Behaviour Management Episode 13: Professor Ken Rigby on bullying in schools

Hello, thanks for downloading this podcast from Teacher – I’m Jo Earp.

Each year, in our Teacher survey, we ask readers and listeners what they’d like more information on in the coming 12 months. In the 2022 survey, lots of you said you’d like more support on the issue of bullying in schools, prevention and intervention strategies, and related school policies. In a recent 2-part Q&A with Dr Kristin Reimer, we unpacked the framework of Restorative Justice and looked at how it can operate in a school context. In this episode of our Behaviour Management podcast series, I’m delighted that our guest is Professor Ken Rigby – Adjunct Professor at the University of South Australia and a leading international researcher in the area of bullying in schools.

Over the course of the next 35 minutes we’ll be talking about changes over the last 20 years in the way schools have understood and dealt with bullying, what incidents may look like in different age groups, signs for teachers to be on the lookout for, and elements of a school anti-bullying policy. Professor Rigby will also be unpacking his latest piece of work – called the Comprehensive Bullying Model. If you want to have a copy of the model in front of you while we talk through it, just click on this link in the transcript of the podcast (at to download a PDF. Okay, let’s dive in.

Jo Earp: Professor Ken Rigby, it's a pleasure to have you on the Teacher podcast today. Now, after starting working as a school teacher and then a school guidance officer, for over 20 years now your work's been focused on bullying in schools, and you've done a great deal of research and consultancy and facilitation in this area. Can you give me a bit of an overview of the key changes in perhaps how schools have understood and dealt with bullying over those 20 years?

Ken Rigby: Yeah, sure, sure, I can do that. I think the most obvious change is that there's now a recognition in most schools, not all schools, an acknowledgement that bullying occurs. I say not all schools because there are still a few schools that are little bit reluctant to admit that it in fact is happening at their school and that is has serious consequences.

Again, I've got to put in a proviso because, occasionally, I come across schools in which they say ‘yes, it happens, but it's not serious’ or it might involve giving appropriate feedback – you know, the children actually need it, and that it's not something to be taken all that seriously. But with those provisos, I think there's been a big change, a major change in Australia and other countries. And so that schools now believe they should act proactively and reactively. So, it is patchy, as I said. You can't generalise too much because schools do differ a good deal. But, on the whole, there's been this general acknowledgement and recognition of the seriousness of the bullying.

JE: So that's been the major change, really, as you say. How do we understand bullying now? What kinds of behaviours would you consider to fall under this definition?

KR: Okay, I think first of all, on the question of what is bullying, I think I need to say a bit about that because it is still a bit controversial. At the same time, I think most schools would say that the definition that was given way back in about 1990 is still very relevant. I'll just read it to you, it’s ‘a negative, unwanted behaviour, repeated over time in a situation in which there is an imbalance of power or strength.’ I think most schools would say yes, well that’s reasonable.

And if we say, what is negative, anyway? We would say that yes, there have been changes – early on, I think people think purely in terms of (or almost purely in terms of) physical and verbal abuse. But now we've got things like exclusion and malicious rumour spreading, and of course cyberbullying. So, the content of bullying has expanded, but I think the general understanding hasn't.

Except let me say the one thing that I think is important, and that is that many people still think of bullying as being hurtful, intentional, hurtful behaviour, and others don't – they say, ‘Oh no, it may be hurtful, but it's not intended ... the intention is basically to increase my status so that I'd be more important than somebody else.’ And they don't realise sometimes it is hurtful.

So, it's not necessarily intentional, hurtful behaviour, but a good deal of it is.

JE: So it can be in some cases, in others it's not intentional, it's more of a status play then?

KR: That's right, and that makes for difficulties sometimes in knowing how to react to it. And there's no obvious answer to the question.

JE: Yes. How might – I'm thinking now about, obviously there's people listening who will be teaching in the early years, there are people who are in year 12 teaching – how might bullying look differently (or similar indeed) from the early years up to senior secondary? And what about students of different gender?

KR: Well, yes, there are obvious changes I think. I mean, even in preschool you get children bullying, although bullying isn't of the same nature – it's rough, aggressive behaviour, more or less random, bigger kids pushing littler kids around, and it's not so planned, it's almost spontaneous, you know, it's kind of rough, the way kids behave. But as children get older, they become more liable to plan what they're going to do, what they do to other children, and they tend to pick on children.

