Friday, 29 April 2016

Bullying and Self-Esteem

I have been talking a lot to colleagues about this issue and felt it might be an interesting issue to put out here for some discussion. I will kick off by stating my personal position: we have got this wrong for years. The linking of people who bully to low self-esteem and a belief that improving children’s self-esteem when they have been bullied is all we need to do, is taking us down the wrong path.

The focus and almost universal acceptance of self-esteem as the singular capacity we all need in order to have better lives and experiences doesn’t ever really stand up to scrutiny. So what is self-esteem?

Definitions tend to cover the following –

How you feel about yourself — your self-worth or your pride or confidence in yourself; A person's overall sense of self-worth or personal value that involves beliefs about the self, such as the appraisal of one's own appearance, beliefs, emotions, and behaviours.

We have for years seemed to accept that we must make sure nothing we do ‘damages’ a child’s self-esteem. From the mythically ridiculous beliefs that awards for excellence in participation and non-competitive sports days will help our children and young people flourish, to some genuinely helpful learning, like being able to identify and talk about how you feel.

People who bully have low self-esteem’. This is a generalisation, it can sometimes be the case but a lot of children who bully possess very high self-esteem, they feel great about themselves, are confident in how they feel and look to the point they can identify and target others. It is a truly unhelpful generalisation to suggest children who bully are secretly all cowards who have low self-esteem and are scared of the people they bully. Some are of course but most are not. When we start to believe the stereotypes we then ignore people who are bullying because they don’t fit in with how we think they should look or act. Children who bully need to have their behaviour challenged, their prejudices challenged and their values and beliefs that what they are doing is okay challenged.

Do we ever talk of ways to help lower self-esteem in children? ‘Oh that child is far too confident and thinks they are the bee’s knees, they need brought down a peg or two’. Now I am not suggesting some adults don’t think like that but it’s definitely not in the self-esteem workbook. So could a focus on improving self-esteem of some children who bully really do anything other than make them worse? Or does this lead to the absurd notion that they can perhaps get bullied a bit to lower their self-esteem to the required level for acceptable social functioning? I am not suggesting this but merely that our approach to self-esteem is a one way street.

‘Bullying can cause low self-esteem’.  Of course it can, being bullied can make you feel terrible about yourself, it can affect your confidence, and how you see yourself. If you are bullied it will impact on the self-esteem you have, high or low. Bullying affects your agency, your ability to feel in control and make choices – we need to help restore that feeling, you need this whether you have high or low self-esteem.

The challenge is when we focus solely on self-esteem as the answer to or the cause of bullying. Trying only things we believe will improve a child’s self-esteem might not work. Telling a bullied child they are wonderful and the person picking on them is just horrible and envious of who they are can satisfy how we feel as adults but does little for the person being bullied. It’s not focussing on solutions.

Involving them in what they want to happen, exploring ways to manage these risks and to take steps to feel better and identify the ways they want to cope and respond is far more effective. They will be learning great life skills, learning how to manage relationships and difficulties. A focus on trying to make sure all our children and young people have high and/or improved self-esteem will not make them immune to bullying. They need to know how to respond, to explore choices and find ways to cope that they can have control over.

This improves their resilience and it might improve how they feel about themselves but they may still go through life with low self-esteem. They may still not boast about their skills and wonderfulness and may continue to underplay any achievements and take a while to get to know people, but that might be just fine for them. This is not a deficit that always needs corrected.

A few years ago I spoke at a school awards ceremony and genuinely struggled with what to say to a bunch of 14 year olds and their parents and grandparents. Some would feel bored, some would feel awesome and some might not have had anyone there to celebrate their achievements with. Everyone gets something though! No one leaves without an award of some description. So after a bit of thinking I decided to go for the message I have always believed in since I was a teenager and also one that has helped me through work and study as an adult.

