If your child has been bullied at school, or if you’ve noticed their behaviour and personality has changed, it’s worth considering how their teacher relates with and regards your child, and whether he or she is taking action to investigate the dynamics in the classroom. It can make the world of difference to your child, as I discovered with my own daughter’s experiences.
I was speaking to a friend who happens to be a school teacher and she told me how she was surprised at how few teachers she worked with acknowledged the importance of getting to know each child in their class. We were discussing how when dealing with problems in a classroom, such as bullying, if a teacher knew the children well, including their background, particular life challenges, personalities, and the relationship dynamics they had with their classmates, most situations could be dealt with effectively, even when a child exhibited ‘problematic’ behaviour such as not listening or getting much work done and being aggressive and/or defensive with other students.
One of my daughters was considered such a ‘problem child’ for a couple of years when she was aged from six until about eight, and she didn’t really ‘recover’ until high school. She was unhappy at school, started to become defensive with and distrustful of her classmates, and was doing very little work. Her teacher told me that she was not an easy child to deal with, that she had a negative attitude and was too emotionally expressive. It was clear this teacher did not like her.
At home and in her previous year at school, and at the childcare centre she attended a couple of days a week, she had been full of life and spirit. She was always joking around and would laugh at anything. She was also very stubborn and quite cheeky but in a fun way. She was one of the kindest children I’d met and had an enormous capacity for empathy, so much that the childcare workers at the centre she went to would tell me how if they were ever upset they would go to my daughter for one of her soul-soothing cuddles.
So when she changed so dramatically during primary school, we were concerned. Naturally we listened to her teacher and we tried to help our daughter ourselves but all we could ascertain was that she hated school, especially since her two best friends had left the school, and she didn’t like some of the boys in her class. She told us about how those boys, egged on by the ringleader, would make faces at her, throw pencils and other objects at her while she was trying to work, push and shove her whenever they had an opportunity, and so on. Once they even pulled her head backwards into a bucket of water – something she was only able to tell us in snippets over a week because she was so distressed by the experience. Yet still, her teacher said my daughter was ‘provoking’ those boys by doing such things as sitting at a desk to do her work where they would have to pass or by looking at them in an unfriendly way. When we complained that there appeared to be a ringleader among the group of boys who was causing the trouble the teacher replied that this boy was ‘too small’ to be able to have such influence, and was also smaller than my daughter and so he couldn’t have been a threat to her.
(The reason those children were able to behave this way in the classroom is because being a Montessori school, the teacher, or Director, as they are called, isn’t always able to observe the goings on of the whole class because they teach via individual and small-group presentations, and while they are giving those presentations, the other students can quite easily misbehave if they wish to, even with an assistant teacher in the classroom, who also helps students individually. The students also choose to sit and work wherever they want to – at a desk or on the floor – and so apparently my daughter always chose to sit in the boys’ way. I am not against Montessori, by the way – my eldest daughter was very happy in her class, which had a great group of children who, on the whole, got along, and the system suited her learning style perfectly. She also had an exceptional teacher.)
But because this younger daughter is our most expressive and stubborn child, and also emotionally quite reactive, we could see how she might be contributing to some of the situations herself, and she would have been feeling lonely since her friends had left and so was not as happy as she once was.
A new teacher and new principal save the day
But it took until a new teacher and a new school principal joined the school, both of whom read my letters to the school about what was going on, for something to change.
The new teacher took the time to observe the class from the sidelines while she asked another teacher to take over the lessons, and she saw what was going on. She also considered my daughter as an individual, with feelings and thoughts affected by her history in the class. What she reported was that my daughter was obviously uncomfortable and defensive in the class but she also saw that she had a very good reason to be – the group of boys my daughter had told us about, led by the ringleader, were bullying my daughter, and were very obvious about it, even right in front of the new teacher. And the other children ‘allowed’ it to happen. It was all very ‘Lord of the Flies’.
So, finally, the boys responsible for making the classroom an extremely unpleasant place for my daughter were asked why they were doing what they did and had to explain their behaviour. The leader of the pack stated that he simply took a dislike to my daughter the moment he saw her and decided he would torment her. Because he was the boy the other boys looked up to, they all followed suit. And even the girls saw that the culture of the class, in this case determined by the group of dominant boys, included an unwritten rule to be unkind to my daughter.
