Monday, 17 November 2014

Bullying in Scotland 2014 Reserch Survey Findings

I have posted a brief summary of the results of a survey carried out earlier this year - I will be posting a lengthier blog in the not too distant future  discussing the findings in greater depth but for now at least - here is a quick snapshot of what children and young people told us

The research

The primary aim of this piece of research was to obtain a picture of how children and young people are experiencing bullying in Scotland in 2014.

This research was designed to:

·         Identify the types of bullying that is experienced by children and young people.

·         Give a clear picture of where bullying happens and where online and offline/face to face experiences differ or crossover.

·         Identify from children and young people’s own experience what they feel works and what is less helpful.

·         Identify where children and young people go online and what technology they use to get there.


An online questionnaire was designed and tested and distributed to all schools in Scotland in May and June 2014. In total, there were 8310 responses, of which 7839 were useable. Responses came from all over Scotland with all 32 Local Authorities represented. Respondents were aged between 8 and 19 years old. Sixty five per cent were 12 - 14 years old.

This was an open survey and the findings presented here represent only the views of the children who took part.

Three focus groups took place with 45 young people to get a more detailed insight into children and young people’s experiences of bullying – in particular, their thoughts on what happens online and in person, where these two are different and where they crossover.

Key findings


The key findings from the survey are as follows:

  • 30% of children and young people surveyed reported that they have experienced some sort of bullying behaviour between the start of school in August 2013 and June 2014. Of this 30%:

§  49% experienced bullying in person

§  41% experienced bullying both in person and online

§  10% experienced bullying online only.


  • A number of children and young people had more than one experience of bullying. Children and young people surveyed reflected 12,003 experiences of bullying behaviours. Of these experiences: -

§  60% took place in person

§  21% took place both in person and online

§  19% took place online only


  • 92% of children and young people who were bullied knew the person bullying them (91% online and 92% offline). Anonymity therefore may not be what is driving bullying online.

·         Behaviours such as name calling, hurtful comments and spreading rumours that make people feel angry, sad and upset happen both face to face and online.

·         Children and Young people employ a range of strategies to cope with bullying; some are more successful than others.

§  Almost half (48%) of children and young people who are bullied tell their parents.

§  Friends and teachers are also providing support to a high number of children and young people who are bullied.

·         The most successful anti-bullying interventions are embedded within a positive ethos and culture and don’t just focus on individual incidents.

  • Children and young people’s use of technology, especially mobile technology and social media, is woven into their everyday lives.
  • The majority of children and young people (81%) consider their online friends to be all or mostly the same friends they have in real life
  • Children and young people access internet content on mobile devices, such as phones and tablets, more than other devices such as  PC’s or laptops.
  • Google, YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook are the most popular websites and Apps used by children and young people when they go online.


  Next Steps


We will further analyse the data we have collected and use it to help develop effective policy and practice around bullying. The data is likely to help us to address some questions more effectively including: -

·         Given the relatively low proportion of exclusively online bullying, and the similarity of online and offline bullying behaviour, to what extent is a specific response to online bullying needed?

·         What are the appropriate responses to gender specific differences in experiences of bullying?

·         How can we help schools to further develop an anti-bullying ethos? And how can we continue to ensure children and young people are involved and included in this process?

·         How can we continue to support parents to respond when their children tell them about being bullied?

·         How can schools further help children and young people learn from other pupils about the strategies that they have found useful?


Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Bullying and the 'One-off incident'...

One challenge we have faced on several occasions over the years is around perceptions of what a ‘one-off incident’ is and ‘can it be bullying?’

At respectme, we have always stated that behaviour does not need to be persistent for it to be bullying – even though typically bullying may be repetitive, this does not mean it always is or has to be.

It is unhelpful to think of bullying this way and narrows our focus.

The most common response to this approach is that, by our definition, every single one-off incident or argument between young people can now be considered as bullying, and teachers especially are going to have to record every little fall out or cross word that happens.

Saying that something can happen once and it can be bullying is not the same as saying everything that happens once is bullying.

