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Understanding School Bullying

A Guide for Parents and Teachers

Author(s): Mona O’Moore

ISBN13: 9781847302182

ISBN10: 1847302181

Publisher: Veritas (30 Nov 2010)

Extent: 196 pages

Binding: Paperback

Size: 1.8 x 15.3 x 22.8 cm

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  • This book provides a rich understanding of school bullying and the many forms it takes. The reader will be left in no doubt as to the serious consequences of bullying for the victims, the bullies and, indeed, society. The book places a strong emphasis on prevention and intervention at primary, secondary and tertiary level. Crucial and practical steps are provided, especially for parents and teachers, as to how they can make a real difference in reducing the widespread and serious level of victimisation and bullying in our schools today.

    This book is unique in its recommendations for best practice, which draw not only on the most up-to-date research, but also on the author’s many years of professional experience of working with children, parents and teachers. It is designed for anyone who wishes to gain an understanding of bullying in a clear and concise manner, and promotes a whole school community approach to bullying, which has recently been proven to be the most effective method in decreasing school bullying.


  • Mona O’Moore

      Professor Mona O'Moore is the Founding Director of the National Anti-Bullying Research Centre, formerly of Trinity College Dublin, but now located within the School of Education Studies, Dublin City University. She is currently Adjunct Professor to the School of Education Studies in DCU and is Co-Director there of the Anti-Bullying Research Centre. She has written widely on the subject of bullying, including Dealing with Bullying in Schools: A Training Manual for Teachers, Parents and Other Professionals (Sage Publications Ltd, 2004), Inclusion or Illusion?: Educational Provision for Primary School Children with Mild General Learning Disabilities (Blackhall Publishing Ltd, 2009), Understanding School Bullying: A Guide for Parents and Teachers (Veritas, 2010) and Understanding Cyberbullying A Guide for Parents and Teachers (Veritas, 2014).

  • Be the first to review this product

    Mona O' Moore the author of Understanding School Bullying, A Guide for Parents and Teachers is director of the Anti Bullying Research Centre in Trinity College. Her well researched book provides an insight into the problem of bullying in its many and varied forms and makes a variety of recommendations for best practice based on up-to-date research and her own experience working with teachers, parents and children.


    Some of the statistics are frightening, not least the one from the World Health Organisation that suggests that only 35 per cent of all young people in the 11-15 age group were not involved in fighting, bullying or victimisation. It is not just a cliché to say that being bullied is something that stays with you for life, as so many adults can confirm. Everybody associated with schools has a duty to play their part in preventing, reducing and dealing with bullying behaviour.


    Ireland does not, as yet, have a national policy on bullying. This book is a valuable resource for anyone, teacher or parent, seeking to come to terms with and counteract act this most pernicious scourge which is sadly all too present in our schools and communities.


    - Pat Collins, Intouch, March 2011


    Bullying is a daily and painful reality for a significant number of children in Irish primary and post-primary schools according to Understanding School Bullying by  Mona O’Moore, founder and director of the Anti-Bullying Research Centre, Trinity College. Those who espouse the attitude that ‘Sticks and stones may break my  bones but names will never hurt me,’ and who feel that bullying in some way prepares a child for life or toughens them up should receive a sharp wakeup call from  reading this guide for parents and teachers.


    The reality disclosed within its pages reveals how school bullying in its various forms can ruin a child’s experience of education, scar them psychologically for life as some contributors to the book attest and in extreme cases may lead to self harm, mental health issues and even suicide among victims. Divided into three parts and  fifteen chapters and written with great clarity and insight Understanding School Bullying is both clinical and passionate in its examination of the often casual daily  torment that bedevils the lives of large numbers of school children.


    Written from the perspective of wide experience and extensive research into bullying from both within   and outside of school there are many helpful guidelines throughout for parents and teachers in helping to identify and deal with children who are either crudely or with  greater subtlety (thanks to modern technology) bullying or being bullied. Included are numerous sources for further help and advice. An ideal resource for all those concerned with this important aspect of children’s lives.


    - Intercom 2011


    School bullying is an aggressive and destructive form of behaviour, which many children and adolescents use to manage their relationships while at school. This behaviour is used by such people to manipulate relationships so that they can meet their psychological needs, which may be to control, to dominate, to gain attention, to show off, to look cool or to gain status among their friends and those around them.

