Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 8 June 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills
School Bullying and the Impact on Mental Health: Discussion (Resumed)
On behalf of the committee, I welcome Dr. Paul Downes, associate professor of psychology of education at the School of Human Development, Dublin City University, DCU; Professor Shelley Hymel, Edith Lando professor in social and emotional learning at the university of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada; and Professor Carmel Cefai, department of psychology and director of the Centre for Resilience and Socio-Emotional Health, University of Malta. I appreciate them joining us from abroad. We are in totally different time zones and I hope we did not get them out of bed too early.
The format of the meeting is that I will invite Dr. Downes to make an opening statement, followed by Professor Hymel, and finally Professor Cefai. The statements will be followed by questions from members of the committee. Each member has a specific slot in which they can ask a question and the witnesses can reply. Witnesses are probably aware that the committee will publish their opening statements on its website following this meeting.
Before I begin, I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect of they should not comment on, criticise, or make charges against a person outside the Houses, or an official, either by name in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Witnesses are giving evidence remotely from a place outside of the parliamentary precincts and, as such, they may not benefit from the same level of immunity as a witness who is physically present does. Witnesses have already been advised of this issue. I remind everybody of the long-standing practice.
I call on Dr. Downes to make his opening statement, followed by the other witnesses, as I have outlined. Dr. Downes has been locked out of the meeting, so we shall now start with Professor Hymel.
Professor Shelley Hymel:
Bullying has been around for as long as anyone can remember, often seen as a rite of passage that makes kids tougher. Yet research conducted in countries around the world has consistently documented the negative impact of school bullying, especially on victims. It can get under the skin and affect neuro-biological functioning. Victims are at risk for depression, anxiety, and poor self-worth, challenges that often continue into adulthood. They are more likely to consider suicide. Far too many have found suicide to be their only option. They at risk for later aggression, conduct problems and self-harm. Understandably, victims are more disengaged from school and are more likely to be absent. Academic performance suffers, and they are more likely to drop out of school early. Children who bully others are also at risk for many of the same problems, but especially for aggressive and antisocial behaviour and delinquency, substance use, depression and anxiety. Bullying can also become a generalised pattern of behaviour, with demonstrated links to later dating violence and criminality. Even children who witness bullying are at risk, with evidence of feelings of helplessness, mental health difficulties, and suicidal ideation. Given such evidence, it is critical that we address school bullying and I applaud the committee's efforts to do so but how can it be done?
Bullying is developmental. It increases over the primary years, reaching a peak around grades eight to ten, and declines somewhat thereafter but never goes away. As such, schools are an ideal place to address the problem, where we can reach the majority of our children early on and repeatedly. Bullying is also context dependent. The overall climate and social atmosphere of the school can either encourage or discourage bullying. Indeed, certain subgroups are far more likely to be bullied, including racial and sexual minorities, immigrant youth and those with disabilities. Bullying emerges within very complex social networks, with social status being a key motivating factor. Educators need training to understand the group dynamics that underlie bullying and how they can best support vulnerable students. Until recently, teacher education programmes have not provided such training, focusing primarily on academics.
To date, several school-based programmes have been created that show some success in reducing bullying. Although they share common elements, the diversity of approaches is important, each addressing particular contributing factors. Still, there is no single programme that has been shown to stop school bullying. Overall, research shows that school efforts to reduce bullying only does so by about 20%, with little evidence of effectiveness at the secondary level. We can do better.
Universal programmes aimed at all children are critical to develop pro-social behaviours and positive school cultures but they are not enough. Given the documented consequences of bullying, we also need more targeted one-on-one interventions for those students who are most seriously impacted. Indeed, the most effective programmes have been shown to be whole-school efforts with multiple foci, including both universal and targeted interventions. My recommendation is that anti-bullying efforts be viewed as part of a larger mandate for schools and that schools promote social and emotional competencies, as well as academic skills. In North America, there is a growing body of evidence supporting the positive, long-term impact of such programmes. They teach basic pro-social skills, foster empathy, and promote acceptance and respect for others, thereby creating tolerant and inclusive classrooms. These programmes not only reduce peer aggression and victimisation but help to create positive school climates that will not exacerbate the difficulties victimised students face.
Importantly, there are multiple ways through which educators can do this, allowing for flexibility and repetition with variation across the school years.
To address bullying effectively, we need to provide educators with the training they need. Expanded training for counsellors is also needed for them to undertake targeted interventions and also to create better links to community-based mental health agencies. Finally, ongoing assessment and evaluation are imperative to be sure that one's efforts are actually working.
Dr. Paul Downes:
Our report to the EU Commission and our formal submission to the committee documents a whole swathe of research, particularly in the past decade, on the serious sustained, long-term impact of bullying on mental and physical health and educational engagement. Let us be clear, bullying is an issue that can cause anxiety, depression and self-harm and can impact on physical health. It is also an adverse childhood experience. It requires serious, sustained emotional counselling and therapeutic supports in schools, which we do not have in Ireland. We need those supports at both primary and post-primary levels. International research also highlights the point that victims of bullying tend to engage in cycles of self-blame, self-hate and a sense of hopelessness and fatalism. We need to stop these cycles of despair early, with early intervention, through these emotional counselling and therapeutic supports.
On the issue of family dimensions, which is neglected in many policy aspects, I draw the members' attention to a systematic review undertaken by Lereya et al.of over 70 studies that indicate that negative parenting practices, destructive communication practices and violence in the home have an impact on bullying engagement. Therefore we need to look at the family support services that I mentioned in respect of bullying. International research also points to the significant importance of having interventions which are not only whole-school in their approach but also involve parents. For example, Professor Donna Cross's work in Australia has highlighted the additional benefit of working with parents and not only taking a whole-school approach.
On the issue of peer defenders or challengers, our report for the European Commission highlights a range of legal and psychological concerns with the active bystander approach, which encourages bystanders to actively stand up to the bully. It is concerning from a legal perspective because it is reasonably foreseeable that the bully may retaliate against that peer defender or challenger, which puts them at risk of being bullied, with all the various long-term impacts associated with that. Our report therefore highlights that it would be negligent to put schools in a position where they would be actively encouraging students to intervene as peer defenders. That is not to undermine all of the excellent work on peer supports and student voices regarding bullying. However, on that aspect, our report criticises the psychological focus. There are many motivations that can explain why somebody may be a bullying perpetrator. We cannot just assume that the esteem of the group is the only dimension to that. There may also be long-term trauma and adverse child experiences for the perpetrator. As Sourander's longitudinal study emphasised, an entrenched bullying perpetrator is a red flag that something is wrong. Again that is an argument in favour of early intervention and the provision of emotional counselling and therapeutic support for the perpetrator.