 We never have and never will suggest that two children who fall out over something or who aren’t nice to each other are bullying.  It is reasonable to expect adults to deal with this low level, everyday behaviour by challenging it when they see it, and by role modelling the right way to behave - and there is certainly no need to record that you have done so. Bullying is different.

Bullying is a mixture of behaviour and impact – the impact on a person’s capacity to feel in control of themselves. This is what we term as their sense of ‘agency’. Bullying takes place in the context of relationships; it is behaviour that can make people feel hurt, threatened, frightened and left out.

Nowhere in this is it suggested that falling out or arguing with someone is bullying – children and young people will fall out, they will disagree on who and what is cool, they will bicker with each other and this is part and parcel of children being in social situations. People can argue without it being bullying.

A young person can be threatened and intimidated by other young people on a bus, leaving them feeling humiliated and embarrassed– This only needs to happen once to stop them from getting on that bus again, or being terrified at the thought of it, or re-living the experience and not being able to concentrate in class.

The threat of it happening again is very real; the likelihood of it happening again is also real if that’s the bus they need to get to get to school every day.  Regardless of whether it happened on the last day of school, when all of the people who took part were leaving for good, or whether it was the last time that bus ever ran, or whether the person being bullied is moving to another country the following morning and won’t see these people again, it is still bullying. The behaviour experienced sill stripped someone of their capacity for agency.

If I get humiliated and picked on when changing for PE one day, it could have lasting effects on my participation in it or enjoyment of it.  Do I really need an adult to not take it seriously or consider it bullying because it only happened once?

How do we apply this to behaviour that takes place online? One post seen or read by dozens can have a devastating impact – is it the number of ‘likes’ that make it repetitive? In the playground or on the bus, people can hear nasty and hateful things being said.  Would we consider a story being shared or gossip passed around as repetitive or persistent? It certainly can ensure the impact is greater.

Adults need to have the confidence to deal with behaviour when it happens. How often it happens might make it more serious; it could mean attempted interventions have not been successful and it now requires a more robust response.

Now, I know most adults are capable of responding in this way but I have seen first-hand and heard many times from children, parents and from some senior teachers, that because it only happened once, they couldn’t do anything – their anti-bullying policy said it needs to be repeated.

This very literal take on a policy document is in some ways understandable - that’s what many people do with polices.  The thing is for me, if you need people to apply judgment and discern (and you do) don’t give them a definition that is limiting or reductive. Let them consider what was the behaviour, what impact did it have and what do they need to do about it? It is what you do that matters.

When I ask young people if something that only happens once can be bullying – the overwhelming response is ‘of course it can’.

I have always struggled with the subjective nature of the word ‘persistence’ to be honest – does it simply mean more than once? More than once a week? Or does once a day make it persistent enough to deal with? And also, who decides? My teacher – who has not seen or heard every incident – or me, the person it is happening to? Also, how does my teacher know it is not persistent? They never saw what happened on the way into school or in my last class in another part of the building.

I do understand if people’s motivation to exclude ‘one-off incidents’ from bullying is due to recording and the time this will take up. If what you mean by ‘one-off incidents’ are low level, everyday interactions such as a fall out, an argument or a cross word, then I support that- but then you need to define what you mean by a ‘one–off incident’. Make sure there is a shared understanding of what you mean and what is expected of people as a result.

Your policy needs to be clear that when you say a ‘one-off incident’ that it is not bullying you are talking about but the low level stuff just described. Be clear that you are not excluding certain bullying behaviours because they only happened once.  

Make sure everyone understands repetition or persistence is not a criteria that is to be applied and used to determine if something is bullying or not. If there is not a shared understanding of this, then responses are less likely to be applied consistently and inconsistent responses form part of a culture where bullying is more likely to thrive.

Brian Donnelly

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Children and Young People's Mental Health in Scotland - some context

Apologies for a slightly longer post than usual - this is a copy of the speech I gave to a group of 'Trusted professionals' in Glasgow this week. These professionals provide tailored support to young people in the form of 'Activity Agreements'.  these focus on developing skills, capacities and getting young people into positive destinations. Mental Health was becoming an increasing issue for them and they wanted some input on the context for this work in Scotland - which I was happy to try and provide.