The new principal took action immediately upon hearing that the new teacher’s observations backed up my complaints. She had the boys acknowledge what they had done, to set a goal to turn their own behaviour around, and even to change the culture of the class as a whole. She appealed to the ring leader’s leadership qualities to do this, and she also investigated his home life to try to ascertain if that had affected his behaviour, which she obviously kept confidential, so I can’t comment on what might have been going on there. And the results were remarkable – for the whole class.
My daughter was finally able to relax in the class and focus on her work without fear of being tormented. She was still distrustful for some time, but that’s understandable. And the class as a whole changed to be a far happier one. The teacher reported that even other parents had expressed to her their gratitude for the changes, even one whose child was one of the boys bullying my daughter.
But it wasn’t an entirely happy ending. The situation in that classroom had been going on for so long that a culture had formed there, and although the students welcomed the changed attitude from ‘the boys’, those boys held onto a sense of entitlement about how they could behave and the other students seemed to feel that their behaviour needed approval from those boys. With others, their attitudes towards my daughter had already been set.
The thing is, my daughter is a strong personality, she is bright, she is tall and physically robust, so she has came out of this relatively unscathed. It saddens me to imagine how another child, maybe someone more meek, or with unsupportive parents, might have suffered in similar circumstances. And without someone like the new teacher who connected with and got to know my daughter and took her concerns seriously, nothing would have changed and we probably would have taken her out of the school and be dealing with a child with serious problems.
I have discovered that this sort of situation occurs in many classes, in many schools, and many children have terrible times during their school life because of bullying not being dealt with.
The teacher I was discussing this with said that many teachers, when presented with a child who is difficult in some way, or appears to have difficulty concentrating, do not look beyond that to try to discover why. My family’s experience tells me that if our children are to have the best chance of a successful school life, teachers need to start to look at situations more deeply than they do. There is so much damage that school experiences can do to your child, no matter how enlightened a parent you might be.
The fact is that children spend most of their day at school and so the school environment should be safe and supportive for each child in attendance, which means teachers need to get to know each child. Parents know how much time and attention is required to understand our own children and to give them the best kind of attention for their individual needs, so why do many teachers presume to know how to treat our children when they do not take the time to get to know them and the dynamics in their classrooms?
I realise part of the problem is that in many schools teachers simply do not have the time to get to know each child. But my daughter’s situation occurred in an alternative school, with decent resources, where the staff could have dealt with the problem in a better way.
The theory of bonding patterns could be of such use here, with teachers who understand even at a basic level how bonding patterns between children, and between themselves and the children form. Imagine if teachers could see beyond immediate behaviours and look at what might be going on underneath – both for children who behave in a destructive manner and those who bear the brunt of it.
And if teachers could see how they themselves might feel vulnerable in a class situation where they are meant to be the expert, yet are unable to immediately see how to handle some situations, they would also give themselves permission to observe, ask questions, and learn from other teachers and even from the children in their care.
We all oscillate between vulnerability and power, and when we find ourselves in a situation where we are meant to know what to do but don’t, then to avoid feeling the discomfort of vulnerability, we go further into our power side, which automatically disconnects us from the people we are with, which makes it even more difficult to sense what is going on and to find real solutions.
I believe that my daughter’s first teacher, the one who made excuses for the boys’ behaviour, felt unable to deal with the toxic situation and so tried to pretend it wasn’t so bad. Maybe she wasn’t able to accept that the events that occurred did so under her watch, and so had to downplay them. In any case, she did a huge disservice to my daughter and to the other children in her care who witnessed it all and had to cope with it too, even if they were not the ones being targeted.
Fast forward to now, with my daughter a teenager:
She has a lovely large group of friends and is at a regular high school. She is doing alright but she has definitely been scarred by her earlier school experiences.
Bullying is an issue that needs to be taken seriously – far more so than schools simply writing a ‘bullying policy’ which they file away, as still happens in many schools, apparently. Teachers and administrators could really do with extra training in how to deal with the different personalities expressed in their students, how to recognise when a child is a victim of another child, how to recognise manipulative behaviour of some children, and how to deal with group dynamics in the classroom.
Education is far more than learning the subjects in the curriculum. Primary education especially should support parents in guiding their children to grow into decent, socialised, self-aware human beings, as it is these early years that count the most. Such young children need more help with their social relations than teachers currently are required to teach. And it would help if teaching attracted more teachers who were genuinely interested and trained more thoroughly in child development, just like the teacher who literally came to my daughter’s rescue.