I said ‘There will always someone who is infinitely better at something than you are, at playing the guitar, at singing, or at English, Maths or football. As good as you are, and it is good to be good at something, it is great to excel at things but if you can accept someone somewhere will be a bit faster, a bit smarter or just a bit better - you will do just fine’. I encouraged them not to judge their own success by what others achieve but by how hard they worked. This input actually went down quite well with the children and young people but with many parents and especially their grandparents.

For some pupils getting a B in English is a huge achievement, they have made sacrifices, worked as hard as possible, overturned challenges and that B signifies a developing growth mind-set, the beginning of a new belief that they can achieve things through hard work.  It is a success. They may sit next to someone who has always got an A, will always get an A and it seems to come naturally to them. These pupils should not be judged against each other or one simply gets more praise for the higher mark, it’s the effort we must praise. The pupil with the A might have low self-esteem, they might be quiet and withdrawn and would never tell anyone that they think they are great at anything but they listen, they study hard and do well.

This is not about making these pupils ‘feel better’ about themselves, nor is it about improving their self-esteem. There is research that shows quite clearly there is no link between high self-esteem and academic achievement. In fact very high self-esteem has been shown to be a barrier to achievement in later life as these people find criticism harder to take and cannot reflect that they may have done poorly. I would always at this stage direct people to Jean Twenge’s wonderful book ’Generation Me’ to look at her extensive research and wonderful discussion of the impact this has had over the last 30 years.

There are two examples I use a lot from popular culture that I think highlight where we have ended up in relation to self-esteem as the be all and end all.

The first is X factor. It is an easy target I know and I have enjoyed watching it at times as much as the next person, although not for a few years to be fair! . I know it makes great car crash telly but what is interesting is the mantra given out by the judges and contestants and crucially by their families that ‘if you believe it and follow your dream and you can do it’ How much do you want this?’ ‘I want this so bad and will do anything to get it, I will work so hard, and I am passionate and desperate’ ‘I want to make my mum proud’.

Yes, but can you sing?’ would be my response. You can want it all day, you can feel entitled to it, inspired by people, desperate for success and fame and fortune as a singer but if you cannot sing a note, you won’t win it. There is real devastation on the faces of contestants who sing as badly as I do which if I may quote Billy Connelly, is ‘like a goose farting in the fog’.  The disbelief on their mums faces while wearing a t-shirt with their child’s face on it saying ‘X Factor champion 2015’. A parent who has always said they were a ‘wonderful singer and could easily win the X Factor with a voice like that’ has seen some people genuinely unable to accept the critique that they sang badly. They assume the problem is the judges not spotting the brilliance and potential their mum has seen.

I am a parent of three and I am guilty of not wanting to do anything that makes them feel bad, it is a perfectly natural thing to want to do but if I felt any one of my children was in fact a terrible singer, I am not sure I would go along or even encourage a televised audition! All in the hope that encouraging them to believe in themselves would improve their self-esteem and they could be immune or less susceptible to negative experiences. I’m just setting them up for life to give them a few slaps in the face.

The other is from Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City

The most exciting, challenging and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself’ and also she has reminded us ‘Don’t forget to fall in love with yourself first.

I remember at the time watching this and feeling ‘what a dreadful line’ I had discussed a few times at home that I though the character of Carrie is, well ‘a bit selfish’ and of course should have kept Aidan rather than Big but that’s not the point here – the advice given appears just so self-centred. It is ‘me first then I can cope with others’. I think that if people do feel like this they may never be truly ‘happy’ or feel their self-esteem is at the required level. How about focusing on how other people feel? Or seeing things from their point of view? Be challenged on things or help people who it more, and then you need might find that relationships aren’t as difficult as you might have thought.

The point if all this, I suppose is, that the focus on self-esteem and indeed on the ‘self’ may actually contribute a lack of empathy, a lack of compassion or in some cases the belief that all we have to do is try things we are told ‘improve your self-esteem’ and all will be well. It is possible to go through life with low-self-esteem and excel, to lead your field academically, or in music or arts or just in your own house. Low self-esteem doesn’t mean you lack ability or competence; you just frame these things differently and for some, they may decide to give some things up early as a result or for others they may persevere and work harder because they are self-critical.