I was asked to come along today to provide an overview of children and young people’s mental health – to give an overview of the context in Scotland – which I will do. I will talk briefly about the national strategy, the national indicators, the curriculum for excellence and GIRFEC.

I was also asked to reflect on approaches or support that can be offered – that is where the conversation expands considerably. There are as many approaches and models as there are diagnosed conditions and they cannot be covered by an input such as this –the truth is the journey of building our own capacity to recognise and respond to mental health issues never ends. Reading, training, workshops, partnerships – these things all build our capacity and that is what I hope to contribute to today.

I am pleased to see children and young people’s mental health is on your agenda and I realise for some – it is new to you and can see why you wanted it be able to reflect on it today.

Understanding mental health is not about you diagnosing ADHD, Bi-Polar disorder or necessarily recognises an eating disorder immediately – but about being comfortable that you have the skills and knowledge to respond and engage with other medical or professional services.

The time you spend with a young person and what you see matters. That’s what the ‘experts’ need to ask or expect from us – to describe how someone behaves - what do they do? – We should not be prevented from contributing because we can’t make a formal diagnosis.

You work with teenagers – not feeling good about themselves, being moody and uncomfortable around adults is their job. Some of the young people you work with from your own data, have additional support needs, have been involved in offending, some will or will have been looked after and some use drugs and alcohol. 

When I read this data – I did think to myself –of course mental health is going to be an issue with the young people you work with!
Care leavers in particular are up to 5 times more likely to have a diagnosed mental health problem when they leave care – this is due to a number of factors -as is the case for most young people who are marginalised or struggling with some of the issues that lead the them needing a service form you.

This includes things like life events, trauma, separation, poor attachments, developmental difficulties that could be genetic too, neglect or parental mental health or illness. These are all things that affect a person’s well-being and can develop into diagnosed mental health conditions or they can exacerbate underlying conditions. These all affect behaviour and can lead to anger, anxiety, self-harm, eating disorders. You deal with behaviour and all behaviour communicates feelings. That’s what we understand best – in my opinion.

This matters in your role as mental health is a major cause of absence at work and to people being unable to work or being stigmatised and discriminated against. We also know that many mental health problems begin and develop in adolescence – they don’t just appear on adults – yet services and legislation are still largely set up that way.

So, to the context for all of this.  The over-arching context that underpins all of what we shall explore next is GIRFEC – Getting It Right for Every Child is something I am sure you are well aware of –this framework for outcomes compliments the Mental Health Strategy for Scotland, The National Indicators for Children and Young People and The Curriculum for Excellence and so on. All of this should in theory ensure all children are safe, happy nurtured and son on.

We have in Scotland a Mental Health Strategy – that runs form 2012 – 2015. This document sets out the Scottish Government's priorities and commitments to improve mental health services and to promote mental wellbeing and prevent mental illness.

These are designed to reflect Government ambitions and National Outcomes so that we can ‘live longer healthier lives’ ‘tackle inequality’  and ‘services are responsive to people’s needs’  - I am not here to cheerlead or bore you with Government rhetoric – I do feel it is important to fully understand the context of our work – High level outcomes Government ambition (Longer healthier lives) directly impact national policy and strategy which impact money and resources and impact on funding and the desired outcomes funders are looking for you to deliver – it is much easier to argue the case to government when you can easily contextualise your work and ambition in the context of their outcome framework – that’s the language they understand.

The Government has a vison that by 2020 (it’s called the 2020 vison) that sees health services delivered in communities with people at the centre – it encourages health promotion and prevention – and that is where most of you sit – making this a reality that doesn’t focus on medical approaches has still to be achieved.

