Bully beef

by Catherine Woulfe / 04 June, 2015
With new research showing bullying can actually change kids’ biology, it’s time for a fresh approach.
Photo/Getty Images

One piece of research tends to get rolled out in discussions about bullying in New Zealand schools. Eight years ago, almost 5000 of our nine- and 10-year-olds sat the well-regarded Trends In International Mathematics and Science Study. As a spin-off, they were asked about their experience of bullying – in the past month, had they been left out by their classmates, made fun of or called names? Had they been hit or hurt by other students, forced to do things they didn’t want to? Had a classmate stolen something of theirs? Three-quarters of the Kiwi kids surveyed said yes to two or more of those questions. That was a shocking finding. Of the 35 countries surveyed, only Tunisia had a worse result, and then only just.

Those kids are finishing high school about now. Statistically, the group who said they were bullied, and those who did the bullying, will have higher rates of depression, drug and alcohol abuse and risky sexual behaviour. They are more likely to have dropped out of school early. More inclined to suicide.

As University of Oxford academic Chris Bonell puts it: “We know that bullying has horrendously bad long-term consequences for mental health.” In New Zealand recently to share his work on combating bullying with the University of Auckland, Bonell points to emerging science that is even more startling: “The evidence is [that bullying] can actually change your biology, which is quite fundamental.”

Over the past few years, researchers have discovered that protein complexes in the brain, called telomeres, might be shortened by early-life stress – such as the experience of bullying or being bullied. These shorter telomeres are now being linked to a range of physical ills later in life, including cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and much earlier mortality. But while the data about the damaging effects of bullying piles up, the way we’re tackling it is much less coherent.

Bonell is a professor of sociology and social policy whose main interest is how schools can affect student well-being. He says “very, very few” of the tactics schools in England use to try to counter bullying are evidence-based. Many may be making the problem worse by failing to recognise lower-level incidents, which tend to snowball into more serious problems. In New Zealand, Bonell’s sense is “it seems like there is good practice here and there, but like the United Kingdom it is not nationally co-ordinated and generally not evaluated”.


Chris Bonell: “We know that bullying has horrendously bad long-term consequences for mental health.” Photo/Tony Nyberg

We’ve got sensible-sounding strategies coming out our ears: Kia Kaha, from the police; the government’s Positive Behaviour for Learning programme; and Cool Schools, via the Peace Foundation, for example. The problem is uptake. In 2012 a Victoria University survey of 860 teachers and principals found that although most of their schools had a “zero tolerance” stance on bullying, fewer than a third were using an anti-bullying programme such as Kia Kaha or Cool Schools. Further, fewer than half of those surveyed had any special training in bullying prevention or attended any workshops on the topic. Many of those who did recall some professional development commented that it was “many moons ago” – a particular worry, the researchers point out, given the recent rise and prevalence of cyberbullying.

The cross-sector Bullying Prevention Advisory Group (BPAG), set up in 2013, sent a comprehensive guide to all schools early last year. But it’s struggling to get much traction: in February the Education Review Office (ERO) reported it had surveyed a representative sample of 129 schools and only 45 were using the guide. A further 75 knew about the guide but weren’t using it (although some planned to) and nine didn’t know it existed. Last month BPAG updated the guide to cover homophobic bullying and cyberbullying. Crucially, it now also urges schools to collect data on bullying incidents, to help give officials and other schools a better picture of what’s really happening – and what works.

So what are New Zealand schools doing about bullying? The Victoria University survey found that many are turning to restorative practices, imported and adapted from those used in the justice system, that focus on building and repairing relationships rather than punishing individuals. Circle time is popular, for example; Bonell says it’s a structured way of touching base: “It’s just when there’s a group of people, going around the circle and talking about how things are in their lives at the moment – how they’re feeling. They identify any early manifestations of bad behaviour or bad feeling between people and nip it in the bud, rather than letting it become toxic.”