Our report to the Commission emphasises the importance of the establishment of a national co-ordinating committee to drive these issues at a national level. At a school level, a driving committee that is led by a champion is required. It is notable that our own research of 2017 found that more than half of primary and secondary schools did not have a teacher designated as a champion to lead a whole-school bullying initiative, even though they were requested to do so by the bullying procedures.
Professor Carmel Cefai:
There is growing recognition of social and emotional education as an aggression and bullying prevention strategy, contributing to a positive school culture where bullying is neither acceptable nor rewarding in any way. The term "social and emotional education" refers to what we sometimes call life skills or soft skills. In Ireland, I believe that it is referred to as social, personal and health education, SPHE. It includes competences such as developing a positive healthy identity, managing emotions and achieving goals, solving problems effectively, feeling and showing empathy for others, establishing and maintaining healthy relationships, working with others as part of a team, resolving conflicts constructively and making responsible and ethical decisions.
There is strong international evidence that these competences learned at school, when supported by contextual processes, are key for personal development to challenge a culture of violence and bullying in schools. We have research evidence, including a report which we produced for the European Commission, which shows that social and emotional education leads to decreased antisocial behaviours such as aggression, bullying, delinquency; decreased emotional distress, such as anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation; enhanced positive mental health and resilience; increased positive attitudes towards self and others; prosocial behaviour, such as sharing and collaboration; and improved academic achievement.
Together with my colleague, Dr. Paul Downes, and two other colleagues, we have developed a European framework on the basis of international literature on how social and emotional education may be effectively integrated in schools to promote positive development and mental health. The whole-school systemic framework that we proposed underlines various processes which need to be in place for social and emotional education to have an impact on positive student outcomes.
In the limited time I have, I will briefly describe and make recommendations on two aspects of this framework. First, there must be a curricular focus on social and emotional education, which includes direct instruction of social and emotional competences as a core content area on the timetable. Of course, that resonates with, and relates to, SPHE in Ireland. It also includes a transversal approach in which the social and emotional competences are embedded into the academic subjects, such as art, PE, science and language. This focus mobilises the students’ psychological resources to challenge a culture of violence and bullying in school, with children less likely to be engaged or involved in bullying. The curriculum needs to be in place from the early years up to high school level, adapted according to the local context, with an explicit focus on bullying intervention.
My first recommendation is that we need to bring social and emotional education to the fore of educational systems. Often it finds itself in the background. It needs to be brought in across all year groups, with sufficient time allocated to it on the timetable. It is necessary to review whether, across the whole range of year groups, we need to increase the time dedicated to social and emotional education.
My second recommendation concerns the positive school climate, to which I previously referred. This climate gives students the opportunity to observe social and emotional competences being practised by adults and peers and to apply these skills themselves in the classroom in their learning and behaviour. In such a climate, students feel safe and secure, they have a sense of belonging, understand and respect each other, empathise with the thoughts and feelings of others, build knowledge together, support and care for each other, resolve conflict constructively and make decisions responsibly.
It is difficult for bullying to thrive in such a context.
The teachers' own attitudes and behaviour serve as powerful role models in this respect. For instance, it is important that teachers in their classroom management do not rely heavily on punitive coercive measures and do not bully or humiliate students themselves. For instance, research shows us that bullying tends to be higher in schools where classroom teachers use authoritarian approaches and inflexible classroom management or where they are perceived by the students as being biased against particular groups of students. This requires, however, that all teachers need to be adequately trained not only in teaching and implementing socio-emotional education but also in developing their own socio-emotional competences. This is not just about social, personal and health education, SPHE, specialist teachers but about all teachers across the curriculum. They need to have the competences to regulate their emotions, to work on their own biases and prejudices, to be empathetic, to embrace diversity, to work as part of a team with others, colleagues, parents and children, to resolve conflicts constructively, and to engage in instructional and restorative classroom management.
My second recommendation, therefore, is about teacher training, which is that we need to start at initial teacher education supported by continuing professional learning. Teacher training programmes in higher education institutions need to include a competence framework that outlines the key competences teachers need to have to implement socio-emotional education effectively.
I thank Dr. Downes, Professor Hymel and Professor Cefai, and my apologies for any mispronunciations. What we are talking about is, I believe, straightforward, concerns best practice, which is contained within this European framework, and it is a matter of putting it into play. Within this State, could we do with a greater amount of gathering and monitoring of incidents of bullying just to see the particular type we are dealing with, whether that is based on gender, sexual orientation, race, family circumstances and probably many other types I have not even considered? We then build that into what we need in respect of social and emotional education, particularly if that is SPHE. Beyond that we need to ensure we include children, parents and teachers in that. It is obviously vital young people are included in this part of the conversation.
A big issue for me with bullying is that we all understand the outworkings and how terrible it can be for particular children, and it can have a lifelong impact. We also get scenarios where people transfer between being a bully and being bullied. I got an understanding of what cognitive dissonance means, which is the idea that if I bully the other kid, I am not a bad person and I do it because he or she deserves it and it is not very serious in any event. From the other end it is a case that they bully me and do so because I deserve it. I imagine it is vital that that idea is built into any training programme and that people understand this, especially for parents, because parents are always afraid in the first instance that their children are being bullied and then that their child is engaged in bullying activity, which can happen to anybody. Can I put those not-too-straightforward questions to the group, please?
Professor Shelley Hymel:
The Deputy asked about different types of bullying and whether it is important to identify those types. Research has been done and teachers and schools seem to be most concerned about physical and cyberbullying. In fact what children tell us is the commonest types of bullying are much more subtle. These are the social and relational types of bullying, the teasing etc. These are difficult because they are in a kind of grey zone. Teachers do not know if the children are teasing each other for fun or if they are really trying to publicly humiliate people. It is useful to identify those but to target specific programmes at them does not seem to be critical. We have to do the larger picture of trying to stop the whole thing.
