Engagement, School Community

Improving School Climate to Reduce Bullying

There seems to be no shortage of bad news about bullying in Canada these days. In the fall of 2011, for example, two suicides – one in Montreal and the other in Ottawa – were attributed to incessant bullying endured by the two high school students.[1] These extreme effects of bullying are only the tip of a very large iceberg. We know, for example, that nearly all children and youth witness bullying at one time or another, and many – about half– are directly involved in bullying sometime during a given school year. Most worrisome, however, are the children and youth who are involved in bullying – as a bully, a victim, or both – regularly and frequently, meaning once or more times a week. This group includes nearly 20 percent of students – one in every five kids in nearly every school. This means that many kids’ lives are being disrupted and scarred by bullying.

Bullying harms kids in nearly every way imaginable. Minimally, it disrupts their learning, as kids who are victimized tend to avoid school through absence in order to avoid the bullying. The stress of bullying causes them to suffer anxiety and depression, and it undermines their feelings of safety and connection to school, both of which are foundational to the learning process. Because many kids who bully other children are also victimized themselves, these effects are often found in all of the children involved, victimized and bullying alike. Additionally, some recent research indicates that children who witness bullying are also at risk for serious negative effects, including school disengagement, school avoidance, and, consequently, lower academic achievement.

While this portrait seems bleak, and bullying remains a serious and intractable problem in our schools, there are nonetheless reasons to be optimistic for the future. Many educators now feel a strong professional obligation to stop bullying, and schools, school boards, and education ministries are using resources and policy to begin to address the problem.

We are fortunate in Canada to have PREVNet (Promoting Relationships and Preventing Violence Network; see www.prevnet.ca), an organization that brings together leading bullying researchers with community and professional organizations devoted to the cause of bullying prevention. One of PREVNet’s goals is to change the way Canadians think about bullying. When the idea of bullying as a social problem first started to seep into the public consciousness in the 1980s, there was considerable focus on questions like, “What makes a bully or victim, and what do we need to do to change them?” Consequently, responses often were aimed at the kids directly involved, typically in the form of support for victims and punishment for bullies. PREVNet has pushed our thinking forward by arguing that bullying “is a relationship problem that requires relationship solutions.”[2] This new way of thinking about bullying highlights the complex and powerful relationship dynamics that underpin bullying. It also helps explain why children and youth can get trapped into relationship roles (as a victim and/or bully) from which they have much difficulty extricating themselves. And it provides a compelling rationale for the important role that adults – educators, parents, and community leaders – have in intervening in bullying situations and helping all of the children involved to learn better ways of relating to each other.

A relational understanding of bullying also connects directly to the growing appreciation of the role of the social climate within schools and its connection to bullying. School climate is a complex concept that has been researched for many decades but still remains widely misunderstood. Jonathan Cohen and his colleagues (2009) provide a comprehensive review of the school climate concept, defining it at the most general level as the “quality and character of school life”.[3] They break the concept down into four broad dimensions:

  1. Safety: physical, social, and emotional safety
  2. Teaching and learning: quality instruction; social, ethical, and academic learning; leadership; professional development
  3. Relationships: positive relationships across the school community; respect for diversity; open communication and collaboration; engagement in and connectedness to school
  4. Environment: clean, well-maintained school; adequate space and resources

Research over many decades has confirmed that these aspects of school climate exert a strong influence on the experiences of students, teachers, and staff within the school. For example, positive school climate promotes positive self-esteem and self-concept in students. It is also vital to their academic learning. Students in schools with positive climates are absent less frequently, feel a strong connection to their school, and consequently get better grades. Not surprisingly, teachers also benefit from a positive climate. The collaborative and engaging intellectual environment that is part of a positive climate improves teachers’ practice. Teachers in positive schools are more satisfied with their careers and likely to remain longer in the same schools than teachers in schools with negative climates.

Researchers have examined the link between school climate and bullying, and the trend in the findings is quite clear. Schools with negative climates tend to have more bullying problems than schools with positive climates.