If a serious incident does blow up, many schools now use formal restorative meetings rather than a trip to the principal’s office. Say there’s been a fight. “You get the two warring parties together, you might have a parent, you might have social workers, you might have police, but the emphasis is still on ‘what has gone wrong in this relationship, why have we got here and how can we make it better?’ rather than just saying, ‘You’re bad, you’re good, go and have a detention.’”

The approach is now so popular in schools that a randomised controlled trial was recently identified as an urgent priority by the Cochrane Review. Like so many facets of education, the restorative approach to bullying has taken off because it sounds like it should work – not because we know it does.



Bonell and Australian professor Russell Viner are about to find out for sure. They have put together a new restorative, secondary school-based intervention called Inclusive, which a pilot study has shown to be workable and well liked by teachers and students. Now, they’re poised to start a trial. This is medical-grade research happening in schools and Bonell’s excited. But refreshingly, he’s not hell-bent on making the numbers stack up. “We’re not sort of ideologically saying this is the best thing since sliced bread and all schools should do it – we’re evaluators, so we’re sceptical ourselves.”

Often, such interventions don’t behave as expected. The classic example, Bonell says, is Scared Straight, a programme conceived in 1970s America to put kids off a life of crime. “They take kids on a day trip to prison and get them to talk to prisoners, and it does more harm than good because the kids think it’s all quite cool.” Repeated Cochrane reviews have found the programme increases crime by up to 28%.

Bonell points to a major US effort to identify and target students at risk of drug use. “The very act of targeting them appeared to label them and the outcomes were actually worse than if they had not had the intervention at all … It’s very easy for schools to label kids, part of their business is almost labelling kids – putting them in different streams. But you’ve got to be careful with that sort of stuff because it can have very malign consequences, even when that’s not intended.”

A few years ago, Bonell evaluated a British Government programme that was the epitome of good intentions gone wrong: teachers flagged teenage girls at risk of pregnancy and the boys most likely to get them pregnant, and put them together for youth clubs and activities. “And you know, obviously, there’s consequences and some of them might be negative, from doing that.” Girls met boys. The teen pregnancy rate rose. The Government copped a lot of flak but Bonell’s stance is that at least they evaluated it properly, took the results seriously and abandoned the programme before it could do too much harm.

Although this new strategy to curb bullying seems rather more sensible on the face of it, if it doesn’t pan out, Bonell insists, “we’ve got to move on to something else, because this is all too important to just guess what works and what doesn’t”.



So what’s involved? The programme draws heavily on the Gatehouse Project, which is successfully combating bullying in Australian schools. Rather than nagging students into better behaviour or beating them over the head with information, it focuses on changing the culture of schools and making all students feel respected and involved – a goal that New Zealand officials and many of those patchily used programmes are also driving at.

As Bonell says, “The traditional model of trying to understand kids’ health has been that if they engage in something like violence or smoking or even teenage pregnancy, it’s because of a lack of knowledge, or because they’ve got the wrong attitudes.” Now, he says, a large body of research paints a different picture: that children knowingly go off the rails in an effort to build their own identity, using positive or negative “social status markers”.

“When I was a kid at school … part of my identity was bound up in the idea that I was doing well academically and school thought I was good and I was going off to university.” Students who don’t have those positive markers will often seek out negative alternatives, such as smoking a lot, being violent or being head honcho of a rough peer group. “So our view of public health is to disrupt those pathways and to stop kids making quite rational decisions in some ways to engage in health-risk behaviours – bullying being one of them.”

Under the Inclusive programme, this means students – crucially, not just the high achievers who usually wind up on student councils – joining teachers in a school action group. This group runs surveys asking about bullying in the school and meets regularly to decide what to do with that data. They can make new rules and map bullying “hotspots” for staff to keep a better eye on and have a real say in how the school runs. One group in the pilot study lengthened the morning form class, for example, to give students more time to touch base with their “home” class before launching into the long day of learning.