The Mental Health Strategy identifies seven key themes, which emerged from the consultation process

Working more effectively with families and carers

Embedding more peer to peer work and support

Increasing the support for self-management and self-help approaches

Extending the anti-stigma agenda forward to include further work on discrimination

Focusing on the rights of those with mental illness

Developing the outcomes approach to include personal, social and clinical outcomes

Ensuring that we use new technology effectively as a mechanism for providing information and delivering evidence based services

Four Key Change Areas were also identified

Child and Adolescent Mental Health

Rethinking How We Respond to Common Mental Health Problems

Community, Inpatient and Crisis Mental Health Services

Work with Other Services and Populations with Specific Needs

Activity to Support Delivery of the Mental Health Strategy

Again you can see this is very medically focussed and children and young people are one of the 4 areas. I feel that sometimes children and young people are relevant in each of the 4 – you can’t just relate them to adults and then just have children’s mental health as a category all of their own.
The other side of the coin is it is finally recognising a need to focus on children and young people’s mental health and it is an area that requires renewed focus.

One of the aims of the strategy is that children and young people, following a referral for specialist CAMHS treatment get seen within 26 weeks.

A target of 26 weeks for treatment – makes my heart sink but a new one has been set of 14 weeks starting in December of this year. A large amount of the strategy focusses on CAHMS interventions and the CAMHS works force –some of it is moving into community based work and partnerships but it is still largely led by a medical model or a deficit model on mental illness and less on the promotion and prevention.

It is something we should read if children’s mental health matters to us – it clearly does and it shapes the partnerships we can develop and the work done by colleagues.

Part of the on-going work to improve mental health in Scotland was to develop a set of national indicators on mental health – one was developed for adults initially and subsequently one for children and young people – I was on the advisory group for children and young people and it was quite a challenge – doctors, physicians, psychologists, researchers, professors and me! Making up the numbers and representing the voluntary sector social work types.
These indicators were finalised in late 2011 and set out a range of mental health outcomes – things that contribute to mental well-being and to mental health problems and arrange of contextual factors such as family, environment, community, learning environment etc.

This is the graphic that illustrates the framework.

The idea is that data can be measured through surveys, existing research, suicide and hospital statistics and specialist tools such as a Strengths and Difficulties questionnaire to give an overall picture of mental well-being and also mental health problems in Scotland – this is then supported by an analysis of contextual factors through surveys, research and data on the contextual factors, health and behaviour in schools surveys, both national and local ones.

The first analysis of these was completed in 2013 and indicated that children’s mental health has improved or stayed broadly consistent on the last 10 years – it shows contextual factors like alcohol consumption is down but the units consumed by those drinking going up for example.

These trends and data are to be used to influence policy and practice and to challenge and inform media colleagues.

The one other area that contextualises work around mental health is the Curriculum for Excellence – significantly the health and well-being outcomes within this. This is what colleagues in schools will be working within and setting lesson plans etc. around. What is new and positive about the curriculum is traditionally literacy and numeracy were the responsibilities of all – well-being sat with guidance and pastoral care – this is no longer the case – all teachers have a responsibility to include and consider how their work, relationships and lessons impact on health and well-being. It recognises that in order to learn and to and develop confidence requires a focus on our mental well-being – this will not be rocket science or news to any of you but it does radically change the paradigm for colleagues in schools.

It’s no longer good enough for the history teacher to just teach the history curriculum, they have to be tuned into and recognise the things that can impact on a child’s well-being and their learning. They are expected to promote a culture of respect and trust.

I have given inputs to teachers who are just as concerned about what is expected of them as you are – just as concerned that they are worried they will need ot teach lessons or deal directly with the treatment of mental health problems. The message is the same – it’s about being confident to recognise when something isn’t right or a person has changed and knowing where ot go and what to do – who to talk to and where to get help. Signposting and having knowledge of what resources are in your area is vital.

Health and well-being extends to food and nutrition, exercise, relationships as well as feelings, anxiety, fear, and mental health problems. The health and Well-being outcomes that teachers use should address issues such as managing relationships, developing resilience, dealing with difficulties, expressing yourself and getting active.

This graphic highlights the tools colleagues should be using to plan and deliver learning and making sure these outcomes are the focus.

For me, this is the first time education and social work has had a 
similar value based approach to outcomes for children and young people.

So as you can see- there is quite a bit of context for the work you do – I haven’t even drilled into parenting strategies or suicide and self-harm or anti-bullying strategies - that all reflect the same values and ambition. There are many of these that can give you access to more detail on how to respond, what works, what good practice looks like, where to get help – the challenge is to familiarise ourselves with the practice and the policy context that affects us and assimilate this into our work.

