Appendix 1 - SUPPORT GROUPS
The Support Group Approach to Bullying in Schools
The Kingston upon Hull Special Educational Needs Support Service (SENSS) Anti-Bullying Project has developed the support group approach to bullying, building particularly on the work of Maines and Robinson (1991, 1992).
Step 1 Interview the ‘victim’ for names of bullies, bystanders and friends.
The victim is interviewed first, sometimes at home if they are away from school. Concentrating on the kind of things that have been happening rather than particular incidents, the victim is allowed to talk about whatever they think needs to be known. This might include the whole history of the problem, or very little about it. All that is said is accepted in a non-judgmental way, without questioning its validity. We do not concentrate on the feelings of the victim or request a picture or piece of writing to illustrate them. Questions such as ‘What did you do to make him do that to you?’ or similar undermine the victim’s confidence and are unnecessary. The victim is told that the bullies will not be in trouble so there will be no problems that they will ‘get him’ her for it later’. Without this assurance, the victim may be reluctant to give any names. The purpose of this interview is to reassure the victim that the problem can be solved and find out:
who are the main threatening figures,
the ‘bullies’ who are present although they may not actively join in the bullying
the ‘bystanders’ who the victim finds supportive or, if he has no supporters, whom he would like to have as friends.
The victim is told that the group will be asked to help make him/her happier in school.
Step 2 Convene the support group
From these names a support group is made up, ideally 6-8 pupils. All the main bullies are included with some bystanders and supporters. The support group often needs reassurance at the beginning that they are not in trouble. The pupils are often unsure of why they have been selected, since they are not all ‘bullies’ or ‘friends’. It is important that no child is labelled by their selection for the group and having a truly mixed group facilitates this. The group is seen separately from the victim. The group is told that X is unhappy in school, and they have been chosen because they are all able to help. Group members seem to accept the rationale that they can all help; indeed this is what they have in common. At this point the term bullying is avoided since this suggests a judgement has been made on the nature and causes of the problem. It is equally important, as with the interview with the victim, that a non-judgemental atmosphere is maintained. However, very often the group members use the term anyway. Once the reason for the group is clear and they do not feel threatened, they can be remarkably open about what is happening.
Step 3 Raise empathy within the group
Empathy for the victim is heightened by asking if they have ever been unhappy in school. Usually there are a few who will admit to this and say a little about it. The feelings of the victim are not relayed to the group, as Maines and Robinson suggest. Rather, we discuss briefly the feelings of members of the group that have been unhappy in school and say that ‘X must be feeling very like that’. This is an effective means of raising empathy without breaching confidentiality.
Step 4 Explain the purpose of the group
It is explained that no one should feel unhappy in school and because they know X they probably know better than anyone why and when he or she is unhappy. Members of the group often volunteer information that can be very illuminating at this point. If anyone mentions a name, they are gently interrupted and told there is no need for any names, in order to maintain the non-judgmental atmosphere. Again all that is said can be accepted, since no punitive action will follow as a result of this discussion.
Step 5 Ask for suggestions
The group is asked to make suggestions. Because they know what goes on they are the best people to suggest what can be done to make the situation better for X. We wait for suggestions from them. This part of the process is very variable; some groups are full of ideas, others are very vague or there may be some resentful silence. Simply ignoring resentment and praising any suggestions from members of the group usually ensures that most will either have made a suggestion of their own or will take up a suggestion that someone else has made so that all have a role. The actual suggestions are not in themselves significant except insofar as they demonstrate a commitment to the group goal. Members say things such as ‘I will bring her/him some sweets’, ‘I will watch out for her/him in class’. The only suggestion that has to be gently rejected is of the kind – ‘If I see anyone hurting her/him I’ll beat them up’! They are not asked to make any promises and are not given jobs. The plan must be owned by the group. If suggestions are not forthcoming, which has happened occasionally, exploring further the circumstances when upset occurs generally gets ideas flowing.
Step 6 Thank, reassure, pass responsibility and arrange review
Group members are thanked for their support and told that it looks like they have a good plan that will make all the difference to X. Then they are told that they can report back all they have managed to do in a week’s time. In other words, the responsibility is passed to the group at this point. The shift of ownership of the plan and the transfer of the responsibility for its implementation to the whole group is crucial. This is the most powerful single feature of the approach. Inevitably, sometimes, this initial meeting goes better than others but it is curious that no matter how it is seen subjectively, this does not appear to be reflected at all in the outcome.
Step 7 Review with ‘victim’ first then group. Compliment everyone.
At the review the victim is seen first to see how things have gone. Generally, things are fine. This review usually takes about 2-5 minutes. The victim is complimented on things going well; attention is not withdrawn because there is no trouble or a provocative victim may be inadvertently encouraged.
The support group members are then seen together and asked how things are going. Usually they are aware the victim is happier although they may occasionally report on an incident not involving members of the support group. Many times they express the improvement in terms of ‘He/she is better now’, as if they view the problem as lying within the victim. They are encouraged to say how they have helped although their efforts are not matched with the suggestions made at the previous meeting, unless individuals wish to do so. They are also complimented and thanked for their help. Then they are asked if they are willing to continue for another week. No one has ever refused to do this in our experience. On one occasion a group member was unwilling to come to the review meeting and apparently tried to persuade two others to refuse to come but by the following week the other two were eager to come and the dissenter, who was one of the
identified bullies, had not bullied the victim further. A new review is arranged as before. Reviews can be continued for as long as necessary but usually two reviews have been sufficient. This avoids creating a false sense of dependency. Individuals can be reinforced informally from then on. It is usually arranged for the whole group, victim as well as supporters, to receive an appropriate reward to reinforce the new status. They may get a certificate or a letter home to parents. Having their photograph taken is very rewarding to primary pupils and it can go up in their classroom or a notice board.
The parents are asked for their views on how things are going and value being kept informed after each review. When they feel involved and therefore not frustrated this can often help rebuild the relationship with the school which was usually strained beforehand.