The kids love it, says Bonell. “I’ve done quite a lot of interviews with students and they say things like, ‘This is the first time anyone in this school has made me feel like they’re actually listening to my point of view’ … Particularly some of the kids who are from the tougher backgrounds, who might previously have been in trouble. It really seemed to have quite a transformational effect on their relationship with the school and how they were viewed in the eyes of their peers.”

Restorative practices such as circle time and those more formal, constructive meetings sit alongside curriculum modules. These use techniques from cognitive behavioural therapy to teach students how to better manage their emotions and social situations. Which brings us to that old chestnut: isn’t all this the job of parents? “What we’d argue I suppose is that schools aren’t just exam factories. They are about the kids’ holistic development … I would say that a school’s job isn’t just about educational attainment and interventions like ours shouldn’t be seen as a massive imposition – they should be seen as helping schools undertake their core business.”



In fact, parents don’t play any part in this anti-bullying programme. Schools are free to invite parents to join their action groups if they like, but it’s a mark of Bonell’s devotion to data rather than dogma that he and Viner decided to leave them out of their template. “We thought about it, and the research seems to suggest it’s very difficult to engage parents of secondary school kids in these sorts of interventions. Programmes that have tried to have a parental component have usually not succeeded in delivering that part of the intervention.”

It’s mostly lack of time, he says. Not to mention lots of the kids in the pilot study didn’t want their parents involved. A parent himself, Bonell knows that parents worry about bullying “enormously”. But attitudes seem to have swung from those of his generation, who were told to punch the kid back, to today’s tendency towards cotton wool. “Sometimes parents’ response isn’t necessarily very helpful,” he says tactfully, “because they can make kids feel more of a victim than they actually are.”

The critical relationship that Inclusive is meant to shore up is that between teachers and students. Classroom teachers are trained to “engage students in a more respectful way”, says Bonell – basic stuff like asking open-ended rather than yes/no questions, giving all students a chance to speak and giving them a chance to ask their own questions can help “give everyone a stake in the life of the school”.

To many teachers, this will be an extended lesson in egg sucking. Others might find it a difficult shift – Bonell acknowledges that such culture changes are “very challenging” in some schools, particularly those with a more authoritarian ethos. He also knows that it could be too much to ask of struggling schools already overwhelmed by covering the very basics. The poor get poorer, yet again. “Yep, that’s absolutely right. It’s a catch-22 problem.” At the same time, he hopes that if this programme works it will stop schools reaching that point in the first place.


In two years’ time, Bonell and Viner will have impeccable data showing the impact of this programme. Say it all stacks up beautifully. Will schools actually use it?

The big sticking point in the UK at the moment, says Bonell, is the pressure schools are under to produce league table-worthy results. Five GCSE passes for as many students as possible: that has become “the metric that the head teachers have to hit”, he says, and kids’ well-being often doesn’t get a look in. “They care about it out of the goodness of their hearts, but when push comes to shove, they have to prioritise, and they don’t prioritise health and well-being.”

Similar pressures are playing out in New Zealand schools, which are under the gun to get National Standards and NCEA results up. An ERO report released in February found that of 68 secondary schools surveyed, only 11 were well placed to promote student well-being, while a further 39 had elements of good practice. Eighteen faced “a range of major challenges” and four of those were “overwhelmed”.

The culprit? Testing, testing, testing: the ERO reported, “The key finding from this evaluation was that students in all schools were experiencing a very assessment-driven curriculum and assessment anxiety. Achieving academic success is a part of well-being but it’s not the only factor. Very few schools were responding to this overload by reviewing and changing their curriculum and assessment practices.”

The focus on academic achievement and league tables is unlikely to wane any time soon. On the upside, that means Bonell and Viner know precisely which button to press to get schools interested. “As well as measuring effects on bullying and aggression, we’re also measuring effects on educational attainment. And we’re quietly confident it’ll have a positive effect on that as well … That’s our big hope.”

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