None of this negates the impact of bullying; it can and does have significant long-term impacts on people and how they feel about themselves and their ability to trust or sustain relationships. All I want to do is reframe it a little and move the focus away from the self and onto teaching empathy and compassion. Our job is to help our children to develop the skills they need to manage relationships and to deal with adversity. A focus on making everyone feel great about themselves is unfair on those who go through life a bit doubtful and self-critical and it implies they are in a deficit of some sort. It can imply that all the really successful happy people in the world have high self-esteem, or that it is a pre-requisite of success. This just oversimplifies who we are and the way we relate to each other.

All children and young people need adults who love them and who thinks they are wonderful, someone who accepts them and is there for them. We do this because we need love, praise and recognition to develop properly and not get lost on trying to imbibe a false or misleading sense of who you are and what you need to be like to be happy and safe or that if you do have lower self-esteem you are somehow immediately at a disadvantage.


Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Anti-Bullying Policy - a journey

Everyone’s favourite thing I know but developing an anti-bullying policy is a crucial step for us all – it is vital if we want to create environments where bullying cannot thrive. Environments where bullying does not thrive are known for the quality of the relationships on show, they are known for being inclusive and safe and  they listen. This does not happen by accident, there will be effective leaders in these places, valued staff, children and young people. There will be shared aims and an understanding of what it means to go there – to be a part of it.

Part of what builds a shared understanding and shared vision is that it is written down and explained, it is shared and understood. It sets the boundaries, ethical and professional, for how people are expected to relate to each other and allows us to hold each other accountable. Places where the tone and mood is set by one powerful individual can be effective but a top down approach which relies on unwritten rules, presents challenges for new faces as well as for those who may not be entirely in step.

I like to explain culture as ‘the way things are done here’.  I want my children to go to a school where they value difference, where they care about the pupils, where they role model good relationships and listen to the pupils. Not a culture based on fear or a domineering Head or a Unit Manager and their acolytes. I have worked in places like this and one of the only ways I could hold colleagues appointable and start to influence change was to include and reference what polices we were supposed to be operating within.
I know many roll their eyes at the thought of policy and, given some of what we have to read and assimilate at times, it’s an understandable response. When we are looking at responding to bullying and, crucially, creating an environment where bullying cannot thrive, we need a written commitment to how we should expect people to behave.

In places where the culture is ‘Well, we all know how to behave and we all know what bullying is’ I ask, ‘How do you know and are you sure everyone thinks the same way?’ In the absence of a written statement that states ‘this is what we mean by bullying here is how you should be treated’ people remain free to interpret behaviour themselves and decide if they feel a response is warranted.
We know from experience that this is way too subjective and people’s own values and prejudices influence this hugely. If you think bullying is ok and didn’t do you any harm, you won’t respond effectively, if you think being gay is wrong, you can’t actually respond effectively to homophobia. If you think online bullying is nothing to do with you then you won’t be able to help anyone deal with it when it is happening to them.  This is why we need  policies, they are not the answer but they are a part of the answer.
Based on the work we have been doing at respectme for the last nine years, around developing and influencing policy, we have found effective ways to ensure policies are better understood; they are co-produced with stakeholders, especially with children and young people. There is no legal requirement in Scotland for schools to have an anti-bullying policy, but it is  good practice and those who regulate and inspect you will expect to see one.

But we know that employing a ‘scatter gun’ approach to policy development does not work, by this I mean working with any one school at a time. There is no evidence to suggest this is an effective way to improve practice across the country, instead we get very patchy and inconsistent anti-bullying practice.  At respectme we help develop policies at an organisational level, these are then cascaded locally to ensure a more consistent picture and a greater reach.

