative justice is to provide a practical and effective approach for resolving conflict. It can be used by all members of the school community—it’s not just for children. At the same time, learning the skills and principals of restorative practice are essential tools for life. It is effective in not only helping to mend relationships but also in building respect, improve thinking and problem-solving skills, and to foster effective interpersonal skills. These are all the tools that we should be equipping our children with as human beings, and they should certainly lie at the heart of education.