You will learn more about dealing with self-harm when you are dealing with self-harm than you can from having a theoretical understanding of it – this can help it can ensure your first response is a more informed one – same with bullying, same with Bi –Polar disorder or depression. Reflective practitioners learn from their experience – we absorb influences, research, books, advice and guidance with our experience and we us all this to formulate plans and approaches to issues.

I think we should be more comfortable at times with the fact we are always learning and always on a journey – not feel we can’t contribute because we are not experts on the minutia of a particular mental health issue- you will be presented with a huge variety of behaviour – there may be some similarities but every child is unique and their issues will be unique to them, where they live, who they live with and where you fit in.

The impact of Mental Health problems

It is important to just reflect on the impact of metal health on children and young people


Discrimination - these can be immobilising – they are still experienced more from close family and friends

Relationships affected – friends can turn away – young people might struggle with how to manage ups and downs – tension can result

Life Chances – you miss school and you get no qualifications – your options are limited –the choices you can make are affected

Employability – it can impact on attendance at work and the stigma can prevent people from gaining work

Drug and Alcohol use – can be a contributor as well as a symptom

Developmental delays – some conditions can result in developmental delays and affect conative functions

Behavioural problems – as a result of not being able to communicate effectively – or feeling the stigma

Physical health – to take part in things like PE, to want to or even be able to –side effects of medication or treatment

Motivation – can’t get out of bed!

These just some of the impacts – I’ve put motivation in as you will work with some young people who for the moment actually can’t get out of bed – they’ve not yet been diagnosed with depression but all the cajoling on the world won’t address what’s going on – threats will have no impact.
You might also be working with someone who can’t get out of bed because they are not used to it and hate getting up – and cajoling and threats might be the order of the day. There is no one answer for things like this except to try and see the whole person and what their behaviour communicates in the broadest sense and to consider mental health when doing this – for some of the people you work with this will be a first.

What we do know is this - A strong relationship with a trusted professional – I don’t just mean the formal role of ‘trusted professional’ but one good positive relationship can make all the difference – there is no shortage of research into brain development in early years – Dr Harry Burns’ stuff is fascinating on how neural pathways are joined up through positive attachments and stimulation and how brain development can be affected by the absence of these – the crucial message he gives, as do many others  is that this ‘damage’ is not beyond repair – adolescents can and do through positive relationships learn to trust , to stretch themselves and grow.
The skills that underpin effective relationships are the ones we use and the ones others need to learn – especially the medical professionals - they have things to learn from you.

As I said at the start of this – it is just not possible to cover the area of children and young people’s mental health fully – if affects every single pat of who they are and what they do

If you are a social worker – you must consider mental health in your work and decisions

If you are a teacher – you must consider mental health in the same way
a youth worker, a classroom assistant, a criminal justice social worker, a foster carer, a residential worker- we don’t always need the ‘expert’ to deal with this aspect of a child’s life

There is no health without mental health - we all have mental health – it will be better at some times than others – we will need different things form the people around us depending who we are – what happened and when.
Our response will be dependent on our levels of resilience – did we have interests out of school, someone who cared and went the extra mile, somewhere we knew we belonged and were helped to learn from our experiences.

This job - this role gives you the chance to be that person for someone who needs it.

Thank you for listening folks – enjoy the rest of today.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Do we really all have to be friends?

The line that gave respectme its name has served us very well over the years and made for a very popular poster and video campaign – ‘You don’t have to like me, agree with me or play with me… but you do have to respect me’. The thinking behind this was the need for a way to describe how we wanted to help children and young people shape the terms for relationships and interactions with peers.

While this sounded quite catchy and lends itself well to a campaign – I always wanted to it have substance – and that is why we always follow this up by exploring what does this statement actually mean or what does it actually feel or look like for children and young people?

It is a nice demand to make of people I know but again, what does it mean. For the most part – it means simply leaving someone alone – you don’t need to connect with them, learn about them, understand them or become friends with them – just let them be.