Most of the bullying is physical with younger children, but it decreases, actually, over time in primary school. So, things are getting better, if you like, by the time you get to year 6, or 5 or 6, and then there's an increase in the first 2 years of secondary school. And we don't know very often whether that's due to the fact it's maturation (it could be maturation as you move into adolescence), or it could be simply they’re meeting new kids and the struggle for dominance, struggle for status. So, it's a combination of those.

And then again you get in later secondary school, you do get a reduction in bullying. And, again, you’ve got to notice that some of the children who have been bullying actually do get worse and become more dangerous – but in general, if we're talking about averages, it tends to come down, although it can be very serious, late adolescent bullies.

Yeah, you asking about gender as well, weren't you? I'm not sure in that question, yeah. Well, yeah, I think the obvious is true, that boys tend to be the physical aggressors and girls not. And there may be some change in recent times but, generally speaking that's true. In terms of non-physical bullying, there's not really very much difference, and it seems to be affected a bit by cultural things, cultural conditions. I did some work in the Middle East some time ago, the United Arab Emirates, and it turned out that the girls were bullying significantly less. Whereas in Australia, it was about the same. So, it depends on where abouts in the world you are. So, you know, culture sometimes transcends gender.

JE: Okay, I want to move on to perhaps some of the signs and how we identify this then. What should educators be looking out for in terms of identifying when bullying is happening in their school?

KR: Well, I mean, obviously part of it is simply looking for the behaviours we've listed, you know – physical aggression, physical assaults, general putdowns. Some of the bullying, of course, is covert and teachers simply don't see it. There’s a good deal of physical bullying they don't see either, for that matter. So, there are certain things, obvious things that teachers can look for.

Perhaps not quite so obvious is looking for children who look as if they might be bullied and you can be wrong. But if they change from a fairly ebullient child who’s happy at school and that child becomes really quite depressed, anxious and stays away from school then it's a fair guess that kid is being bullied. So, that's one thing I think to look for.

But by and large teachers I think are really reliant upon being told by people about who is being bullied. And the most obvious, of course, the child who is being bullied. And in some schools, children, particularly in primary school, will go tell the teacher and get help. But the sad thing is, if you look at the research in Australia at least (I think it's true elsewhere), children are really reluctant to tell the teacher for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the kids say they don’t think the teacher would care about it, and they wouldn't know what to do, and it would be very embarrassing … you don't tell teachers things like that.

And so there's a reluctance to get information, you know, from the victim. And actually parents are more likely to be told than teachers. Teachers, generally speaking, don't believe that.

JE: As I mentioned in the introduction there, you've done a great deal of research in this area over your career. Your latest work looks at providing a general explanation for why bullying occurs, and then also how schools can address it more effectively. You've developed something called the Comprehensive Bullying Model to unpack this. Can you talk me through this model and how it can help schools develop a better understanding of perhaps why the bullying occurs?

KR: Yes, I'd be very happy to do that. I’d say, in the 1930s there was a sociologist who made a very simplistic statement. He said: ‘All behaviour is due to 2 things. One is the environment, one is the person, and the interaction between a person and the environment produces [the behaviour].’ You can apply this to bullying of course. And some recent work has been done, this last maybe 10 years, looking at what are the environmental factors, what are the person factors that do give rise to bullying?

And if I just touch on some of the environmental factors. And the most obvious one is the home, the home environment. Sometimes the home environment, of course, before the child comes to school. Actually the kind of home, I found, that is most likely to give rise to a child bullying is what one might call a cold, authoritarian parenting style. The parents are demanding obedience all the time, saying you must do this and that, and they don't love the child.

Where there's authoritarian parent behaviour, but nevertheless a degree of love (I've come across families like that) they're very tough-minded and bossy and so on, but they do really love the child, and the child feels it. Where you've got that combination of coldness and authoritarian behaviour, for some reason (and people are guessing at the reason I suppose) you do get a rise in bullying. You might of course get bullying because children copy some bullying style from a parent – that sometimes happens as well. So that's an important one.

Another one is the neighbourhood. If you live in a neighbourhood where there is a lot of conflict, racial conflict, ethnic conflict, whatever, you are likely to be affected by that and be struggling, you know, to survive really.

The last one, perhaps the most important one in a way, is the school ethos. And you can define that in different ways, buts whatever you do it's going to include things like whether the children feel the school cares about them, whether they’re being supported, whether they're being threatened. Sometimes the school ethos impinges on some children a great deal – partly because they belong to groups who are prejudiced, and they pick up norm and the prejudice from the group that they're actually in. And that is an extremely important factor, I think, in bringing about bullying.