    A good understanding of such bullying makes dealing with it a lot easier. While there is no universal or agreed definition of school bullying, it is generally agreed that it is a form of aggression that is intentional and unprovoked as well as being repeated over time. Some form of imbalance of power, whether physical or psychological, between the aggressor(s) and the victim(s) tends also to be involved. I will now examine each of these criteria in turn. I will then look at the forms such bullying has been found to take, both general and particular, and the factors that contribute to it.


    The repeated aggression that characterises bullying can be verbal, psychological, physical or sexual in nature, conducted by an individual or a group against others. It is not about high-spirited verbal (for example, banter) and physical games (for example, horseplay), but tends to involve very wilful and conscious acts of aggression, manipulation or both. This is in order to cause the targeted young person as much upset and hurt as possible.

    The definition of the then Irish Department of Education and Science (now known as the Department of Education and Skills) in its Guidelines on Countering Bullying Behaviour in Primary and Post-Primary Schools states:

    Bullying is repeated aggression, verbal, psychological or physical, conducted by an individual or group against others. Isolated incidents of aggressive behaviour, which should not be condoned, can scarcely be described as bullying. However, when behaviour is systematic and ongoing it is bullying.

    While we may accept this definition, we need to be mindful that there are also many instances where once-off or isolated acts of aggressive behaviour can cause children and adolescents to feel harassed on a continual basis. A once-off threat, for example, can cause young people to live daily in fear of that threat being carried out on them or on their friends or families. A ten-year-old, for example, having admitted to being bullied once or twice in a nationwide study we carried out on school students in the school year 1993, 1994, added the following: I was told not to tell anyone because he threatened to kill me (to stab me). Another boy in the same class also wrote, I was threatened with a knife by a boy in my class.

    In defining bullying, I suggest that we have the option of including individual acts of aggression as bullying, inspired by a ringleader and cleverly perpetrated as once-off acts by different members of a group. Not including such conditions into a definition of bullying means that appropriate action may not be taken against the offending children. Worse still is that schools may not be held accountable. If this is not done, future predators or ringleaders simply need to make sure that they themselves avoid recrimination by never repeatedly acting aggressively towards their target, but rather inspire their henchmen to each carry out an individual act of aggression on the targeted child. I heard from a teacher once about how a ringleader had done just that. He had passed notes to his mates on their way into school with instructions as to what they were individually expected to do to the victim on any one day, examples being piss on his forehead, stamp on his feet, etc. The victims parents had made repeated visits to the school to impress upon the teacher that their child was having nightmares and was refusing to go to school, with the result that the parents had to drag him into school. The class teacher was initially unable to find any evidence of bullying. However, she persisted as the parents were so adamant that the cause of the boys suffering was school related. Determined to get to the bottom of it, she eventually uncovered what was happening.

    It is in relation to such cases that I believe the standard definition of bullying may fail a child. For these reasons I believe that it is timely that the definition, which has guided our common understanding of bullying , which we largely owe to Dan Olweus, the founding father of research into bullying behaviour in schools , should be revised to encapsulate isolated acts of anti-social aggression that are unjustified and serve to intimidate a child on an ongoing basis. In addition, the definition should allow for the possibility that repeated attacks of aggression on any one child should qualify as bullying, even if those attacks are not carried out by the same person, but by different individuals who together conspire to hurt the targeted child.

    In advocating for a new definition to better encapsulate what is meant by bullying, consideration should also be given to whether reference should be made to the ill-effects of bullying.

    As a member of the working party that drew up the previously mentioned 1993 Guidelines, I remember arguing strongly for leaving out any mention of the ill-effects of bullying. My concern at the time was that if the ill-effects formed part of the criteria of bullying, there was a danger that the negative behaviours that constitute bullying may not be considered unacceptable or unlawful unless there is evidence of the adverse effects. I believe it is important that bullying is judged as unacceptable and independent of its effects, in the same way that racism and sexism and other acts of discrimination are not tolerated. Victims should not have to be on the slippery slope of physical or mental ill health before they can report that they are being bullied. If we are serious about preventing bullying, it is preferable to have people come forward as soon as they recognise that they are targeted so that the unacceptable behaviours that constitute bullying can be stopped before psychological or physical damage sets in and takes its toll. This view is generally accepted with regard to other behaviours that we wish to prevent or extinguish.

    We need look no further than to Irelands drink-driving campaign to see the benefits of targeting inappropriate behaviours before such behaviours can cause harm. Increasingly, sanctions are being applied to individuals who are found to be in breach of the regulations, irrespective of whether they have been involved in an accident as a result of the offending behaviour.