In recent years, researchers have examined the link between school climate and bullying, and the trend in the findings is quite clear. Schools with negative climates tend to have more bullying problems than schools with positive climates. Researchers have not yet determined exactly why this occurs, but it is safe to say that some sequences of events ultimately leading to bullying originate in the school climate. For example, studies suggest that positive climate fosters in children an attachment to their school. Children who are strongly attached to their school feel, essentially, that their teachers help, support, and protect them as needed. When these students get messages that discourage bullying and promote positive values from the staff, they are inclined to listen and accept them. Students with a weak attachment to their school, on the other hand, are inclined to reject these messages. Ultimately this trickles down to the kids’ behaviour in the playground, corridor, and school bus; those who have internalized the school’s messages are less likely to bully and more likely to do something constructive to stop bullying when they see it happening.

A recent study from the U.S. points to another explanation for the link between climate and bullying.[4] This study discovered that students in schools with poor climates were less likely to tell a teacher or principal if they knew a peer was planning something dangerous that would hurt others because they feared that telling would get them into trouble. In short, they did not trust their teachers to effectively resolve the situation while looking out for them at the same time. These findings have important implications for schools wanting to improve their climates and reduce bullying. Students who lack trust in their teachers and principals will not confide in them and not report bullying incidents to them. Consequently, the bullying will grow and fester beneath a cloak of silence, and the adults and many bystanders who should be acting to end bullying will never be mobilized to do so. (It must be said that there are likely more explanations for the link between climate and bullying than I cover here.)

How to avert this downward spiral? I have argued elsewhere about the value of using the principles of restorative justice to inform teachers’ responses to bullying incidents, and I will summarize them here.[5] I believe this approach is not only effective in dealing with specific incidents when they arise, but can go a long way in fostering the development of a positive climate within a classroom and a school. A restorative approach is based on the premise that social order (i.e., good behaviour) is an important goal. But unlike punitive approaches, restorative practices achieve this goal by supporting children who act out, bully, and otherwise harm their peers. In a restorative approach, relationships – more than individuals’ behaviours – are the main foci of concern, and discussions revolve around how relationships are harmed through bullying rather than who broke what rules. Ultimately, restorative practices aim to hold children who hurt others accountable for their actions through meaningful consequences that restore damaged relationships, repair hurt feelings, and re-integrate these children into the social group. There are formal procedures in the restorative approach that I do not cover here; these require training, and many schools and school boards across Canada have sought or are seeking this training. Instead, I provide an informal procedure – a list of questions – that can guide educators in the process of working through incidents with students.

Restorative practices aim to hold children who hurt others accountable for their actions through meaningful consequences that restore damaged relationships, repair hurt feelings, and re-integrate these children into the social group.

1. What has happened? The teacher should ask those involved what happened, fleshing out the details of the events and seeking clarification when necessary with each of the students. Differing perspectives lead children (and teachers, as well) to perceive the same events in different ways, so teachers should not be put off or unduly suspicious when they get different stories from the children involved. When all accounts have been offered, the teacher can negotiate with the children a reasonable account of the events. It is critical that the teacher listen with curiosity to all sides of the story and work hard to understand what the students are telling her.

2. What were you thinking and feeling when this occurred? This question is useful in exploring the circumstances surrounding the bullying. While we are often (and correctly) compelled to focus on the bullying child’s behaviour and the victimized child’s feelings, it is important to also explore the bullying child’s feelings and the victimized child’s behaviour in the incident. This can create opportunities for promoting personal accountability and responsibility, so that children learn that others do not “make them do it.” This line of dialogue will also illuminate more appropriate ways for children to express the feelings that may be played out in the bullying behaviour.

3. Who has been affected and how has it affected them? This question encourages teachers to consider the impacts of the bullying on other children and even the teacher herself. Direct effects of bullying are relatively easy to observe or to uncover with appropriate questioning: who was involved and how were they hurt? There may also be indirect effects of bullying on witnesses. For example, some may become uncomfortable in the classroom with the bullying child present or nearby. These effects are usually less obvious and only emerge with additional probing. A complete understanding of these impacts is essential for deciding the most effective ways for the bullying child to make amends. Additionally, by exploring these effects, the teacher helps bullying children learn the true impact of their hurtful behaviour.

