Principals Upfront – Overcoming bullying to create safer learning environments

The CJCP’s National School Violence Study shows that 15.3% of children at primary and secondary schools have experienced some form of violence while at school, most commonly threats of violence, assaults and robbery. This issue was the focus of the first Principals Upfront seminar of year on 15 March 2018 at the Matthew Goniwe School of Leadership and Governance. CoP members discussed school violence and explored ways of creating safer and more supportive school and learning environments.

There is no question that bullying is the most common and widespread form of violence in schools. Bullying encapsulates every form of violence, whether physical, verbal, emotional or sexual. It is evident in every dimension of the school environment and in various combinations of perpetrator and victim: learner-to-learner, teacher-to-learner, and learner-to-teacher bullying.  The severity and frequency seems to have escalated in recent years, with more severe forms previously only seen in high schools now also being seen in primary schools.  Another disturbing aspect is the lack of compassion shown by those who witness acts of bullying.

The guest speaker and panellists all emphasised the role the environment plays in creating conditions for bullying to flourish.  Children growing up in disadvantaged areas are at higher risk of acting (or reacting) violently because this is the behaviour that is modelled for them. Parents whose own early years were disrupted by violence and suffering may be less able to effectively parent their children. There are few positive role models and vulnerable children who see gangsters’ seeming status and material success may be drawn into copying their lifestyle.

Guest speaker Welcome Witbooi, a life skills programme specialist and registered recovery coach who works with at-risk youth, used his early life and prison experiences to illuminate some of the conditions that allow bullying to thrive in schools.  Two major influences are the destructive messages that adults give to children, and the fact that children don’t feel heard.  Children treated in this way feel ‘small’ and worthless – and might then become bullies if they use violent behaviour to ‘make themselves feel important’, or victims if they don’t. The stress caused by overcrowded classrooms is another trigger, for both learners and teachers.

How then can schools reduce bullying? These are some of the ideas put forward by the guest speaker and panel:

– Involve educators, parents, the community – and especially, learners – in working together to unpack the issues and find workable solutions.

– Be transparent about problems, acknowledge the school’s limitations in terms of dealing with them, and seek out and establish connections with organisations and individuals who can help.

– Reduce the level of violence in all teacher-learner interactions – avoid shouting, and implement a restorative system of discipline.

– Be alert to new developments and regularly review policies and codes of conduct. Make sure that school rules are visible to all, and that they are followed.

– Train and empower teachers to better understand their learners’ emotional needs, and to be more attentive and responsive toward these needs.

– Find ways for the school to develop greater resilience to what is happening around it.

– Focus on learners’ strengths and talents rather than their weaknesses, and help them believe that their disadvantaged social circumstances do not have to determine their futures.

– While the internet has made bullying even easier, technology can also be harnessed to create anti-bullying tools. These app-based reporting systems make it possible to report incidents anonymously, initiate responses and track cases.

“The message we are hearing is that we need to respond, rather than react, to our children.” (Mduduzi Qwabe, Catholic Institute of Education)

Principals Upfront dialogues are hosted three times a year by a partnership comprising the Wits School of Governance, the Catholic Institute of Education (CIE), the Sasol Inzalo Foundation, the Matthew Goniwe School of Leadership and Governance and BRIDGE.

For more information on Principals Upfront, contact Patience Voller on