Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Prejudice-based Bullying and promoting equality

This has been the subject of discussion, policy development and conferences in recent months so I thought I would take some time to reflect on what was being asked and what was being said on these issues. I was genuinely surprised at the lack of knowledge on the Equality Act and on Protected Characteristics – but more on them later!

Probably the best place to start would be with prejudice – to ‘pre-judge’
1. An unfavourable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason.
2. Any preconceived opinion or feeling, either favourable or unfavourable.
So, everyone can be and is likely to have some prejudices – some things we have favourable views towards and some less so. When we act on this prejudice and treat people less favourably, we are discriminating.
Bullying, as has been covered in many of these blogs, is a mixture of behaviour and impact that affect 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.
When this behaviour is motivated by prejudice, we are talking about prejudice-based bullying.
Prejudice will be based on a personal characteristic or a group that someone either belongs to or people believe they belong to or identify with.  So what might these characteristics be? Their gender?  Are they gay? Is it their religion? Do they have a disability? Or is it how they look or what they wear? It can be any of these and more.
So why are some personal characteristics mentioned more than others?
Some personal characteristics are protected within the law – the reason for this is to address the imbalance – to address the years of unfavourable treatment experienced by some groups over the years
The experience of women, of LGBT people, of black people or of people with a disability, has shown that they have received less favourable treatment in many ways over the years – in terms of being picked on, excluded and not having equal access to employment  and education. This was initially responded to through legislation such the Race Relations Act 1976, that ‘outlawed discrimination’ or the Equal Pay Act 1970, that was intended to address the less favourable treatment of women in the workplace. Legislation such as the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, was also intended to address discrimination on gender and married status. These Acts were needed specifically because of the imbalance and  the unfair treatment these groups were clearly receiving.
This has evolved and led to the Equality Act 2010 which is designed to protect people from discrimination in the workplace and the wider community such as in Education or as a consumer. This Act sets out that it is unlawful to discriminate against a person due to the following personal characteristics -
  • age
  • being or becoming a transsexual person
  • being married or in a civil partnership
  • being pregnant or having a child
  • disability
  • race including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin
  • religion, belief or lack of religion/belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation
Based on the historical prejudice and discrimination experienced by people who have these, or are perceived to have these characteristics, they now warrant special protection under the law to address the inequality they experienced. These characteristics are protected and as such are referred to as The Protected Characteristics. Age and being married do not apply in Education.
Public examples of this have been highlighted in the media such as cases where people who refuse a service like a hotel room to same sex couples or build new schools that are inaccessible to wheelchairs, will be in breach of the Equality Act.
I get asked a lot why red hair, wearing glasses or being tall or overweight isn’t a protected characteristic too, people experience bullying for these reasons also.  One of the most common reasons young people cite for bullying is personal appearance –that could be related to the music they like or the income of their parents.
The answer to this is that while people do get picked on and excluded for a variety of reasons, the groups protected under law have clear historical evidence of societal and cultural exclusion and less favourable treatment. It may sound a little glib – but once all of the tall people get together and can reflect on and evidence years of collective exclusion, not getting work, missing out on promotion, being made to take only certain lessons at school like home economics, receiving abuse or suffering violence and intimidation on a collective basis ; then that too may become a legally protected characteristic.
This does not in any way mean that the bullying of a person because of the way they look is less serious or not as important as bullying based on a protected characteristic. The protected characteristics are not designed to create a hierarchy but to help address the imbalance experienced by certain groups. We know from our work that children and young people who are disabled, who are or are perceived to be LGB or T can experience bullying more frequently than other groups – this just means we need to be aware of and be able to challenge what values and prejudice lies behind this behaviour.