As to the Deputy’s comments on how children think, we know that children who bully others do something that is now being dubbed as moral disengagement. They justify and rationalise that behaviour. That has not been prioritised to date in the intervention although there are two promising studies showing now that simple additions of components of anti-bullying programmes that address moral disengagement and create empathy are very effective. Both of those things are important, therefore.
Dr. Paul Downes:
I wish to come in on a number of other points. It is important to note that bullying is not a static phenomenon in a school. It can change over the school year. I would very much encourage school-based surveys. I have come across situations of surveys where you could have three fourth class groups, for example, one of which with very significant bullying issues and the other two without any significant issues at all. The class-by-class granular analysis to document that, term by term, is an important dimension we need to have as part of the school co-ordinating committee. It can fluctuate quite significantly.
The challenging of the deep-seated thought processes of some of the entrenched bullying perpetrators is an intensive support that is needed at times where there may be many reasons the person is putting up cognitive defences. That needs an intensive relationship of trust built up over time to really explore the roots of why that person is engaging in bullying and for him or her to discover his or her own motivations in respect of the bullying situation. This is not then just a glib once-off conversation.
Professor Carmel Cefai:
I will add just one point about the children’s understandings of bullying. Professor Hymel was in fact saying research shows us children’s understanding of bullying is not always the same as others' understanding of bullying. One way of working around that is the importance of including children in any exercise in identification of the conditions that are contributing to bullying and the sense that they make of those situations. Children should be included in bullying interventions both in terms of the resources and the types of activities. Research is very much showing that children are more likely to be engaged in resources where fellow children have been involved in co-creating. Research shows children can provide us with very useful insights and materials on how to deal with and overcome bullying and we need to give them a say on the way forward in the initiatives we have to do. This is not just an academic exercise by referring to the student council but real authentic participation.
Obviously, the involvement of the children is a big deal. Professor Cefai has given a certain indication as to how this can be dealt with. How do you engage parents in this because this can be a real difficulty?
Professor Carmel Cefai:
I will begin the answer to that question and will then leave it to my other colleagues to continue. From our report for the European Commission, we emphasise that a number of good practices have been found to be more effective and others which are less likely to engage parents. Within a whole-school approach where we include all of the parents, there also needs to be a particular focus on the selected preventative approaches. Those families and those parents where bullying is taking place or where their children have been engaged in bullying need to have a particular focus in our approaches.
Second, research shows very clearly that when we just provide information in a talk-down approach, those parents who we especially need to engage with do not engage with us. We need to take an approach which is very much a sharing of our thoughts and resources together and to focus both on capacity building of the parents such as through parental education but also, and this is a very important part, to do it in an empowering rather than a talk-down way. A further very important point is to have active parent participation.
It is not just providing information. If there is a need to go to the parents, then we expect them to come to us. The focus is more on community.
Dr. Paul Downes:
I have two more points to develop that. Trust building with some of the most alienated parents is a slow and difficult process but it needs family support centres as a dimension of that strategy, as well as parenting programmes, which gain credibility in the community by word of mouth. Not all the parenting programmes have to be delivered on a school site. They can be in community settings as well.
Again, we need a community dimension to this strategy. Those parenting programmes are not just focusing on preventing bullying. It is about a social and emotional education, as well as a culture shift. There are interesting examples of that such as restorative practice approaches at community level that are well developed in many Irish contexts. We need to seriously expand those dimensions. It is not impossible but there certainly is a trust issue that needs to be bridged, which needs more than schools in that trust-building process.
I welcome the commentary on community-based programmes, a number of which operate in this State, particularly in County Louth.
Do we also look at building in resilience for kids when they come across this? While accepting that the idea is to stop the bullying, can we build in an element of protection for those kids who do suffer it?
I thank the guests for their time and expertise before the committee today. We have the benefit of some international experience through Professor Hymel, . Is it the case that the causes of bullying appear to be consistent throughout the world? What are the common characteristics of a child who engages in bullying in British Columbia and elsewhere? Are they the same as they are in Ireland or elsewhere?
Professor Shelley Hymel:
They seem to be. People sometimes demonise the children who bully. It should be remembered that these are kids. Kids are niche finders. They try to figure out how they survive in the world. Many kids entertain bullying because it works. It is a way to get power and what they need. We have to think of them as developing individuals and worry about them from that point of view. Generally, it seems to be fairly consistent around the world.
Professor Hymel mentioned in reply to Deputy Ó Murchú forms of social and relational bullying. Have we to be careful that we do not interfere too much in the ability of children to form relationships? Obviously, a child may feel excluded by other children who have formed friendships. There may be no intention behind the exclusion of that child, however. Is that something we might also need to counteract?
Professor Shelley Hymel:
That is what makes the relational and social bullying so difficult. For example, teasing brings in camaraderie between friends but it also hurts the person who is the target. Those are real subtleties of relationships. At least what we have to do is address them with the children and help them start learning what the impact of their behaviour is on others.
Professor Hymel mentioned developing social skills in the school environment and programmes to develop empathy. At what stage would she recommend that these programmes be commenced by educators?
Professor Shelley Hymel:
From early on. For example, the roots of empathy programme starts out very early. It can start out in kindergarten. The point is that no one programme gives someone all the skills. There has to be a lot of diversity. For example, there could be an empathy-based programme in one grade level and a conflict resolution programme in another. One has to keep varying skills that are focused on because it is not one thin; it is multiple things.
Dr. Paul Downes:
I gave the example of restorative practice. That has been in operation, for example, in the Childhood Development Initiative, CDI, in Tallaght for children as young as three. The intuitive social skills of turn taking, negotiating, listening to other people are embedded quite firmly in the primary school curriculum. We have quite a complex web of social and emotional competences built into habitual practices in our system.
The research suggests to try to commence these as early as possible. We look at the climate of our early years sector, the communicative practices there and then as it moves through the system. It is about habits of communication in many ways. Bullying within that is seen as a failure of communication.
Dr. Downes referred to negative parenting practices and how they can have an impact on the child. This is an area about which we have to be sensitive because it is impinging on the relationship between the child and parent. What can one do to counteract a situation where there are parents who are inflicting negative parenting practices on their child that may subsequently result in the child engaging in bullying?
Dr. Paul Downes:
This is where I have called for a more holistic vision, which would bring in family support centres. We have some kind of national network where investment has gone into these family support centres to link in with parents who are under severe strain for various reasons.
