Bullying in schools: how the Peer Support Program can help

Bullying in schools is a big problem, with long-term repercussions for both victims and perpetrators. Kids who experience bullying are more likely to experience serious mental health issues later in life, and those who bully are at an increased risk of ongoing behavioural problems.

So what can schools do?

Anti-bullying expert Dr Ken Rigby says the prime responsibility lies with schools, because this is where the bullying mostly happens. Dr Rigby details actions schools can take to address and prevent bullying, from creating an anti-bullying policy to adopting intervention strategies. 

Peer support, such as buddy schemes and peer mentoring, is an important part of an anti-bullying approach. Dr Rigby says ‘schools can help students perform supportive roles at school.’

The Peer Support Program builds supportive relationships between students, and can also address the issue of bullying directly via our anti-bullying modules. 

What is bullying? 

The Australian Human Rights Commission defines bullying as a repeated and intentional use of words or actions to cause distress and risk to a person’s wellbeing. There is often an imbalance of power. 

Bullying is more common in person, but it can also happen online. Four in ten young Australians report having a negative online experience in the last six months, including 15 per cent who received threats or abuse, according to an eSafety Commissioner report

During the year, about 15% of Australian school students experience bullying


School culture plays a crucial role in preventing bullying in schools

Research shows that school culture has a direct impact on the prevalence of bullying.

Peer Support Australia’s CEO Samantha Brown says students of all ages need to feel safe at school. 

“The Peer Support Program helps build a culture of connection, empathy and safety,” Ms Brown says. “This leads to confidence and connection which can positively impact a student’s capacity to learn.” 

Building strong peer relationships is part of the solution. 

Mission Australia’s annual survey of young adults found that 81% of young people turn to a friend when seeking advice. Young people are more likely to confide in a friend than a parent, teacher or another adult.

“The Peer Support Program was founded on this insight 50 years ago and is the reason it has been so successful,” says Ms Brown. “The Program equips young people with the tools and skills to support each other, build strong relationships and navigate their own mental health.” 

The Program covers different modules that schools can use across 8-weeks in structured sessions that are led by more senior students. The anti-bullying modules, Stronger Together (for primary students) and Strengthening Our Connections (for secondary students), helps schools build a culture that is safe and supportive. 

Students with disabilities experience greater rates of being bullied. 


Relationships are key to reducing bullying in schools 

Evidence tells us that many protective factors for mental health are associated with positive relationships. 

“Relationships impact our mental, social and emotional wellbeing,” Ms Brown said. 

The Peer Support Program’s anti-bullying modules focus on:

  • Growing student safety through building better relationships. 
  • Peer leadership that complements other actions to reduce bullying. 
  • Building skills and capacity among students to problem solve and take action for themselves and on behalf of other students. 
  • A whole-of-school approach that combines student leadership, staff and parent understanding and support. 

The Stronger Together and Strengthening Our Connections modules complement other activities within a school to address and reduce bullying.

Michelle has used the Peer Support Program to reduce bullying in her schools 

In 2015, Assistant Principal Michelle, was teaching at a primary school in Melbourne that was experiencing high rates of bullying. 

Michelle and her team addressed the problem through a whole-of-school approach, adopting several tactics to change the culture. This included implementing the Peer Support Program, and running the Stronger Together module. 

“I think the Peer Support Program really helps. It helps students to say that, ‘I can be a leader, I can make a change, I can make a difference.’  And when they step into those leadership roles, they become empowered.”

Michelle, Assistant Principal

In addition to running the Peer Support Program, the school set up a ‘bully blocker pledge’.

“The students all brainstormed on a Google form, and then they came up with the top five agreements as a whole school as to what the school would look like in order for it to be a bully blocker school. That went up in the hall on a big sign, and every assembly we refer back to it. These are the behaviors we have here at our school. And it just really helped to change the kids’ mindset as well.”

Michelle is a long-time supporter of the Peer Support Program, and has implemented it at several schools during her teaching career. 

“I’ve always loved the program, and I’ve always seen its benefits,” Michelle said. 

Adopt a whole-of-school approach 

Ms Brown says that positive student relationships are best achieved through a whole-of-school approach.

“This means addressing all facets of the school community and its relationships,” Ms Brown says. “This includes having a committed leadership team, a focus on culture and the physical environment, and integrated approaches to teaching and learning including professional development and strong partnerships with parents and carers.”

Contact Peer Support Australia to find out more about the Peer Support Program, including the Stronger Together and Strengthening Our Connections modules. Email [email protected] or phone 1300 579 963. 