We also know that children and young people bully others because they don’t get on or they don’t like each other – we sometimes forget the interpersonal elements of bullying situations. You might not like a person who is gay or a different faith from you but that is not the reason you dislike them – a person is cable of disliking someone and being mean about them without using a personal characteristic, protected or not, as the topic for their insult or behaviour. There is a difference between ‘I can’t stand him he is a pain and he talks rubbish’ and ‘I can’t stand him, he’s a black (insert whatever word/insult here)’.  The latter is a clear example of a prejudice-based statement based on someone’s race or ethnicity.
When respectme helps organisations develop policy and deliver our training we cover prejudice-based bullying and always list characteristics that go beyond those in the Equality Act. Research has informed us that where polices are explicit about what they mean by prejudice-based bullying, where we name specific behaviour they find unacceptable – adults and young people feel more confident to challenge these prejudices and behaviour .
Policies that don’t mention things like homophobia, disability, race or even socio economic status are linked to environments where adults are unsure about challenging certain behaviour and language. This explicit commitment to equality and challenging inequality is clearly linked to better practice in dealing with and preventing prejudiced-based bullying.
Schools, services or clubs that are clear that they will challenge homophobia, that they will challenge bullying based on disability, race or ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, transgender status, religion and belief, socio economic status, appearance, if children are Looked After, are young carers or are refugees or their families are asylum seekers, will be creating environments that value difference and set out clear expectations about what behaviour is acceptable and what is not. Adults can then be held accountable to this as can children and young people.
This though presents a further challenge for the grown-ups. Are you confident to challenge prejudice? All prejudices or just the ones you object to? Confidently challenging some prejudice will be easy for many people – our own values and those of our chosen profession are compatible and we have the knowledge and passion to challenge and educate. Some of us need to get better informed on some areas – help is available form a range of agencies if you want to learn more about asylum seekers or migrants, about transgender people or a particular disability.
We normally learn more about things when we need to. When we are presented with behaviour or attitudes we don’t know much about, we go and find out about the issue to be better informed – the desire to do this is underpinned by values of fairness and equality. So what about the people whose personal values are perhaps not as ‘in-step’ as others?
You may well work or have worked beside someone who is misogynistic, who says racist things, is sectarian perhaps and this only appears on nights out or in the staff room or on social media.
I do find myself saying to colleagues that we are not the thought police – we cannot tell people what to think or that they are not allowed an opinion – what we can do is hold people accountable to the legal and ethical boundaries of their role or profession.  The reality is if a person is even a little prejudiced towards things like equal marriage, Syrian Refugees or women being as good as men at their job - this will be evident in how they challenge these prejudices.   If adults have these prejudices they will not effectively challenge behaviour because it conflicts with their values.
Our values underpin what we do and they will always make themselves evident – some people are good at telling you what their values are at interviews but not so good at showing these when they hear certain language.  They will say thing like ‘You are not allowed to say things like that here’ or ‘someone might find that offensive’ or actually say and do nothing because they agree with what is being said. When prejudiced language or bullying challenges your values – you will challenge it with passion and clarity, and people will believe you.
Inequality is a huge issue for society – we are addressing historical and cultural issues and responsibility for this rests with people at all levels – not just those who work with our children and young people.
So what can I do?
While these are huge cultural issues we can, as individuals and organisations, give children and young people a better experience, a different experience that values them, one that challenges inequality and involves them in setting the culture and ethos in places they go. When some of us talk about equality; we talk about treating everyone the same or the need to. For me, as a practitioner equality has always meant that I have a duty to challenge inequality.
The training I received helped me view my role as someone who is, for example, anti-racist – not simply ‘not racist’. I commit to challenging racism and racist language. I will challenge homophobia or practices that promote gender inequality and so on. This is what we can all do. On my shift, in my classroom, I will challenge prejudice and value individuals. The walls in our club or class, the activities we do, will clearly value diversity and we will learn about difference and respect. 
We won’t achieve this by starting off from a point where we treat everyone the same – our goal is to achieve equity first and we need to address the imbalance -