I would also argue that we need to educate people to be parents and that needs to be in the life skills curriculum in secondary school. There can be community-based parenting programmes as well. It is very much hit and miss and lacks a systematic strategic national vision. Anything the committee could do to go beyond ad hoc, here and there bits of these sorts of parenting support programmes would be welcome.
This is not only in the early years or primary settings. Adolescence is a hugely complex parenting time in terms of boundaries, rules, negotiation and dialogue. We need a developmental dimension to that as a support for parents. Again, it is not only within a bullying lens, but also a more social and emotional education lens. At EU level, there are now new competences for lifelong learning called personal, social and learning to learn. The personal and social competences across different dimensions of the education system, including lifelong learning and adult education, are now a key European priority.
Professor Cefai referred to the need for educators to provide socio-emotional education to children. That is similar to what Professor Hymel and Dr. Downes spoke about. At what age does Professor Cefai envisage that commencing?
Professor Carmel Cefai:
Research shows clearly that we are more likely to be effective by introducing socio-emotional education if we go from the early years in education. Of course, we need to start from home. However, in terms of formal education, we have to start as early as possible such as in kindergarten or nursery. Research shows that, in those early years, there is a window of opportunity when personality and development behaviour are more malleable to make it easier for the children to develop these competences. As early as possible and throughout the whole-school time is the answer.
I welcome all our guests and thank them for their very interesting input. My first question is for Professor Hymel. I was very struck by what she said about moral disengagement and the challenge in that regard. She made the point that it may be difficult to talk about this with children, given that they are not, as it were, fully formed morally at the point at which they appear to be showing this lack of empathy. She drew a parallel with the behaviour of soldiers or terrorists in certain contexts. How do we build empathy and establish the kinds of behavioural norms that everybody can share across identities and philosophies? I believe it is very important to talk about creating a moral position that bullying is something that is wrong. However, in the context of restorative justice, for example, if a person who is bullying gets some kind of satisfaction in the short term and can see that his or her behaviour causes suffering, how do we show such people that this is not the way to live a good life and is not ultimately good for them? How do we create that sense of understanding? Is there a need to emphasise in this that there are issues of right and wrong?
Professor Shelley Hymel:
Yes, there is. Unfortunately, there is not yet a lot of research on how to do that. The first study showing a link between moral disengagement or justifications and bullying came out in 2015. Just last week, I reviewed another study that is soon to come out, in which it is demonstrated that five simple lessons involving telling children stories about the impact of negative behaviour on others had a really strong effect in reducing bullying. We are just beginning to explore the "how" in this regard.
It is sometimes the case that children do not see the impact of their behaviours on others. Part of the answer to that is a simple matter of getting them to understand what they did and how it impacted on other people. I tend to think of children as being in the process of developing morals and we have to help them through that process. Frankly, we do not have a lot of opportunities to do that because it is usually left to the family or the religion. Families are busy, often with both parents working, and religion is on the decline. The problem is being pushed into schools and the schools are just learning how to deal with it. There needs to be more work done to help us figure out how to deal with this.
That is interesting. I was also struck by what Professor Hymel said about the evidence showing that we are reducing bullying by only some 20%, with little evidence of effectiveness at secondary level. That suggests to me that early intervention is required. Thinking about what Dr. Downes said, it seems clear that parent training is a key issue here. There may be negative experiences within the home that are obviously being reflected in the child's behaviour. If much of the education that needs to happen must take place at an early stage, do we need to ask whether it is possible to transform parental attitudes? I will address that question to both Professor Hymel and Dr. Downes.
Professor Shelley Hymel:
From my experience over the past 20 to 30 years, I would caution that although parents definitely have an impact, and poor parenting certainly can really break a child, there are also many good parents whose children stumble upon bullying because it is effective. We cannot put all our eggs in one basket, which is why I am arguing strongly for a diversity of approaches. There are children whose parents have done everything right, but those children have, in effect, found out they can get what they want if they push other kids around. We have to temper our response because one particular strategy will not work for everybody. Dr. Downes may have something to say on this point.
Dr. Paul Downes:
To take Professor Hymel's point further, there is not a single, unitary motivation for why somebody becomes a bullying perpetrator. Some of the research seems to assume there is but, in fact, there are many different reasons for such behaviour.
Going back to the Senator's point about disengagement, I would point to the capacity to connect. If we have children who have experienced trauma, then their emotions are frozen because they are holding back and repressing those emotions. That is when specialist intensive supports are needed, to allow them to connect first with themselves, as a dimension of their connecting with, and having empathy for, others. There is a cohort for whom a cognitive message about being nice to everyone will not register because their emotions are frozen due to trauma-related dimensions. There may also be issues around separation anxiety and early-years attachment that are quite deep-seated aspects, as recognised by development psychology, that relate to the formation of empathy.
Another point I want to make is that when I argue for restorative practice, it is important to differentiate that from restorative justice. Restorative justice is where the offender and victim - in this case, the bullying perpetrator and the victim of bullying - would come together to confront each other in some way and make peace. I am not advocating that in respect of bullying. Restorative practice is a different set of competencies. It is a way of questioning things whereby the person reflects on his or her behaviour and is helped to work out how he or she may be causing harm to others. It is a way of getting people to reflect on how they might change their patterns of thoughts, emotions and behaviours in the future.
My final question is to Professor Hymel, although it may be relevant to all the witnesses because it is a general question in a way. The more I have learned in recent weeks about the diversity of pretexts, means and contexts for bullying and the diversity of approaches to dealing with it, I am struck by a particular point. We live in a time when there is very much a focus on identity, whether that identity is sexual, racial, disability-based and so on. There are programmes that focus on particular pretexts for bullying. However, the more I learn about all of this, the more I wonder whether it is a mistake to focus on one area. Does such an approach risk hogging time and resources and playing down, even by implication, other kinds of bullying? Could it appear to "other" certain categories of people whose experience is not being reflected because there is a focus on one kind of bullying? Might it be better to reach for some kind of higher ground that seeks to be inclusive of everybody and always keeps every kind of bullying in context? There may be particular interest groups that want to specify particular types of bullying, and they may have good reason to do so, but are there risks inherent in focusing on specific identities when trying to combat and prevent bullying?