4. How can the harm be rectified? One of the key elements of restorative justice is the necessity to set right the wrongs that have been committed. This is a critical step to restoring relationships and re-integrating bullying children into the social group of the class. This necessarily requires input from those hurt in the incident. Amends can be made in any number of ways, and the key consideration is that the perpetrator and victims concur that the consequences will facilitate healing. These could involve writing a letter of apology to the victimized children, replacing stolen or broken possessions, providing a service to the classroom or school community, among many other possible options. The key considerations are that the consequences be meaningful to the children and that they have their intended effect: to promote accountability without further marginalizing any of the children involved.

There is little doubt that the public’s expectations of teachers and school officials regarding bullying have increased substantially in recent years, a fact reflected in recent legislative and regulatory changes across Canada. Today’s schools are undoubtedly complex systems to navigate. I would submit, though, that underneath these changes the bedrock on which great teaching is founded has not changed. That bedrock is relationships. Great teachers build trusting, warm, and caring relationships with all of their students, notwithstanding the challenges this can sometimes pose, and lead them toward academic and social success. And if there is a world without bullying in our future, it will mostly likely reflect those kinds of relationships.

EN BREF – L’intimidation fait du tort aux enfants de presque toutes les façons imaginables, perturbant leur apprentissage, causant de l’anxiété et des dépressions et minant leur sentiment de sécurité et leur rapport à l’école. Fondées sur les relations, les nouvelles connaissances à propos de l’intimidation découlent directement d’une conscience croissante du rôle du climat social à l’école et de ses liens avec l’intimidation. Lorsque les réactions du personnel enseignant aux incidents d’intimidation sont guidées par des principes de justice réparatrice, elles sont non seulement efficaces pour les régler, mais elles peuvent faire beaucoup pour engendrer un climat positif dans une classe et dans une école. Contrairement aux approches punitives, les pratiques réparatrices réalisent l’objectif de soutenir les enfants qui se comportent mal, qui intimident ou qui font du tort à leurs pairs. Elles visent à responsabiliser les enfants qui font du mal à d’autres en leur donnant des conséquences signifiantes qui restaurent des liens endommagés, réparent les blessures morales, tout en favorisant la réintégration des élèves au groupe social.

[1] CBC News, Bullying Blamed for Quebec Teen’s Suicide (2011). Retrieved on April 5, 2012 from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/story/2011/11/30/teen-suicide-bullying.html; CBC News, Gay Ottawa Teen who Killed Himself was Bullied (2011). Retrieved on April 5, 2012 from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/story/2011/10/18/ottawa-teen-suicide-father.html

[2] PREVNet, Bullying: Definitions (2011). Retrieved on April 5, 2012 from http://www. prevnet.ca/BullyingResources/ResourcesForEveryone/tabid/392/Default.aspx

[3] J. Cohen, E. M. McCabe, N. M. Michelli, and T. Pickeral, “School Climate: Research, Policy, Practice, and Education,” Teachers College Record 111 (2009): 180-213.

[4] A. K. Syvertsen, C. A. Flanagan, and M. D. Stout, “Code of Silence: Students’ Perceptions of School Climate and Willingness to Intervene in a Peer’s Dangerous Plan,” Journal of Educational Psychology 101 (2009): 219–232.

[5] J. D. Smith, “Promoting a Positive School Climate: Restorative Practices for the Classroom,” in An International Perspective on Understanding and Addressing Bullying (PREVNet Series, Vol. 1), eds. D. Pepler, and W. Craig (Toronto: PREVNet, 2008).

Meet the Expert(s)

David Smith

David Smith, Ph.D., is Professor of counselling at the Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa. His research centres on the bullying prevention programs and school climate. 

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