    In view of some of the contentious issues surrounding a definition of bullying, great care is needed when drawing one up so that maximum meaning can be provided, while potential misunderstandings can be avoided. There is no doubt that the definition in the 1993 Guidelines has served us reasonably well for many years. However, in view of what has been learnt about bullying since it was drawn up, there is scope for revision. This should assist schools to take more frequent and definitive actions to counter bullying, as well as help the courts to interpret bullying more accurately.

    Whether or not we accept single incidents of aggressive behaviour as bullying, we should be aware that very young children do not place the same emphasis as older children on the repeated nature of aggressive acts. Their understanding of bullying is very much based on whether the perpetrators actions hurt them. They are, therefore, more likely than older children and adults to report once-off aggressive incidents as bullying. It is my view that their complaints should still be treated in a sympathetic manner and in a way that does not make the young child feel foolish in coming forward to tell of their own experience of bullying or that of others. Rebutting childrens attempts to tell is one of the biggest hurdles we face in counteracting bullying, with silence becoming the bullys best friend.

    Abuse of power is also strongly associated with bullying. The imbalance of power may be rooted in age or physical and mental strength or in social groups (for example, gangs). Family background can also be a source of the imbalance of power. Certain children are made virtually defenceless by peers who threaten to have their older brothers, sisters, parents, cousins, uncles and aunts set upon them. The impact is particularly harrowing when the family is known to have a criminal background. I have direct knowledge of parents of victims who were frightened into submission after attempting to confront the tormentors. In one instance, the bullys family had a criminal record and the victims father was warned not to involve the school authorities to put a stop to the bullying.

    While the imbalance of power is often the difference in physical, intellectual, emotional or social status, it is also often the case that the victim is simply outnumbered by having to face more than one person. It is not unusual for a victim to have to try to challenge not only the ringleader, but also those who join in the bullying, commonly referred to as the hangers on or henchmen.

    We should also be particularly mindful of the fact that a child can instantly create an imbalance of power by threatening the target with a weapon. It is to be expected that any display or threat to use a weapon is enough to place any child on their guard and to intensify the sense of fear and insecurity that surrounds being bullied.

    Given that a power imbalance is at the heart of much bullying behaviour, I believe that we must also take into consideration that there will be children who have the ability to defend themselves, but who decide not to retaliate because they do not want to run the risk of being judged the aggressor by a passing teacher or told on by a vengeful bully and punished as a result. There are numerous cases of children who have struck back at the bully and as a result have found themselves at the receiving end of some school punishment, such as detention or, indeed, suspension and expulsion.

    However, in using imbalance of power to define bullying, I believe there is a danger that we may overlook opportunities for early intervention. I believe if we challenged all individual anti-social and aggressive acts, irrespective of any power imbalance, we would be able to interrupt the process of bullying in much the same way as is best practice in medicine. In fighting disease, prevention is of paramount importance. Failing that, the emphasis is on early intervention.

    We must remember that any child, who for whatever reason is unable to defend himself or herself, when subjected to unprovoked, repeated attacks of an aggressive or abusive nature is placed in an extremely insecure and frightening position. It means that bullied children can never relax. They must always be on the lookout for the next unexpected attack. It is little wonder that their concentration is affected and their interest in learning takes second place.

    The burden of victimisation is made even more intolerable by the fact that, for most victims of bullying, telling, referred to often as ratting, snitching or grassing, is not an option. The reasons for not telling will be addressed later on. It is when children do not get the necessary help from their parents or guardians, their teachers or their peers, that they can so easily become anxious, depressed and suicidal.

    As bullying is predominantly a secretive activity, carried out away from the gaze of authority, children who are bullied in school are often also subjected to appalling antisocial aggressive acts on the way to and from school , behaviours the bulliers know they would never get away with in school. One boy that I know was forcefully held back by his peers on repeated occasions from catching his bus home, a bus that his attackers knew ran very infrequently, thus leaving the child to arrive home very late. The boy would attempt to find plausible excuses for the lateness in order to avoid admitting to his parents that he was being bullied.

    While it may be too ambitious to expect that a consensus will ever be reached in respect of a definition of school bullying and violence within in any one country, let alone globally, what is most important is that a definition has the capacity to help the relevant people to better understand the phenomenon. This should allow for more meaningful data to be collected and assist the development and monitoring of effective prevention and intervention strategies.