As far as the person is concerned, there are a few interesting ones. One that's come out recently is intolerance of frustration. Everybody suffers frustration, we all do every day of course, and children do. Some kids are extremely intolerant, they go mad and get very angry, hostile and so on if they're frustrated, and others are much calmer.

Low empathy is obviously one as well, and that seems to be to a large extent genetic. It's difficult to know whether intolerance of frustration is genetic, but certainly genetic factors do play a part. And some teachers, a lot of teachers actually, do deny the possibility of genetic influence. I did a survey of teachers’ beliefs and although the research is very clear that there are genetic factors (and this is based upon identical twins and fraternal twins – identical twins are more similar even when they're raised in different places than fraternal twins are who have been raised in the home) … it's quite clear genetic factors are important and it's difficult to know what you could possibly do about that, except take them into account when you are dealing with some children.

Disagreeableness is a word that is being used quite a bit now. One person talks about disagreeableness as a good thing, you know, because we shouldn't be agreeing with everybody. But I mean disagreeableness is a quality that makes you feel like you really well have got things right and, you know, [you can] push people around and so on. So that's one. Gender and age. I think we've actually touched on that haven’t we? But it's obviously an important person factor.

And these factors interact and, you know, you may have a great deal of frustration in the environment, but, you know, you're very tolerant of frustration, so it’s not going to have the effect. And there are many other interactions that can be explored between these different variables, so it's not simple.

Now, the main thing that I've done with this model is to say ‘yes, it's quite clear that the person-environment interaction does lead to bullying, but … it leads to it in my opinion through what I've called a ‘desire to hurt or subjugate others’. I think there is that middle, mediating variable there. And I think it's important to recognise that there are ways of trying to reduce that desire to hurt or to subjugate others, and that maybe teachers can consider that and develop methods in which they can help children who are overwhelmed with this, who are full of desire to hurt others.

Obviously that desire is not always expressed. If the desire is weak then it won’t lead anywhere. In some cases, it results in fighting, in some in bullying, and there's a very important distinction that sometimes teachers get confused about. They see somebody thumping somebody and they’ll say, you know, ‘that’s bullying, isn’t it?’ Well, no it’s not – if they’re of equal strength or equal power, you may say ‘I want to stop it, it shouldn't be happening in this school, we don't want it’, but it's not bullying, and we are talking about bullying.

Bullying is a greater evil, in my opinion, than simply fighting or quarrelling. I mean quarrelling I think is quite a human and natural thing to do and it's not necessarily a bad thing, but bullying I think is by definition a bad thing. So it [the desire to hurt others], may lead to bullying.

Now, the rest of the model is concerned with the kind of interventions that are possible. And I've listed 3 in my model.

One is called social-emotional learning, which I think teachers know quite a lot about. It's been around now for, what, about 10 years, I think. And it requires of course something being done in the curriculum, teachers actually teaching certain content that is intended to change the way people relate to others, improve social skills (positive social skills) to help people to be perhaps more resilient, in some cases, and that's important, to increase empathy. And I do think there are exercises that you can do in the classroom that will help children to be more empathic towards each other. And if you can change that, then you're on the way to reducing that desire – you can't decide to hurt somebody and feel empathic towards them, it’s a contradiction. So, social-emotional learning is really important.

Problem solving is part of it. Helping children see that you don't have to thump people in order to solve a problem. You can work out a good solution amongst yourselves, and so on. And I won't say more about that because I think, again, teachers know quite a lot about it. Actually, I will say that there are quite a number of teachers that don't like the idea, because of course they say ‘look, I'm a teacher, I'm not a therapist, it's not my role’. And there is controversy in that area. And if teachers are told ‘oh, you must do this – you must teach that’ they’ll do it badly. You have to have a feel for it, you have to want to do this kind of work. And I think where it has been operating well it has actually improved things enormously, and it’s reduced bullying, but in some cases it's actually increased bullying. So, you know, you can't be sure. It's got to be done well – I would say it should be done well or not at all. And you have to get the teachers on side, if teachers aren't on side and happy about what they're doing it'll go badly.

Mindfulness is one of those new concepts – well, it’s been around a while, but more recently there's been a vast increase in people's interest in mindfulness. And, I'm not really an expert on that, so I have to say that my understanding is derived from reading a little bit about it. But the idea, of course, is to get people to be alert, to be aware of the present moment, where one is and what's actually happening rather than brooding about something or other and thinking about how you're gonna fix somebody when the class is over … ‘I’m gonna get him’. But mindfulness has potential and it’s based very much on breathing and, you know, calming yourself by the way you breathe and so on, and attending to the here and now rather than being burdened with what's going to happen.

