Primary school children who suffer frequent bullying are at greater risk of being left well behind in their learning. And this learning disadvantage weighs more heavily on girls, even though boys are more likely to experience bullying.
In what is the first large-scale study to examine the links between bullying and academic achievement, researchers at Australia’s Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and the University of Melbourne found that children who reported being bullied on weekly basis were on average six-to-nine months behind their peers in their studies.
They also found that physical bullying was particularly damaging to academic achievement, but that girls were also vulnerable to falling behind as a result of verbal bullying. Boys appeared to be largely resilient in the face of verbal-only abuse, reporting no impact on academic performance.
The study of almost 1,000 eight and nine-year-olds, also confirmed that bullying is distressingly commonplace among primary school children. One in three boys and one in four girls reported being bullied once a week, largely in line with previous studies.
The mid-to-late years of primary school are when children report the highest frequency of bullying.
Learning disadvantage Substantial
Lead researcher Dr Lisa Mundy says the results under-score the importance of efforts to prevent bullying at school, making it clear that the well-being of children is at least as important as their learning.
“The extent of the learning delay we found was substantial and actually surprised us,” says Dr Mundy. “Given these children have only been in school for three full years, the extent of the delay and disadvantage they experience compared to that of their peers is significant.”
“We already have evidence that bullying has an adverse effects on children in terms of social and mental problems, but to make this link with learning is really important in terms of providing that extra evidence and motivation for schools and teachers to take action to prevent bullying and promote positive peer relationships,” says Dr Mundy.
The study, published in the journal Academic Paediatrics, compared the result of child surveys conducted in classrooms with the performance of the children on Australia’s NAPLAN national standardised school test. It covered 43 schools in Melbourne, including government, private and catholic schools. Bullying was measured using the established Gatehouse Bullying Scale. Physical bullying was defined as being hit or kicked by another student, while verbal bullying was defined as teasing or being called names.
Boys were more likely to have been physically bullied with 18 per cent reporting frequent bullying, compared with 11 per cent of girls. But both boys and girls reported similar rates of frequent verbal bullying (boys 15 per cent and girls 17 per cent). However the academic impact on girls was worse.
Impact on girls worse
Girls reporting frequent verbal bullying were on average six months behind in writing related tasks, but the academic performance of boys was unaffected.
Girls reporting frequent physical bullying (with or without verbal bullying) were on average six-to-nine months behind on reading, numeracy, writing, spelling, grammar and punctuation. However boys reporting both frequent physical bullying (with or without verbal bullying) were also behind in both numeracy and writing.
“The study suggests that physical bullying may be more significant in terms of the association between bullying and academic performance, compared with verbal bullying,” Dr Mundy said. “But when we look at verbal bullying, girls appear to be more at risk.”
“It seems that girls might be more adversely affected by bullying at this age, which is in line with previous findings, but we don’t yet know why that may be.”
Nevertheless, she says that understanding these gender differences is important for schools in designing and implementing anti-bullying strategies.
“The results provide more information to schools about the differences in the way girls and boys might respond to bullying and the differences in physical and verbal bullying, and how schools may deal with bullying.”
Whole of school approach
She says specific actions schools can take on preventing bullying include staff development, incorporating issues around bullying into the curriculum, and teaching students resilience and skills around dealing with bullying. But she says the critical thing was to ensure efforts to prevent bullying are enacted across a school as a whole.
“The evidence suggest that the most effective way to deal with bullying is to take a whole of school approach in which teachers, student, and the whole community including parents, are involved,” Dr Mundy says.
She says parents have a crucial role in providing a supportive environment at home that encourages children to talk about any bullying at school, and being role models for respectful relationships.
“Being able talk to your child and providing that really important adult relationship at home so that children feel they are able to talk and reveal any concerns they may have, is really important.”
Signs of bullying
According to the Raising Children Network, one in five children keeps bullying secret from the people around them. They advise that the signs to look for include:
· physical signs such as bruises, cuts and scratches, torn clothes, poor sleeping, bedwetting, and frequent requests for money
· changes related to school or preschool, such as not wanting to go, staying close to teachers during breaks, having difficulty asking or answering questions in class, not taking part in activities, sitting alone, and schoolwork and homework deteriorating suddenly
· emotional clues such as anxiety, nervousness, distress, unhappiness, depression or tears, withdrawal, secretiveness, sudden changes in behaviour, being quick to anger, and unhappiness at the end of weekends and holidays
· other signs such as your child talking about being teased, taunted, ridiculed, degraded, threatened, dominated, made fun of, or laughed at. Your child might be excluded at lunch and recess, lose contact with classmates after school, or be chosen last for teams and games.
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Dr Mundy’s co-researchers are Louise Canterford, Dr Silja Kosola, Professor Louisa Degenhardt, Professor Nicholas B Allen, and Professor George Patton.
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