Bullying doesn't take a holiday
Parents of primary pupils urged to monitor kids' social networking over the summer break amid an increase in calls to anti-bullying centre
School's out, or almost out, for about 900,000 primary and post-primary pupils and anyone who encountered bullying during the year is probably breathing a sigh of relief, thinking that the harassment will now disappear.
But, Dr James O'Higgins Norman, director of the Anti-Bullying Research Centre at Dublin City University, says just because schools close, the problem doesn't necessarily go away for the summer.
That is particularly true in the modern era, where cyberbullying knows no bounds and children engaging with online activity are vulnerable.
Dr O'Higgins Norman says bullying can also follow children to other activities, such as summer camps, and parents need to be alert to the possibilities.
Over the past month, the DCU anti-bullying centre has received a lot of calls from parents of fifth and sixth class pupils.
He doesn't know why they have experienced such a surge but suggests that "perhaps bullying has been going on all year and they feel frustrated that it hasn't been resolved and they don't want it spilling into next year."
In relation to online activity that children may be engaging in over the holidays, Dr O'Higgins Norman says parents need to be careful that any contact is appropriate and that there is no bullying taking place.
"Parents need to be aware that they use the internet in a different way from their children and need to get to grips with social media sites that their children are using," he says.
A survey published by the DCU centre earlier this year showed that while over half of parents of nine to 16-year-olds engage in social media sites such as Facebook, they have almost no interaction with Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat, the platforms of choice for their teen and pre-teen children.
Dr O'Higgins Norman says: "the best way is to sit kids down, talk to them about what they are doing online and encourage them to talk; ask them questions like 'have you ever come across cyberbullying'."
But he cautions: "The number one thing that parents must promise kids is that they won't take away their internet access. It is the number one reason why kids don't report what might be going on."
The DCU centre recently ran its annual conference, which heard that much more needs to be done at school level to deal with the bullying issue.
There has been a raft of initiatives from the Department of Education in recent years, but Dr O'Higgins Norman says they don't go far enough.
He says while Ireland has developed a National Anti-Bullying Action Plan, we have not gone so far as to implement a national programme across all schools.
"Thanks to the last government, we are in a much better place than we had been. The national plan has moved the whole area on by light years."
But his issue is that the action plan leaves it to individual schools to develop their own programme, whereas he says what is needed is a national approach across all schools.
While the Government is funding parental awareness of the issue through training being offered by national parents' councils and by supporting research at the DCU anti-bullying centre, he says what is missing is teacher training.
According to Dr O'Higgins Norman, there is a "massive need" to upskill teachers: "We are finding there is tremendous anxiety among teachers and principals about how to deal with bullying and the victim can lose out.
The recent DCU conference heard from a leading international academic who spoke about the effectiveness of an anti-bullying programme called KiVA, currently in use in more than 2,300 Finnish schools, and in other countries.
Finland's education system generally is regarded as a world leader.
Unlike many anti-bullying initiatives, KiVa is based on decades of research and was evaluated in Finland over two years before a nationwide roll-out in 2007-2009. It is now also running in Belgium, Estonia, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, UK, Sweden and Hungary.
The network of international KiVa partners collaborates in both research and programme development.
KiVa has three age-appropriate programmes, one for six to nine-year-olds, one for 10 to 12-year-olds, and the third for junior-cycle age students. It involves a range of classroom-based and online lessons, group discussions, visibility of play time supervisors and enhancing peer support for victims of bullying.
They say that what marks KiVa out is that it has been tested in rigorous scientific studies, and independent data, collected by Finland's National Institute for Health and Welfare, indicates that bullying and victimisation have decreased in the country since the roll-out of KiVa.
Studies from the Netherlands, Estonia, Italy, and Wales are also showing that KiVa is effective outside of Finland as well.
Professor Christina Salmivalli of Turku University, Finland spoke to the conference about how it helped to reduce incidents of bullying.
One issue in particular that Prof Salmivalli highlighted was how influencing bystander behaviour leads to an overall reduction of bullying.
She said that the effectiveness of KiVa was due to the emphasis on changing bystander responses to bullying and changes in how students perceive their teachers' bullying-related attitudes.
Dr O'Higgins Norman points that in a school context, the teacher can be the bystander.
"There needs to be a basic programme where all schools have teachers trained and have an understanding of what bullying is about, so that they can recognise it and deal with it appropriately."
He says the DCU centre has piloted a whole school approach that could be rolled out nationally if funding and resources to train teachers were made available.
While there is no such commitment, Dr O'Higgins Norman is heartened that the Programme for Government includes a commitment to a revision of the National Anti-Bullying Action Plan.
In the meantime, the DCU centre plans to launch a training course in September, which, it hopes, will attract teachers who want to know more about effective anti-bullying practices.