Getting beat up about Bullying

We have read this week about our Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reflecting on his experiences as a young boy at boarding school dealing with physical harassment. His revelations come as ground-breaking research shows school bullies cost victims, their families and the Australian taxpayers $2.4 billion in lost productivity and health expenses across the life of every graduating year group. Part of those costs include high school staff who spend 20 hours a week dealing with bullying issues and incidents.

Bullying is a big issue. Dealing with bullying is complex and expensive!

Young people can behave poorly. They can struggle to deal with the complexities of their lives, they handle insecurities, injustice, loss, grief, embarrassment, fear and envy sometimes without distinction. So do we adults. The difference is that we tap into wisdom and past experience and have greater control, usually parents can be a bit more measured and sensible. Younger people catastrophise situations and regularly tap into those behaviours and actions like revenge and envy, especially made more sinister and far-reaching by the advent of social media.

Chucking a program or two at the problem is not the answer, nor is a black and white military approach. Schools can adopt restorative justice methods but they do not work in isolation of other factors.

I would like to give a rationale and explanation of what happens at St John’s Grammar. Does bullying occur at this School? Not much. Does it happen outside of school? Yes a little more. Do young people at school treat others poorly at times, by being rude, exclusive, thoughtless and selfish? Absolutely. We can play with the definition of bullying but in essence it is targeted, persistent harassment by a person (or persons) on another, who finds themselves in a less powerful position. At St John’s Grammar we have a zero tolerance of this situation and if a student bullies then we work to exclude them from our School community. Sounds straightforward but it often is not, in that the relationship between the students involved deteriorates because of the actions of both of them and is usually exacerbated by third parties! This is tough for the kids, the staff and the poor parents who are watching the ill-effects of the nastiness that endures. Fortunately this does not happen very often in our School. The modest treatment of others does not feature prominently on our grounds either but that, in a way, makes it harder to cope with because it happens inconsistently!

At St John’s Grammar our focus on relationships, bullying and wellbeing is in three parts.

  • The School believes in explicitly teaching emotional and social development to all students. This is not a tokenistic gesture which might involve the odd lesson in health here and there but rather a comprehensive, coherent, well considered program that is as extensive as any other key learning area in the School. We have expert teachers taking this on as well.
  • The School works extremely hard in developing a caring and supportive culture. We demand that students live beyond themselves, play and work together to build that all important empathy and understanding which then leads to a willingness to include and embrace difference.
  • The School sees every dispute, conflict and situation as a learning experience. There has to be a capacity that allows young people to grow, to learn from their mistakes. This means we correct and educate rather than deter through punishment, knowing that if you see out the journey at this School, each and every young person that leaves our gates does so a terrific version of themselves.

At St John’s Grammar we have an appetite for improvement. It is one thing to say we are doing all of these things but I think it is also important for our community to know that we are always aiming to do things better.

However, there is one area that I would like to develop that I think has not been considered enough in the past and that is the support we can provide our parents. They do it tough when it comes to dealing with bullying and poor behaviour. As a parent I am with you on this. Those times when we have come home from work to find your son or daughter upset about the past day, rocked by some ordinary treatment at the hands of other students. It’s heartbreaking. You tend to want to burst into school, blame others and seek revenge and justice! The catastrophe of the situation makes us consider other schools! It seems easier to run away from the problem.  These are the exact behaviours that get our kids in to trouble in the first place. One of the issues for parents is the loss of control and power. We can not instantly fix the problem.

Creating a regular opportunity for parents to talk about these issues and best parenting practice is so helpful. Hearing about what parents have done that has worked, gaining that valuable insight into the issue rather than inferring that school life is an absolute disaster for your child is another outcome of these gatherings. Being able to vent, to share in the solution, to hear from experts in the field of relationships and to truly understand the restorative processes happening at school would help all parents keep a rational, less emotive and more measured approach. It also provides a great deal of hope that a better day is just around the corner. It helps parents adjust their mindsets and go from negative thinking to a more proactive, positive set of supporting strategies.

It took me a while as a parent to adjust. That first rough day, followed by a few more really rocks your boat. You find your little one in the corner of her room, huddled, crying! As a parent you can go from zero to ten very quickly but I soon adopted a mindset that each experience like that was an opportunity to learn and grow. Sure, it was wrong what was happening, and I reported disputes to the staff at the School and was pleased in the way it was sensitively handled. However my role was not to drag out every minute detail and add fire to the storm. Rather every night I de-briefed and asked questions about what my daughter could control and what positive influence she could bring to the table. There was reassurance of not being right (and how things are so unfair) but more-so a quest to try and do the right thing in each situation. Being the better version of yourself, creating self-awareness and interpreting the conflict as it truly was and not a major war super-laced with silly inferences and ‘they all hate me’ statements. I learnt about the parent de-brief from another parent!

Shortly I am hosting a series of coffee mornings, with a catchy title Q&MrA (I will think of something better!) which represent exactly the sort of interactive opportunities that will help our passionate parents in these difficult relationship situations. Added to the agenda are opportunities to not just focus on the social, emotional side of schooling but all aspects of life here. It will be a case of drop off the kids at school, stay for a brewed coffee (and the odd muffin or croissant if you dare) and join a structured Q&A…all done so that you can get to work that day on time!  The purpose is to stay upbeat rather than beat up, and our budding, future Prime Ministers of Australia will only have positive stories to share about their schooling experience!

Richard Anderson