    In studies that I have conducted about life in school in Ireland, the pupils responses about bullying indicate that it comes in many guises and can be direct and indirect. The faces and forms of bullying can be both mind-blowing and unthinkable and, to quote Kaj Bj?Ârkqvist, an international authority on the subject of human aggression, inconceivable within the realm of animal aggression.

    Direct Bullying
    The most common forms of direct bullying that children and adolescents engage in are verbal attacks, physical aggression or assaults, gestures, extortion and cyber-bullying. Each of these overt forms of bullying will be described in greater detail further on in the chapter. However, it is important to note that children and teenagers may experience a combination of bullying behaviours.

    Indirect Bullying
    Indirect bullying tends to be more covert and anonymous so that the aggressor is not readily identified by the victim. Forms of indirect bullying are the circulation of nasty notes, the writing of offensive graffiti on blackboards, lockers, toilet doors or in other public places in or out of school and the damage of personal property. Defacing or writing nasty things on school books is another favourite form of indirect bullying. Cyber-bullying can also be a form of indirect and covert bullying. Because of the more concealed and secretive nature of indirect bullying, it may take longer to uncover who the offender(s) might be than it would with direct bullying.

    Relational and Social Bullying
    Relational bullying, while it can also be indirect in nature, causes or threatens to cause damage to peer relationships, especially to friendship and peer acceptance. Perpetrators who use this form of bullying tend to manipulate the social connections or relationships of their targets by ignoring, excluding, isolating, passing notes or spreading false information and malicious rumours about them. The motivation for these behaviours is to damage their victims reputation and ultimately create peer rejection.

    Girls are more likely than boys to engage in relational aggression. Common statements would be: I used to be best friends with a girl. We dont talk any more. She has a new friend. She told her new friend that I called her a slut or, I am bullied by various girls who are jealous of me. They have verbally abused me in a bitchy way. I have also been physically attacked.

    In Ireland, one-quarter of girls in primary schools and almost one in three girls in post-primary schools reported that they spread malicious rumours as a way to get at their peers. In comparison, one in five boys at both primary and post-primary schools engaged in malicious rumours.

    Some researchers distinguish relational aggression from social aggression. Those who do tend to view relational aggression as behaviour that is intended to predominantly harm a persons friendship or feeling of belonging to a particular peer group. Specific behaviours may include:
    - Withdrawing ones friendship out of jealousy or anger
    - Isolating a member from a peer group
    - Spreading rumours about someone to cause rejection.
    The authors of Understanding Girl Bullying are of the opinion that girls often use relational bullying to punish a girl or adolescent female for a perceived friendship 'violation' that calls into question her loyalty to a friend. There is no doubt that the most minor slights can so often be perceived as disloyalty and is enough to cause relational aggression. For example, for a girl to be seen talking to a friends boyfriend or to be simply friendly to someone outside of ones circle of friends may trigger vengefulness. To be the favoured can also have similar consequences, as the following account from a third-year girl illustrates: I wont say her name but it all happened one night because of a boy that liked me and she got mad because I would go out with him when she liked him.

    To be snubbed or frozen out by ones friends can be very painful, causing great stress and despair, especially if the reason for the punishment is not readily understood. An example of this is a firstyear pupil who stated: It is a boy who I thought was my friend, but behind my back or in front of me he would insult me and make me feel hurt and angry. This makes me cry.

    Social aggression, while almost indistinguishable from relational aggression, can be said to arise not so much out of conflict between two friends but out of a desire to tarnish someones social standing or sexual reputation. The rationale for destroying reputations can be envy, jealousy and competition for social power. It can also be simply a way to beat boredom by having some fun and entertainment. The following are some examples of social bullying:
    - Spreading malicious rumours and lies
    - Cold shouldering and isolation
    - Embarrassing graffiti and the passing around of notes
    - Cyber-bullying or e-bullying (electronic bullying).

    In examining school bullying I have concluded that, as well as being able to break it down into three general forms, it can be further broken down into some particular forms: verbal, physical, gesture, exclusion, extortion and cyber-bullying.

    Verbal Bullying
    Verbal bullying is by far the most common form of bullying among both boys and girls. By verbal bullying I mean name-calling, slagging, jeering, taunting and teasing. In Ireland, in the nationwide study we carried out in 1993, 1994, over 6 per cent of pupils in primary schools and 62 per cent in post-primary schools reported having experienced this form of bullying.