And then the last one is one that perhaps needs a bigger explanation – it’s group problem solving. Now, my model has got to do mostly with prevention, but if you intervene in particular cases well then that is preventative as well, isn't it? You fix something well so, you know, it gets around, the way people behaved and how this has improved things. So, there are 4 different ways of behavioural group problem solving.

Mediation is obvious – and children sometimes come to you because they’re having a conflict and say ‘can you help us sort it out?’, but usually they don't and certainly if bullying is involved, the bully is not very keen on coming along and you know, ‘you can’t help us solve our problem’. I think its usefulness is very limited. However, sometimes you may solve a problem that could lead to bullying.

Restorative practice – which I think is very much being used in schools these days, and I think I feel very positive about it. Except again, if I had more time I would talk about the ways in which, you know, you could do it wrongly. It can go wrong by, for example, believing that the problem has been solved when it hasn't – the victim has said ‘Yeah, yeah. Yes, everything's alright. Yeah.’ And the bully is quite pleased about it and knows very well he's going to continue. You've got to be very good at this sort of practice, I think, to feel confident that you're solving the problem.

Support group method – and that means getting children who are interested in helping to solve problems, sitting around with children who are bullies (who have been identified as having bullied somebody), and sharing with them your concern basically for what's happening. And asking them, ‘what do you think we can actually do about it?’ Nobody's accused of anything, and that I think is so important, it’s simply a group meeting to come up with good solutions.

And so is the method of shared concern – which is one that actually I've written mostly about, because I'm a great believer in it. And that involves talking to individual children who are suspected of bullying. Not accusing them, speaking to them individually, talking about bullying involving groups – and that's about half of the bullying that actually occurs. Talking to them individually, and then bringing them together having shared your concern and got some kind of acknowledgement it’s a bad situation and something really ought to be done. ‘Okay’. You bring them together and these 4 or 5 kids will come up with some possible solution. And then you bring the victim in and you mediate and, you know, things go happily ever afterwards – we hope. But actually, they do. The research is, you know, I say this because I carried out the research myself. We did a quite a big study, a government study, looking at how well this method worked and it worked, you know, about 70 or 80% of the time, which is much better (Rigby & Griffiths, 2011).

But it changes the desire of people, and that's what I keep coming back to – we're changing the desire of people wanting to hurt and trying to replace it by the desire of people to, you know, to help people and solve problems, and feel good about having solved problems. That's the important thing.

JE: There is one thing I wanted to just clarify then, you mentioned about the environment and the person. Environment is certainly not destiny is it, what you’re saying is there is this interaction between these two things and then this desire, as you call it ‘desire to hurt and/or subjugate another’. So, we're not saying that's definitely destiny – we're saying there's an interaction of many elements. Now, one of the things that's difficult, of course, with bullying, there are many different groups of people that are involved in tackling the issue. We think about students and teachers, school leaders, sometimes parents, sometimes unfortunately it has to go further than that, law enforcement. That can make it hard to know who to involve. And as you've just said there, it's difficult to get it right and teachers need to be confident. If teachers notice a pattern, or an incident of bullying, who can they reach out to, then? Who should they be going to?

KR: Well, it depends on the severity. I mean, obviously the police, if it's a matter of assault and in some states if it's cyberbullying, it's again a criminal offence and the police must be informed. But there's quite a bit of bullying that is teasing and you feel that maybe the person's being teased could you know toughen up a bit and could learn a few social skills to overcome the problem and the victim can be strengthened. And so, you know, you’ve talked it through with the children involved and I don't think you need to go any further. I'm talking about a minority of cases of bullying that are not terribly serious.

But as it becomes more serious, then you have to think through about the variety of things you might want to do, and one of which of course is to contact the parents. So that's a big step. I mean, there are some things that the school can handle and there's some things that really it's got to be the parent and teacher working together, and that's sometimes not easy. And sometimes it's the parent of the bully and the parent of the victim that can work it out. Except, that's a pretty dangerous thing … sometimes it can escalate madly. You know, I think ‘madly’ is the right word.

But I have actually, to my surprise, found that many parents said ‘I talked it over with the parent of the victim…’ (and I’ll use that word parent), or parental bully, or whatever, ‘… and it worked’. It depends on the relationship between the 2 parents and the relationship can sometimes be built up quite quickly. And so, it can sometimes work. So, at one stage I thought that was quite wrong, but now I'm thinking, well, sometimes it can work. But you know, it depends on cases and the kind of people that are involved.