The example I tend to use when discussing this, relates to an experience I had when my second oldest was at nursery. As reputations were being built and lost around the sandpit I heard the teacher tell the boys and girls who were playing and getting out of hand that ‘they should all be friends and play nicely’. This was of course said with warmth and with the best of intentions but at the time it really got me thinking – ‘’Do they all have to be friends?’ how realistic an expectation is this?

Now, if a bunch of 4 year olds cannot behave around the sandpit we need to intervene and let them know how they should behave but do they all need to be friends? No – should they be expected to play near each other in a civilised way? Yes – perhaps a better response is along the lines of ‘if you are all going to play here together you need to be nicer to each other, no grabbing or shouting and you take turns – that’s one of the rules here’.

That is an easier boundary to set and easier to role model, if you tell them they need to be friends you are setting up an unrealistic expectation that they can’t possible manage – friends with everyone in your class? Are we as adults expected to be friends with everyone we work with? Do we even like everyone we are related to at times? Of course not.

I know for some this is not a huge issue but friendship is one of the first currencies children have to withhold or bargain with – it is a very powerful tool in early years and as such I think we can frame it more effectively. I would rather see a group of P1’s who can get along on different tasks, are respectful of each other and make friends on their terms. This also lets us talk about what it means to be a ‘good friend’ and help them understand that there will always be a wide group of people around them throughout school, some you’ll be friends with. Some you’ll know and say hello to and some you won’t get on with or agree with.

The skills needed to understand and negotiate this will serve them well in life not just school. Anti-bullying agencies get a bit of stick at times because the impression they give is that all they want is for everyone to be nice to each other and in fact this is unrealistic – I think it’s no bad thing to want everyone to be nicer but I agree that it’s not realistic.

What I do believe is that we should be asking children to respect their peers and that can mean a whole range of things. It can include talking and listening to someone and perhaps becoming friends, or it can mean fixing what was once a friendship or it can mean learning to be quiet and not shouting at or about someone you don’t like. I think friendships are vitally important to our children and young people – they rely on them, value them and as they get older, they turn to them for support and comfort - all this message and these campaigns seek to do is to help frame an understanding of what it really means to be friends.  

Learning that it is okay not to like someone, that it’s okay not to agree with them is important - it’s what you do that matters. Not being friends does not have to mean that you are enemies. That is a message I have seen young people benefit from exploring on many occasions.

If you think about it there must be a few people in your life you don’t like, you don’t and never will agree with – you don’t hound and abuse them at every opportunity – you may have learned the hard way that a family Christmas dinner is not the time to get these feelings off your chest. It might be a colleague or your boss – most people learn to use their developed social skills that enables them to work effectively or not fall out with the whole family.

If you pick on, exclude or verbally abuse someone in person or online you don’t like or agree with then that’s the kind of bullying that will cause problems for everyone – if you are able to let them walk by, be online or in the corridor without you responding in some negative way – then everyone will be a lot happier.

We will always respond to bullying more effectively when we focus on what someone actually did and the impact it had. If they behaved in a way that is unacceptable then we focus on their actions and what they should be doing in future.  This will be more effective than trying to fix or reframe a dynamic between two people that might not need ‘fixed’- nor will it ever fit into what we might think a ‘friendship’ is.



Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Resilience - Bullying and Agency

Here is a copy of the speech I will be giving at UWS on 30 may 2014. The conference theme is resilience and I will be making the link to how we define and respond to bullying in terms of agency. It also reflects recent input to PGDE Students in Glasgow this week.

Good morning everyone – I am delighted to have been asked to come along here today and share some thoughts with you and also to hear from some of the other speakers.

I will be talking this morning about bullying and agency, covering the core theory that underpins our anti-bullying work – in terms of how we recognise and how we define bullying.

I will make the link between this and today’s theme, resilience and lastly how this influences our responses to bullying.

respectme is Scotland’s anti-bullying service – we build confidence and capacity in adults to recognise and respond to bullying. We provide training, policy guidance and support as well as campaign and develop resources for parents, children and professionals.


I will not be starting today by offering our definition of bullying, it is only once we explore agency will the definition be worth sharing.

It is vital that we understand that bullying is both behaviour and impact –never always one and not the other. It is itself a relationship between certain behaviours and particular type of impact.