    Is Teasing Bullying?
    There are disagreements over whether teasing should count as a form of bullying. There is no doubt, however, that teasing can be a precursor to bullying. Therefore, if it is perceived to be mean, hurtful and damaging rather than playful, then in my opinion it should be described as a form of bullying. As one fifth-class girl said in our nationwide study, People tease me about my size. I dont think it is very funny. I believe most people can tell the difference between teasing that is antisocial and has a malicious, demeaning or humiliating intent, and teasing that is done in a friendly spirit to enhance communication and where there is shared enjoyment.

    However, for fear of misinterpretation, children would do well to learn to err on the side of caution and not to tease anyone unless they are very sure of their friendship or of the sense of humour of their intended target. If a child defends his or her teasing with it was only a joke, or I was only messing, it suggests that the teasing was at best a controversial target and at worst hurtful and indicative of bullying.

    It should be noted that words can be of a highly personal nature, with verbal attacks being directed not only at the child or adolescent in question, but also at their friends and families. Name-calling and slagging can carry messages that are highly emotionally charged, such as getting at the persons physical appearance, for example, big ears, carrot top, cabbage head, pudding face and fatty, and also their personal hygiene, for example, smelly , names which can stick for a lifetime. A fifth-class boy commented, for example, Its horrible , I keep being bullied and they keep calling me rubber lips. I hate them.

    A documentary, Bully For You, by Eamonn Devlin illustrates just how an abusive verbal label can stick and the potential it has to destroy the victims sense of well-being and to haunt the victim indefinitely into adulthood. Eamonn Devlin courageously told his own story and that of others who had been devastated by the bullying they experienced while at school. Those who felt able to speak as adults were all scarred emotionally from this experience.

    Clothes that children wear can also be a source of considerable verbal bullying, as can academic success or failure. I know of one boy who deliberately started to fail his maths tests to be spared from the daily verbal attacks of his jealous tormentors. By failing a few tests in succession he was finally spared. Being verbally smart can often stop verbal slagging, as the last thing a bully wants is to look foolish for want of a smart response. It is easy to see, therefore, how children with general or specific learning difficulties, who may lack the necessary verbal skills and quick wit, are at particular risk of repeated verbal assaults.

    Verbal Attacks on the Grounds of Discrimination
    The abuse so characteristic of verbal bullying can also be very discriminatory, getting at, for example, a persons sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity or nationality. Typical comments would be: I am bullied because my father is Chinese; We get called chinks, blackies, etc.; I am called horrible names about my fathers nationality. I get called a 'nigger'. Children who are German or who have German parents tend also to be targeted with, I am called a 'nazi' because my mother is German. A study funded by the Irish Youth Foundation found, for example, that post-primary, school-age lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered people in Ireland are at particular risk of namecalling, teasing and bullying in their everyday lives. Half of all these students admitted to being bullied. Over 71 per cent of them reported that they were called nasty names and that they were teased about their sexuality and made fun of (37 per cent occasionally, 9 per cent once a month, 25 per cent once a day). A presentation to the Oireachtas Education Committee by the BeLonG To youth service highlighted the difficulties that gay pupils face as a result of bullying.

    Increasingly, electronic devices such as mobile phones and computers are used to carry abusive and destructive verbal messages. Over 24 per cent of gay students reported that they had been bullied in this way. This form of bullying, now commonly referred to as cyberbullying or e-bullying (electronic bullying), will be explored later in
    this chapter. We found that boys are more inclined than girls to verbally abuse their fellow pupils on the grounds of diversity, for example, colour and race. Insulting and humiliating someone on the basis of their
    sexuality, nationality and religion and other diversities undoubtedly reflects prejudice, ignorance or both. The increased prevalence of this form of abuse reflects the growth over the past fifteen years of different nationalities and cultures in Ireland. With this in mind, we should strive even harder to tackle bullying in our schools.

    Physical Aggression
    Direct physical aggression includes all forms of pushing, shoving, poking, grabbing, hair-pulling, hitting, spitting, biting, scratching, punching, head-butting, tripping someone up and endless other forms of physical attacks. Examples of physical aggression that children subject each other to inside and outside of school are as follows:

    People walked on my head and spat on me (fourth-class boy).
    One girl called me names about my teeth. If I say something back to her she kicks me and hits me across the head (fifth-class girl).
    Sometimes they kick me in my leg and punch me in the face (fourthclass boy).
    When I was alone outside the library two girls pulled my hair and hit me in the face (second-year girl).
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