Professor Carmel Cefai:
I think we can do both. As a starting point, we need to begin with a universal preventative approach. When we talk about socio-emotional education, which includes things like developing empathy, building relationships, perspective-taking and constructive conflict resolution, that is for the whole class. Alongside that, it is important to include examples that relate to particular types of bullying. We do not keep it at a general level. The approach should include all children, including those who are at risk and those who are not. In this way, we are being inclusive.
Within this inclusive approach, however, there is a need for what we call proportionate universality. We address the whole group inclusively but we give examples, within the activities for the whole classroom, that relate to particular students who may be more at risk because of, for instance, gender or disability. I would start from there. We need to focus more, to begin with, on a universal preventative approach. However, research shows this may not be enough because children who are at risk or already victims of bullying may need additional support, including at a preventative level. There are programmes that are tailored to particular needs, with activities targeted at particular groups. I would go for a universal approach, complemented by a targeted intervention.
Professor Shelley Hymel:
I agree with that but I would also suggest that within the universal programmes, there should be what I refer to as "repetition with variation". For example, we can have programmes or activities that focus on sexual identity and others that focus on racial identity.
These things have to be repeated in different ways because you reach different children with different approaches. The more diversity we have in our programmes, activities and lesson plans, the more we are likely to hit different things that children will find relevant to their particular experiences.
I thank all the guests here today. It has come up at previous meetings, and through TUI research, that Irish children are less likely to experience bullying. In fact it is below the OECD average. That is positive. I was interested by a statement at a previous committee meeting that bullying has actually halved in the last 20 years, which is welcome. What we are dealing with is where bullying occurs outside of the school, mainly online through social media use. That has been flagged consistently. It is a problem and schools have to deal with a problem that did not start in the school but outside it on social media platforms.
I am interested to hear views on guidance counsellors. I have strongly advocated for the guidance counsellor posts to be restored to schools to the levels we had before the recession. There were a lot of cuts at the time of the recession and the number of posts has never been restored to the same level in second level schools. Do the witnesses feel that guidance counsellors would have a robust role to play in tacking any bullying that emerges in schools? My view is they have a very significant role to play in second level schools. The restoration of these posts is something I have sought for a long time.
Dr. Paul Downes:
There is a need to distinguish between the levels of prevention need - between the moderate risk group and the indicated prevention level of chronic need, trauma and adverse childhood experiences. At the latter level, guidance counsellors are not qualified therapists. I would not agree their role is for one-to-one intensive sustained support for trauma and adverse childhood experiences. Some of them have stated publicly that they see their role as referring on to the specialist services at that level. We need to distinguish between the two levels - the guidance counsellors who lead whole-school bullying initiatives at the universal level of a school, and those who provide specialist, intensive one-to-one support. I am not in favour of the provision of this kind of one-to-one support by those who are not qualified therapists. I do not think anyone would suggest giving university lecturers extra continuing professional development and put them in to be counsellors for university students when there are specialist counsellors available who work at that level.
On the whole-school level, a feature of international bullying prevention approaches is that they do not put guidance counsellors in a central role. Guidance counsellors do not have a central role in many of the prevention and intervention programmes. I would argue that the Deputy is proposing a half-baked Irish solution to an Irish problem. I am not saying that an individual guidance counsellor could not lead and be the champion for a whole-school co-ordinating committee - there may be some who would be very good in that role, and there may be others who would not - but a lot depends on how we conceive of the composition of a driving committee at whole-school level. The different levels of intervention need to be distinguished.
I was not advocating that they would fill the role of therapist by any means. As someone who spent 12 years working in the education system, I suggest we need to acknowledge that we have very long waiting lists for kids to see therapists. I am suggesting that if a guidance counsellor is there, at least the child has somebody to hear them, listen to them and talk to them, and perhaps to put a programme in place in the school to alert other teachers to the problems and to the fact that the child needs support. I am not suggesting for a second that they fill the role of therapist but that children should have access to an adult who will listen to them if they are very overwhelmed on a particular day or there are problems in the family. It is about having a listening ear, whether it is from a counsellor or a therapist. We have to acknowledge that the waiting lists here are unacceptably long. I have seen at first hand how long it can take for children who need psychiatric care to receive the services they need. It is ridiculous. We have a sham of a system. All I suggest is that an adult who is already in the school can try to fill the gaping gap in services, so that the child can speak to somebody as part of the journey towards getting help, if there is trauma. At least it would be a stepping stone if there were someone in the school who could alert other staff and put supports in place urgently.
Dr. Paul Downes:
I understand the Ombudsman for Children is preparing a report for the committee on specialist emotional counselling and therapeutic supports. I very much hope the second level focus will be there for specialist emotional counselling supports in schools, as there are in many European counties. We are not talking about a huge amount of money. We could have a system of the specialist supports that are urgently needed.
On the Deputy's wider point, there is a role across the school system for mentoring and social and emotional supports from the guidance counsellor or others in the school system. One would hope that a supportive school culture would include a range of adults. For many who are alienated from the school system, and there are strong links between bullying and non-attendance at school and early school leaving, a teacher may not be the best person for a child to open up to. Students have told me on a number of occasions that they would be concerned about opening up to a teacher as opposed to other health professionals.
Professor Shelley Hymel:
I would like to echo some of that. I am not familiar with the system in Ireland. In our system, there are guidance counsellors but they do not focus on the social and emotional end, especially at second level. They focus on college preparation and things like that. We have to talk about the kinds of counsellor training and the kinds of counsellors who are available. In Canada, at least, the counsellors are completely stretched. They have way too many clients and not many kids go to them. Kids go to the person they trust. My experience is that if they go to anybody, it is a peer or a person in school such as their teacher, if they have the trust with the teacher. It has to be done at many levels. One counsellor with 2,000 kids will find it very difficult to satisfy that need. We have several problems. Teachers will also be at the front line. They are most likely to see what is going on and to be the person the kids will go to initially, and then they need help to figure out what to do. I was head of a department that trained counsellors. Frankly, we did not train them in these types of therapies. We need to consider what we are training them to do.
Dr. Downes and Professor Cefai spoke of the need for parent education and collaboration in tackling bullying. The principal networks from primary and post-primary levels were before the committee last week.