Creating environments such as these and role modelling how to challenge prejudice and promote what makes people different, and to learn to accept this, is exactly what we sign up for if we work with or even have children.


Friday, 24 April 2015

Looking for your vote for our campaign...


We’re delighted to announce that our anti-bullying campaign, ‘Before you give advice, get some’, is a finalist in the Cracking Campaign category of the SCVO Charity Awards 2015!

Bullying causes an understandably emotional reaction.  Very often we don’t know what to do or say and sometimes, despite our good intentions, we can give unhelpful advice.  This campaign is designed to make adults stop and think about their response, and signposts them to practical advice, which can help them explore different options.


As well as being a finalist, our campaign is also entered into the People’s Choice Award.  We’d be delighted if you could show your support and vote for us here  Voting closes on Friday 8 May and winners will be announced on 4 June.


Many thanks in advance!

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

To our international readers...

Hi folks

I waned to take a moment to ask some of the international readers of the blog to get in touch.

The last year has seen an increase in readers from The Phillipines, Russia, The US and across Asia.

I am curious and keen to connect with readers and find out a little about how they came across the blog and if they found it useful at all.

If you can, please take a couple of minutes to get in touch - would live to hear from you



Wednesday, 7 January 2015

What do we mean by bullying?

This blog summarises and improves on a couple of the speeches I have made on this issue lately - I hope you find it useful.

What do we mean by bullying?

There have been many different definitions and theories about what constitutes bullying, but it’s not helpful to define bullying purely in terms of behaviour, bullying is both behaviour and impact.

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)

Bullying is a mixture of behaviours and impacts which can 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.

 This behaviour can include:  

• Being called names, teased, put down or threatened

• Being hit, tripped, pushed or kicked

• Having belongings taken or damaged

• Being ignored, left out or having rumours spread about you

• Receiving abusive messages on social media or phone

• Behaviour which makes people feel like they are not in control of themselves

• Being targeted because of who you are or who you are perceived to be

This behaviour can harm people physically or emotionally and, although the actual behaviour may not be repeated, the threat may be sustained over time, typically by actions: looks, messages, confrontations, physical interventions, or the fear of these. Bullying is both behaviour and impact.

Online bullying

Online bullying, or Cyberbullying, is often the same type of behaviour but it takes place online, usually on social networking sites. A person can be called names, threatened or have rumours spread about them and this can (like other behaviors) happen in person and can happen online.

Advances in technology are simply providing an alternative means of reaching people – where malicious messages were once written on school books or toilet walls, they can now be sent via social media sites on mobile devices making their reach greater, more immediate and much harder to remove or erase.

Some online behaviour is illegal. Children and young people need to be made aware of the far-reaching consequences of posting inappropriate or harmful content on forums, websites, social networking platforms, etc.  If a child or young person is being treated or threatened in a sexual way or being pressured into doing something that they don’t want to do, this is not bullying.  There are laws to protect children from this very serious type of behaviour.

Persistence and Intent
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.
We would argue that these are unhelpful criteria to apply to all situations. So much time can be lost trying to apply a range of situational factors, many of which are in fact subjective. Many incidents of bullying will include deliberate and repeated behaviour but these are not in our view, essential criteria to define bullying. 

Making these an essential criteria to be met excludes a significant amount of incidents of bullying that are not deliberate or necessarily repetitive.  We know from our work with children and young people , that bullying takes many forms and something need only happen once to have a severe impact.

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 and do not know how to proceed. We must look at what someone actually did and the impact it had. If it wasn’t deliberate then they may be in a position to apologise or make amends sooner – of it was it may merit a more serious response.

Bullying is usually deliberate but 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 we do not agree with and neither do most young people we have spoken to. Persistence is difficult to define and also, is it more than once? twice? daily? weekly? Who defines when it’s persistent enough to intervene? 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 changed for PE after one incident were they were picked on, humiliated or threatened.
Is being humiliated by having your shorts pulled down in front of a class with 15 people laughing and pointing, some possibly taking a picture, bullying? Of course it is, is it repetitive? It doesn’t matter, we focus on the behaviour and the impact it had.
The fear of repetition can be sustained through looks or perhaps threats or just the fear of it happening again.

What you do about bullying is actually more important than how you define it.

We respond by asking;

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. Just because a person is not affected does not mean the behaviour they experienced should be ignored.

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 the experienced – it could have been a harmless comment not aimed at them but they have assumed it was and got into a terrible state over it.

Focussing our response

Bullying and Agency

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 tell us?

Young people have reflected to us over the years in a range of ways that they feel unable to speak out and feel trapped when bullied – 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.

When we use our agency, we have a degree of choice over what we do and how we respond within structures like families, communities and schools.

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 most children and young people recognise this day. Bullied children don’t have the same kind of day. Someone else is in charge of how they feel, where they go even or how they will participate in certain things, if they get on the bus or eat alone. They cannot exercise the same choice nor have the same autonomy as when they were not being bullied.

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.

If we re-visit the quote -

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)

- we can see bullying is not even the establishment of dominance. The person bullying is not satisfied with dominance. Bullying can involve the attempt to deny another any settled place, even a subordinate one. It goes beyond subjection. In bullying, the goal is abjection
What does this mean for how we respond?

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

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


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 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.

All of this promotes respectful relationships, this approach builds a young person’s capacity to respond more effectively, when we are helping young people learn to negotiate tricky relationships and when we involve them in finding solutions and repairing those that can be fixed, we help them to become more resilient.

Brian Donnelly