Professor Donna Cross has studied more than 300,000 students across the country to develop effective anti-bullying programs.
AGGRESSIVE behaviour and cyberbullying on social media is on the rise, making it crucial that students, schools, community groups and Government work together to reduce bullying in the classroom and beyond.
With the deaths of young bully victims like Amy “Dolly” Everett in the spotlight, statistics show suicide as the leading cause of death for Australian children aged between 5 and 17 years.
Professor Donna Cross is an expert in child and adolescent mental health, bullying and cyber bullying prevention, with more than 22 years of research under her belt.
In her work with the Telethon Kids Institute and the Friendly Schools Plus program, Professor Cross has studied the causes, effects and ways to prevent and reduce bullying with involvement of almost 300,000 Australian students.
Professor Cross advocates for a whole school and whole community approach to create supportive environments to reduce bullying.
“Everybody needs to be taking action that discourages bullying,” she said.
“There’s evidence that shows that if a teacher is on duty at recess or lunchtime and they observe two children being aggressive with each other, that aggression will increase more if that teacher, adult or parent does nothing, than it would if there were no adults there at all.”
According to Professor Cross, young people read inaction on the part of adults as condoning the behaviour. When an adult or teacher does react, kids know that’s the threshold point.
“The most effective way to reduce bullying is if the bystanders take action – by supporting the target, seeking adults’ help, showing distaste towards the behaviour, or even messaging the person being bullied to check to see if they are okay; any action that will minimise the harm to the target and demonstrates that they do not agree with the actions being taken by the perpetrator,” she said.
“If a young person doesn’t feel they have enough social status to step in and help somebody who’s being bullied, they can try to distract the person bullying by saying ‘oh come on, let’s go do something else’, to try to reduce the conflict indirectly.”
Taking action is always more effective if the school has a strong anti-bullying culture. This means students standing up to bullying knows there is acceptance or encouragement within the school for that positive behaviour or action from bystanders; an active discouragement of bullying behaviour.
“The most powerful ways to discourage bullying are through peers, and setting a school culture and tone that encourages positive social behaviour,” Professor Cross said.
Research has shown that it’s rare for children to come to an adult for help – around a quarter of girls and 10 per cent of boys.
Professor Cross suggests if a student does approach a teacher for help, teachers need to structure their response around four actions that form the basis of the LATE Model.
LATE Model for teachers
Listen – Thank the student for sharing the information with you, ask open ended questions, use non-invasive communication options such as walk and talk;
Acknowledge the young person’s concerns – using reassuring statements such as ‘It sounds like you are having a tough time’;
Talk about options – so that students feel in control of their own problems. Ask the student what they have tried already and if it has worked for them and what they would like you to do to help them;
End with encouragement – to give the student a feeling of hope and that they could come back and talk some more if needed. It may also be beneficial to follow-up with students at a later date, to ensure the problem has been resolved or to offer further assistance.
LATE can be used by adults and peers to show young people experiencing difficulties that they are being listened to and that they are in control of the situation and what happens next.
“This approach is restorative and empowering, we’re trying to build on the strengths of the young person rather than taking over and encouraging learned helplessness,” Professor Cross said.
“It’s a delicate conversation and teachers need to respect how hard it was for that young person to speak to an adult and to work through a process that empowers that young person and gives them control and agency in the situation.”
“The error we’ve often made in the past is believing that the best action is for parents or teachers to take over and quickly fix the situation. When we talk about children not having enough resilience, or not being able to help themselves, it’s largely because we haven’t trained and supported them to do that.”
Professor Cross advises parents not to just block or ban children from the internet as they also risk blocking children’s learning.
“We often draw analogy with cyber bullying, online environments and digital technology with the way parents think about swimming pools,” she said.
“If parents consider that the technology or online environment is like a swimming pool – you can put a fence around it, filter it or block a child’s use but will the child ever learn to swim properly?
“They need education and support and adults to be more knowledgeable and helpful in understanding digital environments. We all need to make an effort to understand our children’s needs and skills to keep them safe and enhance the positive benefit of online environments.
“Technology is not going to go away, swimming pools are not going to go away – children are going to be swimming at some point in their life.”
While cyberbullying often happens beyond the school yard, Professor Cross said that schools have a responsibility to provide student support if the behaviour is affecting the students’ learning. Schools can approach the e-Safety Commissioner’s office if they feel it’s beyond their capabilities.
“If a child is being bullied about an image online and they don’t know how to get it down the E-Safety Commissioner’s office can help,” Professor Cross said.
Image: Office of the eSafety Commissioner
State Governments are rising to the challenge, introducing a range of initiatives for a whole school community approach to reduce bullying.
South Australian State Liberals have revealed an anti-bullying package which would replace the controversial Safe Schools program with a targeted focus on cyberbullying.
The Andrews Labor Government in Victoria has introduced a $7 million Anti-Bullying and Mental Health Initiative which includes resources and training for schools to help reduce the risk of suicide and manage students’ recovery from bullying.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has also focused on cyberbullying for the new Youth Advisory Council and the Queensland Families and Child Commission (QFCC), and a statewide survey of children will be included in an issues paper the Premier intends to sponsor at the February COAG meeting.
The Queensland Department of Education also coordinates the National Day of Action against Bullying and Violence which this year will be held on 16 March.
The NSW government is also launching a comprehensive initiative to reduce bullying in schools during 2018.
For more information about how your school can get involved visit: www.bullyingnoway.gov.au
For more information on the e-Safety Commissioner visit: www.esafety.gov.au