I asked them a similar question. The representatives from both primary and post-primary spoke about the difficulty of engaging with parents. They outlined how meetings may be open, public, face to face or on Zoom, but it is always the same parents and guardians who attend them. Often, the parents the teachers really want to reach do not attend these meetings, whether they are about education or whatever. This question has been asked in different ways during this meeting and previous meetings, but I would be interested in hearing our three guests' thoughts on it. Is there a way to ensure that parents will concentrate on this issue? I refer both to the parents of a bully and to those of a student who may be on the receiving end of bullying. It might be only in order to educate them.
Turning to cyberbullying, no longer does the bullying stop in school, as it may have 15 or 20 years ago. Now it comes home with the student, through Snapchat and all the other social media platforms.
Professor Shelley Hymel:
On engaging parents, they first have to be interested. Professor Donna Cross, who is based in Australia, once told me the best way to get parents involved in order that they will at least be engaged and willing to give information is to have the kids stage a play. She had put on a play, which the kids organised in order that they had a voice, and the parents came to it. Beyond that, it is difficult to get some parents in because they simply do not have time or energy to devote to this. That is something we really have to work on.
On the social media issue, parents increasingly get access to information online about parenting and their children. Right now, there is not a lot of good stuff out there on bullying and so on for parents, so that is another angle where we could reach some parents.
Dr. Paul Downes:
To amplify the point on bridge-building or non-threatening activities, such as the example of the play that Professor Hymel gave, a trust-building exercise is needed here. If we go straight to saying there is a bullying problem and a particular parent's child may be the one at fault, and we want to bring them into a universal parenting programme on that basis, parents may feel quite threatened by that. It is about trying to get in earlier with the social and emotional education and softer parenting programme approaches. It could include a range of health-based issues such as sleep-awareness issues or a range of other dimensions.
I reiterate that there needs to be different sites of engagement, such as community locations, where families may feel more at ease and where there is a social element, as well as the family centre dimension, where programmes can be run. There should be community outreach, school outreach into the home and outreach to individual families. There are home-visiting programmes, both for early years children and at primary school level, whereby there are visits to the homes of families where there are known to be major issues of mental health, domestic violence or conflict.
We need to have that multidimensional outreach approach but it should be more than just an information-based model. It is also about how parents may co-construct some of the solutions. One of the criticisms we made in our report for the European Commission was that much international research tended to treat parents passively. They were treated just as objects of information rather than being seen as co-constructers of material that may have been of relevance for, first, wider social and emotional education, and bullying as a dimension of that.
Professor Carmel Cefai:
I will build on what Dr. Downes was saying in reference to good practices that have been ongoing in some of our work here in Malta, as well as some initiatives I observed in Australia. The community outreach point is very important. I attended a seminar last week in which the head of the school explained the efforts they make to go out into the community where the parents are. They speak the parents' language and relate to their culture. This is a very important point.
We must realise that schools cannot always do it alone. They need the help of other institutions and social systems, starting with the community. For example, in the case I highlighted, the school developed an agreement with the local council, which had access to many of the parents, in order that together they could reach out to particular parents. The school worked through the local council sometimes and through social services at other times. Sometimes people from the school would visit the bingo nights that some of the parents often attended.
I recall an initiative from Australia that related to engaging the parents to lead the initiatives themselves. To bring the parents closer to the school, a number of parents were nominated who acted as champions for that cause, and the parents themselves led the parent training. Of course, the school invited in experts, but this was not seen as a school-based intervention but rather one organised by parents for parents. That is a good way forward.
At previous meetings, the committee heard from several witnesses in regard to online safety and the role the online safety commissioner can play in tackling cyberbullying. I am not sure what our guests' experiences are, whether in Canada, Malta or Ireland, although I am most familiar with this country. Do they believe social media companies are doing enough to tackle cyberbullying? At previous meetings, we heard terrible experiences of kids, and teachers have told me about cases of online bullying, specifically on Snapchat, which is more difficult to prove because the posts disappear, unlike on Facebook, Twitter or whatever. Online bullying is a very significant issue. Some children now use social media platforms until 1 a.m., 2 a.m. or even 3 a.m., if their parents are not strict about turning off the Wi-Fi in the house, or whatever the case may be. We all will have heard dreadful stories and experiences. I am interested in hearing our guests' views on social media platforms in particular.
Professor Carmel Cefai:
In our case, we have a big problem. According to the World Health Organization study on health behaviour in school-aged children, HBSC, Maltese children aged 13 and 15 years old are at the top in terms of addiction to the Internet, which of course opens the door to cyberbullying and abuse. As a start, one way in which we are trying to address the problem is by educating both the parents and the young people - we are talking especially about teenagers but they may also be young children nowadays - about cyber safety. This relates to what I was saying earlier about social and emotional education. A specific part of the curriculum in the context of social and emotional education will focus on cyberbullying, cyber safety and the potential dangers of the Internet if it is not used responsibly.
Professor Shelley Hymel:
We are still trying to understand the differences. Cyberbullying is the least frequent form of bullying; I should put that on the table.
It is also unique. The children most at risk in traditional face-to-face bullying are what we call bully victims. These are people who bully others but who also get victimised. In the cyber world, this happens a great deal. Those things are very highly correlated. It is not that there is a subgroup of kids who are victimised and another who are bullies; they are both engaging in bullying, often in a retaliatory manner. We are just beginning to understand this. What seems to be happening, at least based on a number of our recent studies, is that kids are getting desensitised. I do not really want to use that word but I cannot think of another. They do not see it is a problem but rather just as the way the world is. We have a really big problem with cyberbullying and, right now, it is really difficult to understand the ways in which it is unique and how it can be addressed. I certainly agree with Professor Cefai that we need to include this in our programmes and to attack it but we also need a lot more research to understand how those relationships are different and what impact they are having on the children.
Dr. Paul Downes:
I will just make a wider holistic point about engaging young people in meaningful activities. People sitting and look at screens for hours every day, and lockdowns have accentuated this problem, may not be particularly happy in their daily lives. Part of it is a spillover of general unhappiness. We need a vision for extracurricular activities, after-school projects, meaningful sports, the arts and nature and to channel people's energies in other directions. This is linked to the discriminatory bullying I mentioned. Research in the area of social psychology highlights that it is not enough just to have contact with people to overcome prejudice or discrimination. Contact and structured co-operation are required. It is about structured co-operative tasks. The online environment is so unstructured in many ways that it facilitates that sense of mutual antagonism. As part of a revitalisation of our society, we need to integrate arts and sport, which are individually strong in many ways, with a social and emotional education. For example, there is increasing interest at the level of the European Commission in outdoor education, social and emotional education and the interplay between the two. It is about challenging our young people's energies in diverse directions.