JE: Another factor in the decision making for teachers hopefully should be the anti-bullying policy and all schools should have an anti-bullying policy in place. Can you describe what makes an effective policy and the first steps that schools can take, and then how often should they be reviewing this policy?

KR: Well, I think that the business of a policy is one that I feel somewhat reluctant to impose or to say what they should do. But I've got written down here actually a few points that I thought were important.

One of course is a policy which reflects the values of the school. That sounds a little bit ideological, but I think it's important. If you're a Christian School of course you've got to connect it with Christianity, if you’re a Jewish school, if you’re an Islamic school, you’ve got to connect it with beliefs. And, many schools of course there's no religious connection whatsoever, but you've got to connect it with something and make a statement about ‘our school believes…’ this or that – a strong statement as to what your values are – ‘and therefore…’, it follows, you know, ‘…bullying is incompatible with our values at the school’.

Definition of bullying is obviously there. A recognition of the harm it can do, that should be in the policy. What you're prepared to do – and of course this is under the heading of ‘prevention and intervention’. And this you’ve got to do very carefully, because as soon as you put down in a policy what you're prepared to do and things go wrong and the lawyers get on to it, they get on to your policy and they say ‘you said this, didn't you? Did you do it?’, ‘Well, sort of.’ You know. ‘Well, did you do it?’, ‘No, not really.’ So, you know, you are in trouble if you don't do what you say you'll do. So make sure, I always say, that you do put it in words that you can defend. Sometimes people go overboard and, you know, make statements that are perhaps beyond them.

It's important to satisfy parents, for example (and parents should receive the policy) that you've got some specific, definite things that you’re going to be doing and that you’re actually doing to prevent it and what you’re going to do. I mean, you may want to say ‘well, we're going to do the method shared concern, when it happens’, you know, when the bullying happens. And then you never do it – so you’ve got to be careful. Or somebody says on the staff ‘oh the method of shared concern, good God, we don't want that do we?’. And so, it's not there.

And that's the final point – you have to have staff agreement as to what's in the document and you've got to get the document out to key people, to the right people – parents, also students. One of the things I did discover (to my horror) was when I asked children ‘has the school got an anti-bullying policy? Have you seen it?’ Half the students said ‘no, we've never seen it. We don't know whether they've got one’. That was horrifying, I thought. I asked the teachers by the way ‘do you let the students see the policy?’ … ‘Oh, yes, of course’. But then you ask the students and it didn't turn out to be the case, only about half of them, and more in the primary school than in the secondary. The primary schools were more proactive, if you like, than the secondary.

JE: That's really interesting.

KR: It wasn’t a matter of little kids not knowing what a policy is and older children knowing; they simply didn't, there was no effort being made to share the policy with the students. That's so important.

I think I’d like to see the model (and it's being elaborated further) as being a means by which teachers can basically develop and review their policy, and see what they’re actually doing, and see what things they can do better. I think that's the main thing. Obviously, there are certain things in the model that draw attention to specific things that teachers have perhaps not thought about – such as shared concern, or the use of mindfulness and so on. But there are things there that are practical.

If may get back to, you know, the fundamental idea of … focusing on the desire of children. Why are children wanting to do this? Getting back to that, I think is so important. Why is this child …? You know, trying to understand the child rather than focus upon what kind of things we can do to prevent it from happening. I mean, all the time, you know, ‘what kind of punishment …?’, we’ve not talked about that.

By the way, I do think I hope people don't think that I'm against punishment. I think there are cases in which some kind of sanction is absolutely needed. But, on the whole, if you sanction somebody for doing something, it makes their desire become more negative, makes them feel more inclined to want to bully, and therefore you have to put in place stronger and stronger means of containing it. So, I recognise a necessity – you’ve got to protect vulnerable children. If a child is being bullied a great deal, if one person's causing mayhem in a school, you’ve got to suspend the child, of course, you've got to use sanctions of one kind or another.

But the model itself is really saying let’s as far as possible concern ourself with the desires, how the desires arise and what we can do about: school ethos, for example; we can't do much about the home; and we can't do anything about genetics. But there are certain things we can actually do, and there are certain specific things we can do when we try to help a particular child.

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Rigby, K., & Griffiths, C. (2011). Addressing cases of bullying through the Method of Shared Concern. School Psychology International, 32(3), 345-357.

Does your school have an anti-bullying policy? Is the policy shared with all staff? What about parents? Are students aware of the anti-bullying policy and have they seen a copy?

Thinking about your current policy – when was the last time it was reviewed? Which are the areas you feel you’re doing well in? Where do you think improvements are needed?