Bullying is not defined by persistence or intent. This is relevant because if you were to look up definitions online and in peer reviewed articles, the vast majority of these will refer to bullying as persistent and deliberate behaviour.

I would argue that these are unhelpful criteria to apply to situations. So much time can be lost trying to apply all the various factors, many of which are entirely subjective.

Let’s look at intent – if you tell me bullying must be deliberate and then accuse me of bullying, what is my first response? -  That I didn’t mean it. Intent is difficult to prove. It can tie situation up in knots and the focus on responding to what someone did and the impact it had is lost.

Schools can waste a lot of time trying to prove intent –I have been involved in examples when intent is denied the adults are stumped.

It’s usually deliberate not always – sometime children use language they hear at home and have no idea of how offensive or inappropriate it is. We should not get caught up in using this as qualifying criteria though – it’s too easily re-framed

Let us now consider persistence – that the behaviour must be repeated before it can be considered bullying – again this is something I do not agree with and neither do most young people have I spoken to. Persistence is difficult to define and also, who defines when it’s persistent enough? Me, the person it is happening to or the intervening adult? Something need only happen once and the impact can be severe; a child may not get on the bus in the morning again or get changed for PE after this.

The fear of repetition can be sustained through looks or perhaps threats or just the fear of it happening again.

These two factors are present in the majority of definitions of bullying across the globe; both of which, we feel here in Scotland are unhelpful. What you do about bullying is actually more important than how you define it.

The questions we need to ask are;

What was the behaviour?

What impact did it have?

What do I need to do about it?

Every situation is unique. You might over hear some name calling in the corridor and discover this is chat between to close friends who are ‘winding’ each other up; it is not part of any power or dominance game.

What was the behaviour? Name calling

What impact did it have? None – made them laugh

What do I need to do about it? Nothing – perhaps remind them about language or being overheard

You may hear the same name calling ten feet further on but the person on the receiving end is upset and embarrassed in front of her peers.

What was the behaviour? Name calling

What impact did it have? Left someone embarrassed and fearful – who ran off

What do I need to do about it? Help this person get back into her routine, listen to how she feels and decide on next steps – you will need to challenge the people who called her names and look at possible consequences too

This does not mean we only focus on the impact behaviour has – this means that if someone shouts a homophobic or racist slur at someone and it bounces off them and they don’t care –this does not mean you do not need to do anything about the language used and the attempt to bully or dominate.

Just as not all attempts to bully are successful, people can feel bullied but not be – it is possible some people over react –you still need to deal with their reaction and their feelings but you might not need to do much about the behaviour – A useful workplace analogy might be a boss saying something as simple as – ‘you’re a bit late today’ and the staff member over-reacts and assumes this is an attempt to exert power and control and may then claim they are feeling bullied. They may panic, become restless, loose sleep and this will have an impact on them but the boss’ behaviour was perfectly legitimate and reasonable. This person needs help to work through their response but they have not been bullied.


So when we look at impact – things like feeling hurt, angry, scared, frightened, that knot in your stomach- what is happening there? What do these reactions say to us?

Young people reflect in  a range of ways that they feel unable to speak out and feel trapped – they draw pictures of themselves in large rooms feeling caged and so on. This learning helped us articulate the notion that bullying actually takes something away from people.

All of these feelings which are regularly articulated reflect a loss of being in-charge of yourself, of being capable of taking effective action, of making choices and of being an effective actor or agent in your own life.


This is where agency came into our thinking. Lister calls agents ‘autonomous, purposeful actors, capable of a degree of choice’

Giddens talks about how we have agency within structures and our agency is utilised when we consciously alter our place in the structure’

Young people get this notion  - as it can be a bit if a head scratcher the first time you hear it - though when you explain a ‘typical day’ of meeting friends, going to school, laughing, joining in and knowing what is happening and how you’ll respond. Bullied children don’t feel that. Someone else is in charge of how they feel, where they go even or how they will participate.

The ‘structures’ this dynamic takes place in is schools and communities. When they can exercise choice in what happens in these ‘structures’, they are utilising their agency.