Let’s continue to build resilience in our kids

First published in The Daily Telegraph on 03 June 2022. Reproduced with permission.

In his election victory speech, Anthony Albanese made the point that every parent wants more for the next generation than they had.

He added no one should be left behind because we should always look after the disadvantaged and the vulnerable and he wants every parent to be able to tell their child that no matter where you live or where you come from, in Australia the doors of opportunity are open to us all.

I want to take this opportunity to congratulate the new Prime Minister – and encourage his government to put young Australians at the centre of their efforts to ensure no-one is left behind.

For the past 50 years, Peer Support Australia has been rolling out proven youth wellbeing programs in schools to help young Australians learn the skills they need to cope with an increasingly unpredictable and uncertain world.

We know the pandemic lockdowns hit young people particularly hard and led to dramatic increases in depression and isolation.

A survey of 20,000 teenagers, by the charity Mission Australia, found that half were suffering mental health prob- lems due to the two-year pandemic.

From bushfires to floods, droughts, global health emergencies and dire warnings of climate disaster, there is a lot thrown at young people and we owe it to them to prepare them for an uncertain future.

Many young Australians really don’t have enough experience in the memory bank to realise that things do eventually get better – because they haven’t seen a silver lining in the past few years.

Peer Support Australia welcomes the new government’s strong commitment to support the wellbeing of young Australians through its proposed Student Wellbeing Boost.

The Boost recognises the significant impact the pandemic has had on young Australians and aligns closely with the objectives of the Peer Support Program that operates in around 1000 schools across Australia.

This program supports young people to strengthen their social and emotional skills to successfully navigate chal- lenges as they arise in their lives and we are looking forward to working with the new government on supporting more young people.

And, given the scale of the youth mental health crisis being seen in Australia, we need to dramatically widen the net to ensure we are capturing many more young people in crisis.

The Peer Support Program empowers young people to support each other and contribute positively to their school and community.

I want to see it in more schools around the country.

Placing students at the centre of their learning, we empower them with practical skills and strategies to posi- tively navigate life and relationships.

Peer Support Australia provides schools with professional development, support and guidance to address school-wide wellbeing and implement our programs.

Teachers say the program helps stu- dents form strong cross-grade relation- ships, improve their social problem- solving ability and build a stronger sense of connection and belonging.

After the difficulties of the past two years for young people in Australia, it has never been more important to prioritise wellbeing and build resilience in students and we look forward to working with the new government on achieving this.

Samantha Brown is the CEO of Peer Support Australia

School anxiety in the time of COVID: how parents and teachers can help kids cope

Christine Grové, Monash University and Kelly-Ann Allen, Monash University

With COVID-related school closures and long periods of remote learning, many kids across Australia have not physically been at school for most of the past two years. Because of the time away, some children might get extremely upset about going back, some might try to avoid school, while others – at the more severe end – might refuse to go to school altogether.

But where an illness or health problem is not present, it is important to continue to expect your child to be at school.

Kids who struggle going back to school may:

  • be anxious or fearful that “something bad” might happen when they return to school
  • complain about issues with other students or teachers
  • refuse to leave the house to go to school
  • report feeling sick and regularly visiting the nurse or sick bay.

Sometimes complaining of illness or pain can be a way children communicate their worries or anxieties. It is important to help them recognise there are other ways to cope with these feelings.

It’s also important to step in quickly. Missed schoolwork and social experiences snowball, making school avoidance a problem that grows bigger and more difficult to manage.

Here’s how you and your child’s school can help.

1. Create a back to school plan

The first thing to do is talk to your child to find out if anything at school is stopping them from wanting to go. Then talk to their teachers: explain why your child might not want to go – for example bullying, learning difficulties or mental health concerns. Discuss how this is affecting your child. You could ask the school about any strategies they are using or ones they could recommend.

Also, listen to children carefully about what their main worries and concerns are, and what other ways they can tackle problems. Do they feel comfortable asking for help when they are at school? And if not, how can that be better facilitated? For instance, using a card or ticket system the child can exchange for help without having to ask.

Then, with your child’s school, you can set up a back to school plan. Organise a gradual start back. For example, your child might be able to start with a shorter school day or with their favourite subjects, and build up from there.

Check to see if there are support staff, like a student well-being officer, school psychologist or counsellor, who can help your child. Ask for regular progress updates on how your child is going.