I had intended to come in once but the witnesses caught my attention so I have stayed for the entire conversation. To revisit some of the issues that have been raised, I get the idea that any interventions need to take place as soon as possible, as is true in most other areas. I really welcome the commentary suggesting that multiple sites must be picked and this anti-bullying framework built into everything as opposed to asking parents to come in and telling them their kid is the main problem with regard to bullying, to use the example given. That is obviously a major issue.
We have a number of community-based programmes. The example in County Louth to which I probably halfway alluded is the Genesis programme, with which I have a familial connection, to put that on the record. This service operates parenting programmes for the parents of children of varying ages, starting from the very young. It also operates the KiVa anti-bullying programme. It runs stuff in the community and programmes connected to the schools. That serves a really good purpose but a certain cohort is missed. The witnesses spoke earlier about people who suffer multiple adverse childhood experiences. We are possibly talking about multigenerational issues or abuse connected with poverty along with many other issues. There is a wider piece of work to be done there. A holistic set of interventions with particular families is required. This probably means starting when kids are very young and dealing with a lot more than just the very specific issue of bullying.
In fairness, the witnesses have laid out quite well the sort of framework at which we are looking with regard to best practice. Can resilience be built in? As much as we want to deal with the problem of bullying and as much as we need to address it and prevent it happening, it will still happen and we need to help kids protect themselves. We talked about social media and the amount of time people spend on these platforms. We are in a world in which people are not doing what they did 20 or 30 years ago, which is to go out and interact with their peers. There were good and bad points. People fell out with each other and had fights but learned how to get over it. To a degree, those skill sets are just not as readily available to kids these days. That is probably an issue.
Dr. Paul Downes:
I will come in with regard to the Genesis programme. I served on its committee for a while so I know it pretty well. The area-based childhood programmes present a great opportunity. They represent a key underutilised lens for a community vision on bullying, as do the local area partnerships. I firmly encourage the committee to make some recommendation in this regard. Many of these have already been developing social and emotional education initiatives. They tend to focus on the younger years while a lot is also needed for adolescents. The scope of some of these groups does not stretch to the adolescents in their remit. It is certainly a structure. There are the area-based childhood, ABC, initiatives. That is a community-based structure which has great potential.
With particular regard to KiVa, in our formal submission to the committee we raised concern with particular regard to the peer defenders aspect of KiVa. It is questionable both legally and psychologically. Those are aspects to be considered.
With regard to the point on resilience, Professor Cefai may disagree with me but I am concerned about some of the discourse around resilience because it risks blaming children who are suffering for supposedly not being sufficiently resilient. I do not believe we need to make Teflon children or children who are superheroes in the midst of adversity. I personally prefer the term "agency". We want to enable children to respond actively to situations. We need to create inclusive systems around them to facilitate their agency. One part of resilience, if I was to be committed to use the term, is stopping the cycles of self-hate. International research shows that victims blame themselves. They internalise the logic of the perpetrator, feel hopeless and engage in patterns of fatalism, which is associated with risk behaviour. Stopping those cycles of despair, self-blame and self-hate is a key dimension. Intensive supports are needed to do that but universal competences may also be involved.
Professor Shelley Hymel:
We have a problem in that we are just beginning to understand how this bullying and victimisation gets under the skin. To give an example, several studies have shown that kids who are victimised by peers or more generally show a blunted cortisol response. Their body changes. We exert cortisol for that fight or flight response under conditions of stress but kids who have been victimised do not. They exert less cortisol. This is only seen in victims of the Holocaust or repeated rape. It is a very major factor. If we want to create resilience, we really have to start thinking about the impact of bullying in making kids less resilient and how we can compensate for that. We do not have answers to that question yet. We are just beginning to uncover how difficult that may be for the child who is repeatedly victimised.
Professor Carmel Cefai:
I would start with an inclusive approach where children at risk of bullying or already bullied would also benefit from general socio-emotional skills such as self-regulation and developing a positive self-concept. That is an important point. We are trying to create a context where bullying cannot thrive. However, until we reach the ideal situation where bullying does not exist, we need to provide additional targeted supports for those at risk of being bullied in terms of gender, disability, ethnicity - we know who these are - while providing as much classroom and whole-school context as possible where the children are protected.
At the same time, there is the concept of multifinality and that is where the concept of resilience is important. Research shows and we have seen how harmful to mental health bullying is. However, the relationship between bullying and mental health problems is not linear. It can be mediated and that is where resilience comes in by a number of processes that promote the resilience of the person.
We know what the factors are to deal with the trauma and to prevent further exacerbation of the problem and of the bullying. Research has shown that, where children are at risk of being or already being bullied and are therefore at risk of mental health difficulties, they benefit from the support of peers. There could be peer support schemes or mentoring. An important point can be having a stable, close relationship with a teacher at the school, a sort of mentor. That will be a scaffold of support. It is also of importance that they have understanding parental support. A further important factor can be their work, as Professor Hymel and Dr. Downes were saying, on developing a more positive self-concept, believing more in themselves and self-efficacy. Socio-emotional learning can work in that way. There are also social skills such as learning to say “No” in certain situations, how not to exacerbate a problem such that it becomes more violent, for example, and how to make the best decision in a difficult situation.
When it comes to the concept of resilience, I agree we should not put the onus on the victim or expect them to be resilient in tough situations. The idea is to remove the unjust structures and tough situations. While we work to provide a context at school, at home and in the community where bullying does not thrive, we have to give at the same time a resilience vaccine to children at risk so they are strengthened when they face a bullying situation, first, in how they deal with it and, second, so it does not have so much psychological impact on their well-being.
I have listened to the contributions this afternoon. We talked abut words we like and words we are not such big fans of. For me, the word “bullying” does not really describe the extent of what we face sometimes. It does not seem to capture the seriousness. Two earlier contributions mentioned how bullying leads to suicidal ideation. That is the shocking horror faced by the children and families going through this.
