Our Founder, Dana Kerford, was interviewed in 2018 on the topic of bullying for the Sydney Morning Herald. Here is the interview with journalist and author, Kasey Edwards:
Australian schools have the dubious honour of having one of the highest reported rates of bullying in the world. By some estimates, one in four students experience regular bullying.
Governments have implemented anti-bullying programs, schools write policies, and parents are vigilant, yet we appear unable to solve the bullying problem.
“Bullying” has taken on a life of its own.
Perhaps it’s time for a re-think.
According to Canadian friendship skills expert and founder of URSTRONG Dana Kerford, Australia’s approach to bullying is wrong. For starters, we need to lose the term “bullying”.
“The word ‘bullying’ is so misused and misunderstood, even among parents and teachers. The word has taken on a life of its own, and it’s confusing for children,” says Kerford who is currently on an extended stay in Australia, working with teachers, parents and students.
For behaviour to be “bullying” it must be intentional, repetitive and potentially harmful. Accidently hurting someone is not bullying. Not liking your friend’s new haircut is not bullying. Having a disagreement, or not wanting to play with someone aren’t bullying. But this level of nuance can be difficult for children to understand.
To help kids identify bullying, Kerford suggests calling it “mean-on-purpose behaviour”. Anyone can understand what that means and can easily spot it.
The other problem with the term “bullying” is that it’s stigmatising.
“I absolutely do not believe that a little kid who’s learning these skills should be labelled a ‘bully’. They just haven’t learned to manage those really big feelings and emotions that they have inside in a healthy way yet.”
Kerford says that she’s seeing a reactionary and punitive response to bullying in Australia, such as tougher consequences for bullies and “say no to bullying” days.
“Having somebody come into a school and tell the story about how they’ve been bullied in their lives, and how they rose above it is inspirational, but that doesn’t give children anything they can use,” says Kerford.
“Instead we should focus on teaching kids practical skills-based strategies for how to manage and stand up to mean-on-purpose behaviour.”
Kerford says when kids start standing up to such behaviour they are not only learning to treat themselves with respect but they also deter the kids who are being mean-on-purpose from doing it again.
“Self-governance starts to happen in schools when children can effectively resolve their own conflicts, make good choices around who they’re playing with, and stand up to mean-on-purpose behaviour. We get this culture of harmony and kindness and respect and teachers can have their lunches and recesses back”.
The early signs of this new approach are promising. In 2012, Perth College implemented URSTRONG’s skills-based approach to empower students to deal with their own friendship issues. The school has subsequently seen improvement in the resilience in the students. Staff are also reporting that they now spend less time dealing with conflicts between students as the girls deal with conflict themselves.
“The girls consistently report low bullying scores across the year groups we assess (Year 3 to Year 12),” says Deb Perich, director of the program at Perth College.
“This approach works because the girls have a toolkit to use when they are faced with a challenge, whether it be normal conflict or a “mean on purpose” incident. They have simple skills to perform in these situations and they have practised their technique,” Perich says.
Although, not all teachers are comfortable with the approach, specifically the lesson that children should always stand up to mean-on-purpose behaviour. Because bullying is often a sign of low self-esteem and other trauma, some people believe that these kids should be treated with more understanding and compassion.
“Teachers have said to me that they try to teach the kids that things are a little harder for him [the kid who was mean-on-purpose], and that they should show some understanding. And I get very nervous when I hear that,” Kerford say.
“I think empathy obviously, is a great thing. We want to empathise. But there’s a tipping point when empathy becomes enabling.”
Excusing bullying behaviour because the kid is suffering, isn’t good for the child, since they can feel justified. And what happens when they grow into an adult, when such behaviours may land them in trouble with the law?
It’s also a terrible lesson for the victims. Do we want little girls thinking it’s okay for little boys to push them down the stairs because he has a rough home life and he’s feeling sad and angry? Add ten years and we’re potentially grooming young women to accept and excuse male violence or abuse as normal and justified.
Instead, we need to teach kids — all kids — that it’s never okay to be mean-on-purpose and that they should never have to tolerate it.
Of course, bullying is complicated, but given our poor performance in addressing the issues, Kerford’s approach, based on sound relationship principles, is worth trying.