In Scotland we have a National Approach to Anti-Bullying, which sets out the Government’s expectations. A revised version of this will be launched  this year and it will be called 'Respect for All'. respectme has influenced this a great deal and our experience of developing and implementing policy has been central to this. I will describe the rationale for the process first rather than just what you need to put in a policy.
Our approach is to support organisations and local authorities to develop anti-bullying polices that are in step with the National Approach. This means they are underpinned by the same values of fairness, inclusion and equality, and there is a consistent definition of bullying and consistent guidance on what to do when bullying happens. It means that your local authority, school and sports club should have the same definition and use the same language when talking about and when you are challenging bullying.

The 2011 evaluation of respectme highlighted that adults and young people having a shared language and understanding on bullying was critical to success and in creating environments where bullying cannot thrive. respectme  helps an organisation or a local authority to develop a strategic overarching anti-bullying policy that is cascaded to each individual service, club or school within it.

We advise on and support a process of collaboration; getting the views of children and young people, parents, adult’s, staff and volunteers. This way the policy does not just appear out of the blue and it can be launched in the knowledge that the right people were asked and included.

Experience has also shown that the most effective way to integrate this into local practice, the most effective way to ensure individual schools, clubs or service have a good and well understood policy, is for them to take the organisational one and develop their own one locally.

This policy will be underpinned by the same values, definition and crucially it will mirror the process of collaborating with children and young people, parents and staff. This should lead to a shorter local policy that starts by referencing the organisational or local authority policy. This allows schools to say, ‘Glasgow City Council states.. and at Bellahouston Academy we do this…’ or ‘Aberdeen City Council sates... and at St Mary’s our pupil council said ... about bullying.’ This is taking national policy and making it relevant locally. If every school just put a copy of the local authority policy on the shelf, there would be no ownership of it, no journey embarked upon where local issues and local parents got involved and this approach is far less likely to be successful.
This is not about doubling the workload but ensuring a very robust policy framework is in place to help those being bullied and to support those who are dealing with it. So in Scotland we would expect to see an individual school, service or club with an anti-bullying policy that is developed to reflect the organisational or local authority one. respectme will help ensure the local authority or organisational policy reflects the National Approach.

This means that in practice an individual badminton club, primary school or football club can have a policy that shares the values and principles of the organisation they are part of or that governs them. That organisation should have a policy that reflects the National Approach. This consistent language and framework should benefit children and young people, their parents and cares and those who work with them. Everyone gets the same message.
So when a parent asks for the schools policy, they should get the individual school policy but also see the local authority one, as this will give greater detail on what they can expect and what routes to take. It isn’t one or the other, best practice is both. If you are a local club not part of an organisation, you governing body, such a Sport Scotland will have a policy to reference, if you are even more local and not part of this set up, you should still use the National Approach as a guide for your policy – this will ensure it is in step with the policies the same children and young people will experience at school or other places.

All of this is designed to ensure that policy is more consistent at every level, local, organisational and strategic.

There are some things you need to put in you policy whether you are an organisation, a youth club  or a school and one of these is a commitment to challenging prejudice-based bullying. Every single policy must be explicit about the Equality Act 2010 and each of the protected characteristics.  This has been covered in other blogs on this site. We know from the research we did for the EHRC that where policies explicitly mention things like homophobia biphobia and transphobia, racism, gender-based prejudice etc.  staff feel more confident to respond to this type of behaviour when they see it. The policy gives them permission to challenge and discuss these issues and crucially, raises an expectation that they will challenge prejudice-based bullying.

There was also evidence to suggest that establishments where their policy does not mention specific types of prejudice-based bullying ,  practice is not as good and both staff and children and young people felt less confidence about dealing with this kind of bullying.
Policy is a journey, a values based journey to share understanding of what bullying is and what is expected of everyone involved what behaviour you can expect and how you can expect people to respond. It gives us a framework for anti-bullying practice and something we can and should be held accountable to.

So don’t be put off, get it right, make it inclusive and that in iself is a big part of developing environments where bullying cannot thrive, why would we not do that?

For more information on what goes in your policy, visits

This is designed to illustrate the process and context for anti-bullying policies at every level and how we can ensure consistency in overarching values and principles from a Government level to an individual school or youth club level.