The ability to negotiate relationships and difficulties is something all children and young people need to learn and develop – it is a life skill many adults still don’t always get right

We learn from our past experiences, from imagining what we would do in future similar situations and what is happening to us now – these elements combine and enable us to make choices and act – this is agency.


Managing change and responding to challenges requires hope, a belief you can handle things - and agency and these underpin resilience.


Bullying is not about just any kind of injury, nor just any negative impact. It involves a particular kind of harm. It is aimed at engendering a kind of helplessness, an inability to act, to do anything. It is an assault on a person’s agency (Sercombe and Donnelly 2012)


It is not even the establishment of dominance. The person bullying is not satisfied with dominance. Bullying involves the attempt to deny another any settled place, even a subordinate one. It goes beyond subjection. In bullying, the goal is abjection

Considering that bullying is both different types of behaviour and a particular impact that re-focusses our understanding of the dynamic - this can re-define bullying in a way that helps practitioners’ responsd to feelings and actions. This  is always more effective than checking off criteria and having uniform sanction based responses.


Bullying is not defined by the type of person who did it either


Care needs to be taken because labelling is not without its risks, labelling a child or young person on the basis of bullying behaviour can result in a confirmed identity as a ‘bully’ or ‘victim’ resulting in ongoing behaviour patterns based on this identity.

This is not to dilute behaviour but is to keep the focus of the adult’s responses on the behaviour that is problematic, rather than the assigning characteristics to those involved. This is a solution focussed approach that is designed to help people change the way they behave, rather than attempt to change who they are. We help people change by telling them and naming the behaviour that is unacceptable, being clear that what they are doing is bullying and that it needs to stop.

It is a fundamental part of behaviour management that we tell people what the behaviour was they did, why it is not acceptable and help them figure out what to do the next time they feel that way – I did get asked recently if not labelling children as ‘bullies’ is gobbledygook at parliament

With this in mind – we offer up a new definition for people to consider

Bullying is a relationship of violence involving practices of domination that strip another person of the capacity for agency, using interventions carrying the sustained threat of harm.(Sercombe and Donnelly 2012)

The actual intervention may not be repeated, but the threat at least needs to be sustained over time. Typically, the threat will be sustained by actions: looks, messages, confrontations or physical interventions.

Lastly, if we can accept that bullying takes something away from people, that they can no longer take effective action our response must focus on helping get that back.

This is the real shift in anti-bullying practice – how do I help someone get back a feeling of being in control of themselves and in a place to take effective action to feel safe and get on with their day?

Things like moving desks or even just excluding people won’t on their own help restore agency – young people must be included in what will happen next and given the chance to steer what direction it goes in. They need to be asked what they would like to happen and we need to take that seriously.

This is not always easy but it must remain our goal with every intervention – to help young people get back to a place where they are in control and can take effective action. Where not all attempts to bully are successful – this can see you continue to challenge people’s behaviour but you may need a lighter response to the young people they are attempting to unsettle.

In reality – what does that look like? What does it sound like? You will need to ask questions like

What would you like to happen?

What do you think will happen if I tell his or her parents?

What will happen if I tell your teacher?

What are you worried about?


Be prepared for them to say

Don’t tell my dad – you will out me to him and I’m not ready for that

I just want you to know what is happening and if I need you I will come and get you

If you talk to his dad he will get a doing/beating and it’ll get worse


So you explore what options they do have and sometimes that means pointing out that you need to do something as not doing anything is dangerous

Open conversations like these promote communication – this promotes positive relationships and they promote and role model problem solving behaviours –these relationships can become stronger and children become more resilient to what is happening because of this strong purposeful relationship – even with just one person.

The process of listening and consciously trying to get back agency – a sense of being on control – won’t always lead to a perfect outcome but it will help the person being bullied


So in conclusion, I would suggest that we have in fact re-framed our approach to and understanding of bullying based on children and young people’s experiences – that this understanding compliments the significant and long standing work on resilience, and on how we promote and enable this in our children and young people.

When we are promoting respectful relationships, when we are building capacity to respond effectively, when we are helping young people learn to negotiate tricky relationships and when involve them we help them to become more resilient.

Brian Donnelly