With regard to many of the presentations we have had during recent meetings, I was trying to get to what a good place looks like. What does a good school environment look like? What does a proactive engagement with parents and other leaders in the community look like? Would some of our speakers like to give an example? I think Professor Hymel spoke about a play. In my mind, I have the idea that role plays in schools might be a way to let children know what to do if they encounter a bullying incident, whether they are bystanders, upstanders, the people perpetrating the bullying or the victims. As the witnesses mentioned, each of these groups suffer the long-term impacts of not taking action.
What does the perfect environment look like? Is there a place for role plays or plays in our school system to help identify the people to go to or people students might trust or, in general, because it happens all the time and to show students how to deal with it?
Professor Shelley Hymel:
I do not know if I can tell the Senator what the ideal school is but I can give some examples. Role play is important but it has to be done well. There has been some great success incorporating socio-emotional learning in drama. We have had people go in and work with students so students have a voice in creating plays and activities they do with younger children which allow for that more intense working out of what to do in a certain situation. There is a way to do that.
I see schools adopting socio-emotional learning and teachers taking it to heart. In our province, each school has counsellors and that is separate from what they call a social-emotional champion. We meet every month with representatives from several school districts who talk, exchange ideas or whatever. We need time to talk, exchange strategies and activities and work together. Those things operate to begin to create really wild things.
The other thing we have done that has been effective is bibliographies. Many great books can be used. I love the diversity of approaches. Different teachers will feel comfortable or uncomfortable with different approaches. The more we give them the capacity and the capital to take all sorts of different approaches, the more likely we will reach some of those kids and create those environments.
Professor Carmel Cefai:
This is a big question but I will focus on what an ideal SEL school would be like and some examples of good practice. We need to start by foregrounding SEL. Socio-emotional education is not yet recognised in many countries, schools or regions as being of enough value to spend resources and invest in its development. Many schools, and maybe the Programme for International Student Assessment, PISA, do not help in this way, and are driven by a reductionist view of education based on cognitive or academic learning. There needs to be more awareness of the importance of socio-emotional education as a crucial part of human development. One way of doing this is when the whole-school community mobilises its human and physical resources to put this vision of socio-emotional education into practice across all systems.
We need to identify the needs of our students and community. We would start with training the adults in the school before working with the children on socio-emotional education. In particular, we start with the teachers and school administration so they become converted. Some teachers and parents are not convinced of the benefits of socio-emotional education. By doing it and developing these competencies, they can be good role models for the school population. We would also work with the parents and empower them to educate themselves.
We have to be a bit careful not to be patronising or to blame the parents in one way or another. As I said, schools can organise training with parents themselves leading. Once we do that and we have the whole school mobilise its resources with a clear vision, we have trained the staff and we have worked with the parents, we can then start implementing social and emotional education in the curriculum, in extracurricular activities, in academic learning, in the classroom climate and in school bullying policies.
Dr. Paul Downes:
To add to a number of the points, working with the principal is a key aspect so we need the professional development of principals regarding social and emotional education. We have restorative practice schools here where there are whole-school approaches. We are not that far away from it in many of our schools and there are a number of schools where we can see models of real openness. Conflict is not avoidable in schools, conflict is part of life, and it is a question of how those conflicts are mediated.
Professor Cefai made a point that I want to amplify, which is that social and emotional education is not opposed to academic learning. The academic research points out that social and emotional education improves academic learning because it involves a deeper engagement with the material, deeper connection to life experience and deeper processes of questioning. For example, in English they are trying to understand characters’ motivations in a novel or they are trying to understand empathy in history. Drama and role-play is something which is part of the primary curriculum and can be used as a method across subjects, such as in history, religion or ethics. There are ways in which role-play helps the key social and emotional education goals, which are empathy and perspective taking.
On the point on the ideal features of a school, we can almost sense this when we go into schools. One of my roles is to go around to different schools on school placement, and I can see the tangible climate in the school where all the school staff are engaged with the school process, they are happy to chat with the children and they talk at the level of the children, so there is democracy in action in the school environment. It is about all of those whole-school aspects.
If I am being asked what other layers there are on that, I have already argued for a whole-school committee to drive through change at a whole-school level, not just one champion but a committee, and to have emotional counsellors and therapists onsite. What I would add to that is a vision of a school community lifelong learning centre, where the school is available after school hours, where there can be after-school activities that children want to stay for and where parents are engaged. The role of the arts in regard to bullying prevention and social and emotional education is usually underdeveloped. There are many different multidimensional lenses to build on.
I would add that around secondary school level, many of the wider programmes have been shown to be less effective for older teenagers. There is a risk that overly didactic approaches will get the teenagers to react against it, and they will do the opposite. There is quite a lot of research, even going back to the 1970s, that if we try to programme youth into things, they will go the opposite way. We have to be careful around that aspect also. With older children, it is about co-constructing meaning-making material.
In our report for the commission, we also emphasised how youth would have an input into curricular materials. In the international research, one of the key features of successful bullying programmes was video. Videos were actively developed by minority groups who were victims of bullying to show what it is like in their life experience. To have different minority voices come through in videos is another dimension that international research says has a key impact for bullying prevention.
I know Dr. Downes presented to us previously and I thank him for taking the time today. To take away a key point, it would be that early intervention in primary school is crucial. We heard from other schools talking about the roots of empathy programme, which was very impressive. I take it that the focus on primary schools and early intervention is crucial, along with training the teachers within the whole school on these programmes and the emotional skills the witnesses are talking about.
Dr. Paul Downes:
Yes. I would also emphasise there needs to be a consistency with the climate and culture of secondary school. It is very important that those democratic, voice-based principles at primary are carried through into the secondary school system. We risk a disillusionment if we have a very different type of school climate from primary to post-primary. I argue that we need to be looking for that continuity of climate, and that would obviously go back to issues such as conflict resolution skills for secondary teachers as well as primary teachers in initial teacher education.
That concludes our meeting. I thank the witnesses for attending and for sharing their insights and expert knowledge on the issue. The discussion has been of enormous assistance to the committee and our ongoing work in this area. It is an area of huge interest and we have learned something new at all of our meetings in recent weeks. We are very grateful to all of the witnesses and thank them for their dedication and commitment in the work they do on a daily basis. I specifically want to thank Professor Hymel and Professor Cefai, who have joined us from overseas. I know Dr. Downes is not too far away from us and he has always been of huge assistance to the committee. I thank him for putting us in contact with our other witnesses.
There was one omission earlier in the meeting. I received apologies from Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh and Senator Eileen Flynn, who were unable to attend.