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Primary school teachers unable to identify bullying

12 January 2017
Beau Oldenburg

Teachers in primary school are not fully equipped to handle bullying even though their role is crucial in reducing the number of bullied children in the classroom. Teachers often don't know exactly what bullying is, don't recognize victims very well and feel the bullying is under control when there are in fact many victims in these classes. These are the conclusions in Beau Oldenburg's PhD thesis ‘Bullying in Schools. The role of teachers and classmates’. She will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 19 January.

Bullying among children is a big problem with serious consequences for all those involved, and a lot of research has been conducted into this phenomenon in recent years. Beau Oldenburg: ‘These studies show that bullying is not, as previously assumed, an interaction only between the bully and the victim, but rather a complex social phenomenon in which teachers and classmates also play important roles. Studies show that teachers are important actors when it comes to bullying, that classmates serve as an audience for the bully and that the in-class relations between pupils affect bullying and its related behaviour.

Teachers insufficiently equipped to handle bullying

Schools that use the Finnish Kiva anti-bullying programme show a significant decrease in the number of bullying events. There are still quite a few cases, however, where the approach doesn't work. René Veenstra’s VICI project is trying to find solutions for these cases.

Beau Oldenburg (‘bullying takes place in almost every classroom’) conducted four studies using data from pupil surveys and interviews with teachers. She found that teachers can make a difference in the number of bullied children but aren't fully equipped to actually tackle the bullying itself. Teachers often have incorrect notions about bullying. For example, some teachers claimed that they had no trouble handling bullying among their pupils when precisely their classes turned out to have many victims. In addition, teachers seemed to be insufficiently aware of what exactly comprises bullying. They failed to recognize as victims some pupils who claimed to have been bullied. On the other hand, they labelled some pupils as victims who were not being bullied according to their self-reports.

Oldenburg also concludes that it is difficult to establish whether a pupil is actually being bullied. Teachers often give socially desirable answers to questions and suggest there may be ‘overreaction’ on the part of the bullied pupil. Oldenburg: ‘As soon as pupils start defending their bullied classmates, it becomes less attractive for the bully to continue. Being defended can also work as a buffer against the negative consequences of bullying; at least there is someone helping you.

Class composition also has an influence, says Oldenburg. ‘Pupils in larger classes less often designate as bullying victims classmates who self-reported that they actually were. Perhaps pupils don't know each other as well and know less about one another in larger classes. Combination groups also report fewer victims: the mix of younger and older pupils leads to less competition.’

More information

  • Beau Oldenburg (1987) conducted her anti-bullying research as part of the Innovational Research project ‘Anti-bullying programs 2.0: Tailored interventions to minimize bullying’ initiated by VICI-laureate Prof. D.R. (René) Veenstra at the Sociology Department of the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences of the University of Groningen. The project is co-financed by the Onderwijs Bewijs programme. She will continue on the project as a postdoc researcher.
  • PhD thesis
  • See also the video below on Oldenburg's research: What can teachers do about bullying?
Last modified:11 March 2019 12.44 p.m.
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