Bullying, a Broader Issue.
The angst that develops from school bullying tends to put the focus heavily on individual schools, school principals and classroom teachers. The Government's answer is to send a stern letter to school boards and to ignore the real causes of bullying behaviour. A strongly worded letter will only support the idea that schools are responsible for solving the ills of society and everyone else can get on with life as usual.What we really need to do is have a close look at our society and recognize that the general environment that our aggressive children come from is the real cause of the problem.
So what are the contributors to the bulling behaviours, that a significant group of children are displaying, and where is the evidence?
I would suggest that the first area to look at is parenting, not to shift the blame fully onto parents but to look at how our society supports good parenting. It is widely recognized that at least 25% of our children experience poverty, the homes many children come from are struggling on low incomes or having a single parent managing a family alone. New Zealand is also ranked near the bottom of the OECD regarding our record for child health and safety. The stress of supporting a family on low incomes is a growing issue with many parents working long hours on minimum wages and dealing with the stress involved in getting food on the table. Parents who feel powerless, tired and stressed tend not to manage their relationships well and often take out their frustration and anger on their children, a lack of basic parenting skills can exacerbate the problem. The fact that successive governments have not recognized the value of stay at home parents must also contribute to this the breakdown of the parent/child relationship. Despite the evidence that few parents remain on the DPB for longer than a year there is pressure to get parents back to work as soon as possible, stay at home parents are viewed as lazy bludgers by many.
The next area that needs our attention is our provision of early childhood education. If parents are being forced to work then increasing numbers of children will be placed in centres with varying quality levels. Labour increased funding considerably in this area and growing numbers of centres and kindergartens were being staffed with qualified teachers, however we still fund this sector at much lower level than the OECD average (0.6% of GDP compared to the average of 1%). Considering there is general acceptance that the early years have a substantial influence on shaping the future adult this sector is hugely under-resourced. Kohanga reo used to do a wonderful job with our young maori children but this national institution has recently suffered from a lack of properly trained and supported teachers and inconsistent funding management.
The school environment still has an important role to play and many schools could probably improve their management of bullying children, however there are some important factors that schools struggle with. As classroom teacher who has had responsibility for mainstreamed children with high needs I have found a number of barriers to the effective management of extreme behaviours. While many teacher aids do a brilliant job it is hard to attract the best people for these roles when pay and conditions are currently at minimum levels. School support staff lack job security, are paid little over the minimum wage and regularly put up with physical and verbal attacks from the children they support. If I don't have a competent teacher aid to support me in a class they can almost create more work and can make things worse for the child. Class size is also an issue, there is no recognition that a high needs child demands extra teacher time and this has to be taken from the time available to support the rest of the class. It is not unusual for a teacher to have several high needs children in a class of over 30. I have also found small schools can really struggle with extreme behaviours and have found myself having to keep and manage a child, who is displaying violent behaviour, in the classroom because there is no staff member available to provide support or supervise the child elsewhere. It is a real dilemma for many teachers who have real sympathy for their high needs children (who often come from the most appalling circumstances) yet struggle to meet the needs of the others in the class who also deserve their time.
Children tend to model their behaviour on the adults around them and New Zealand has unacceptable levels of workplace bullying. Interestingly it appears that high levels of bullying can be found within the health and education professions and it could hardly be said that our parliament and government are bully free environments either. The late Andrea Needham wrote the book pictured above this post and, with a background in private sector management, she expressed concern that our bullying culture is costing our country large amounts of money as businesses and public institutions lose competent people and efficient management is compromised. It is very hard for adults who are bullied to get realistic support and the most common outcome is for the bullied individual to resign their position and the bully to continue their behaviour. If the very institutions that are charged with the care and management of bullying children can't provide good role models themselves it should cause some concern.
So yes, John Key and Anne Tolley, you can send your strongly worded letter but it won't make one jot of a difference unless you address the broader issues!