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What do I do if my child is being bullied at school?

March 14, 2023


North Vancouver Education Services Centre staff gather on Pink Shirt Day in 2022. To raise awareness for anti-bullying, Pink Shirt Day falls on the last Wednesday of February every year in Canada. | North Vancouver School District

By Nick Laba, North Shore News.

While awareness of bulling in its many forms is higher than ever, the harmful practice has adapted to new mediums and parents continue to struggle with how best to handle potentially harmful scenarios in and out of schools.

Today, many experts agree that a proactive approach is helpful to equip children, their guardians, teachers and other school staff with tools to either prevent or handle bullying. In B.C., that involves programs like Second Step at the kindergarten to Grade 5 level, and Open Parachute in Grade 6 and 7.

In Grade 7, some of the topics are overcoming stereotypes, boosting self esteem, boundaries, taking accountability, finding your values, striving for your own creative greatness, exploring mental health and trauma, understanding, anger, and finding support and hope.

Rather than just waiting for kids to get themselves caught in something, the idea is to normalize those ways of thinking ahead of time, says Jeremy Church, North Vancouver School District principal of safe and healthy schools.

“The whole reason this program was developed is because that’s what’s going on for kids at that age: they’re beginning to practice their boundaries and find their values and are starting to face stereotypes a bit more explicitly,” Church said.

As kids progress into high school, less formal programming is in place, but teachers are expected to be embedding that kind of social work into curricular content, explains Sandra-Lynn Shortall, director of inclusive education at West Vancouver Schools.

“Within a positive school climate and culture, we’ve got teachers that are in real time teaching specific emotional skills, both at that individual and interpersonal level, so that our kids are developing positive relationships, where there are safe boundaries, there’s a sense of belonging for every kid within the school environment,” she said.

But even with all these upstream practices in place, bullying isn’t going away. Here’s what you should do if you believe your child is experiencing bulling.

Find out if your child is being bullied or not

The first step in identifying bullying behaviour is understanding what it isn’t. It’s not one-off harmful behaviour, or a falling out between friends.

“It’s a persistent pattern of unwelcome or aggressive behaviour that hurts others physically and/or emotionally,” Church said, adding that the best way to distinguish bullying behaviour is to have an open-ended conversation with your child.

As an adult, it’s important to first acknowledge the impact that a situation has had on the child reporting it – whether it was the result of bullying or someone being mean.

“Regardless of the intention, the impact on them was still the same,” Church said. Then a parent should lean into: Is this something that’s going on over and over? Is there a power imbalance? Or is this something that just happened today?”

While having these types of conversations, Church emphasized that it’s important for parents to monitor their own feelings and beliefs. It’s natural to feel upset when your child is hurt, but you should still keep in mind that your child’s interpretation might not be 100-per-cent accurate.

“Often it will feel really inflamed for them, like a really big event that happened,” Church said. “What I do with my kid is I say, “Tell me a bit more … OK, help me understand … OK, so they said that … what happened before that?’ and ‘I wonder why they said that?’”

“You start to unpack it a little bit more, and you almost help co-regulate with your kid to say, ‘Let’s re-frame – let’s just make sure we’re painting the picture in the way that it needs to be painted here,” he said.

Oftentimes, when parents react to their kids’ reactions, those emotions can compound each other, when the reality is young kids and teenagers lack the context to see a problem in the grander scheme.

On the other hand, if the same person is doing something to the same kid two or three times in a row, Church said that begins to meet the threshold of bullying.

Make people at the school aware, or report the bulling anonymously

Once bulling behaviour is identified, Shortall said it’s critical for parents or caregivers to be engaging with the school, which could be with a teacher, a counsellor or administrative staff. Or, bullying can be reported anonymously online, through a tool set up by the province that’s connected to local schools.

Conversations would take place to find out what exactly is happening, and what’s being said about it.

“Then the school team would need to be activated,” Shortall said. “We have at every school here in West Van crisis intervention teams, where we have staff at the school level who have been trained, who are skilled and able to engage in detective work … and making sure that we’re not missing anything.”

While bullying can be complex to address, it’s taken very seriously, Shortall said, who stresses the goal of creating positive school cultures where students and parents feel welcomed and supported when they’re bringing concerns forward.

Regardless of if it’s a true form of bullying behaviour, or another hurtful conflict, “if it’s not addressed appropriately, it can be very harmful for an individual, a young child or teenager,” she said. “We all need to pull together as communities to wrap around our kids and make sure that they’re in the right place to be able to achieve, and receive the education they deserve.”

Depending on the situation, the school can then work with the affected parties to do things like address conflicts with a restorative approach, safely navigate the school environment, or in some places put consequences in place. At times, where a child believes they are physically unsafe, it can be appropriate to involve police.

What should I do if my child is experiencing cyber-bullying?

Like other forms of bullying, experts recommend taking a preventative approach when it comes to targeted harm online.

Instilling concepts related to digital citizenship is a good place to start. That includes defining what appropriate behaviour looks like online, and helping kids understand that cyberspace is a real space and they’re accountable for their actions on the internet.

“A lot of kids and individuals feel like it’s more of an open ground to take on different personas when they’re online,” Shortall said. “So helping kids at a young age, and then through the early teen years, understand that, ‘No, actually, that’s you – you’re responsible for that. And the impact can be quite dramatic if you’re not careful.’”

Parents are also advised to set boundaries and keep tabs on their kids’ time online. Recommendations include restricting smartphone and internet access in the bedroom after a certain time, and regularly snooping on their internet history.

“We know that the developing brain is neurologically not capable of making the best decisions all the time. The prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until humans are in their mid 20s,” she said.

“It is totally OK to do history searches to make sure that our kids are not stepping into places that are beyond their developmental capacity, and put into situations that could potentially be dangerous.”

Being curious and engaged is also advised. If your kids are gaming online, who are they gaming with? If they’re chatting online, who are they chatting with?

“Don’t assume everything is OK because your child is an incredibly responsible human,” Shortall continued. “Assume that they are a child, even if they’re 16 or 17, who may need your guidance, because it’s a complicated landscape that is bigger than all of us.”

In the case of cyber-bullying, record keeping can be a critical tool. Not everyone is going to be forthcoming or truthful about harmful behaviour.

“It is helpful … when families can be quite specific in regards to what actually transpired,” Shortall said, adding that kids should be made to understand that erasing things like messages or photos isn’t going to erase what happened.

Is bullying getting better or worse?

Despite the heightened awareness and resources available today, it’s clear many people feel that bullying is getting worse, not better.

“Are we seeing less bullying behavior in schools across North America? Based on the research – for example, Diana Divecha’s research out of Yale – no, those trends are not necessarily improving,” Shortall said. “But what is improving – and this is based on research to and lived experiences – schools are getting better at responding appropriately.”

Educational institutions now realize that the old practice of trying to solve problems by making rules doesn't work. More punishment, monitoring and assemblies aren’t enough either.

“What we know is we’re starting to turn the dial in the right direction,” she said. “It’s focusing on building, maintaining and protecting positive school climates, where the norms and expectations for behaviour between students and staff and families are really clear and explicit in regards to how we positively come together to work and live together.”

Shortall also believes that one of the biggest keys is teaching more emotional skills at an early age, and embedding that in the school curriculum, like what’s being done with the Second Step and Open Parachute programs in B.C.

While this article highlights some things parents can do, it’s by no means a comprehensive list. For more information on preventing and dealing with bullying, visit the province’s erase portal.