2. Help your child be more connected

You might also want to include in the plan ways to help increase your child’s sense of belonging to the school. Studies show student anxiety and feelings of not belonging are closely linked. Relationships with teachers and other students are central to feeling a sense of belonging.

If your child is having significant difficulties with attending school, one way to assist could be to help them connect more with their teachers or a staff member. For instance, a teacher could greet them at the gate in the morning. They could also give them a special job to do when arriving such as watering a plant or setting up a classroom.

Child watering plant.
A teacher could ask the struggling student to water a plant in the mornings. Shutterstock

To can help increase your child’s sense of connection to peers, you could:

  • organise to have another student, perhaps a peer or friend, meet your child in the morning and walk together to the classroom
  • help your child facilitate social interaction with other students particularly if they are having trouble doing this on their own. You might inquire if they have friends at school or if they are playing with others at break times
  • look out for opportunities for play dates with peers during holidays, on weekends or after school. Building friendships in informal play-based ways can help buffer some of the worries a student might have when they are at school.

3. Plan helpful transitions

To help kids transition from home to school, parents and teachers can:

  • put together a box of calming items for students in the early or primary years to go to in a different area (like a quiet space in the library) before going into the classroom. Research shows children can use familiar items as distractions to calm their nerves in stressful situations
  • have a clear transition routine between parents and teachers that is followed each day. A teacher meeting the child at the gate can be part of this routine.
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is file-20220209-17-n7f1kg.jpg
It could help laying out uniforms the night before. Shutterstock

At home, parents can try to:

  • reduce the stress and hurry of morning routines. If you can, lay out uniforms the night before, and pack lunch boxes too
  • keep the child connected to the school. For instance, if they don’t go to school for a day, ensure they do some school work at home
  • reinforce school is a safe place
  • identify key people at school the student can go to for help (such as five trusted adults).

What if all this doesn’t work?

If these strategies don’t work, and if your child struggles to go to school for weeks or months, an evaluation from a health-care professional, like an educational and developmental psychologist, can help identify if there are more serious concerns at play.

School refusal is a term used to describe children who have ongoing concerns with attending school. Consistently not going to school can be associated with separation anxiety, depression, panic disorder or a specific phobia around attending school.

Only 1-5% of students experience genuine school refusal and they often require therapy, support, medication, or ongoing accommodations to help them.

In severe cases, other options of schooling may best be suited, like a variation in a school day or homeschooling.

It’s also important to remember children can pick up when their parents are feeling nervous and this can exacerbate their own anxiety. So a big part of the transition process is for parents to model good coping strategies. With time, children will benefit from observing that stress and worry are a part of life, and will hopefully develop their own ways to cope.

There is a different solution for each child, and progress can be slow. Try to be patient too – some children can take a few weeks to adjust. But they will likely be making progress each day, and building the confidence they need to get back to school regularly without the nerves.

If this article has raised concerns for you or someone you know, you can call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Christine Grové, Educational and Developmental Psychologist & Academic, Monash University and Kelly-Ann Allen, Senior Lecturer, School of Education, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Dr Helen Street’s “Contextual Wellbeing: Creating Positive Schools From the Inside Out.”

Summer Reading

Over summer we’ve enjoyed reading Dr Helen Street’s “Contextual Wellbeing: Creating Positive Schools From the Inside Out.” She considers the social side of wellbeing, which has not necessarily received the attention that it needs in order to truly allow our young people and communities to flourish.

Dr Street challenges educators with the observation that our schools, their practices, policies and environments are not always set up in ways that actually enable the development of the social cohesion needed for genuine individual flourishing.

Her review of research highlights the importance of programs that work to shape school context through the development of positive relationships across the whole school population. “Equity, cohesion and creativity… along with opportunities for learning through collaboration and play, underlie the development of positive relationships and an overall sense of belonging within the school community.” (p.110)

“Equity, cohesion and creativity… along with opportunities for learning through collaboration and play, underlie the development of positive relationships and an overall sense of belonging within the school community.”

We’re proud that Peer Support programs have been enabling schools with the processes and content to help develop cohesion and belonging for over 40 years.

Our programs involve the whole school population in primary schools, and over a few years of operation in a secondary school, every student will also have been involved. This is a key factor for the effectiveness of a wellbeing program, and has a powerful impact on the development of equity and cohesion. (p. 27)

Is your school ready for a positive start to 2019?  How cohesive is your school community?

You can buy Dr Helen Street’s ‘Contextual Wellbeing’ here.
(please note we are not affiliated with Dr Helen Street in any way)