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It’s anti-bullying week: How does fear affect learning?

15 November 2023

Image Credit: Ditto Bowo via Unsplash
Image Credit: Ditto Bowo via Unsplash

Recently, I read that an act of aggression is a natural ‘active coping strategy’ and is rewarded by a dopamine hit. Conversely, a submissive, ’passive coping strategy’ results in stress-induced withdrawal and even generates a ‘shutdown’, an immediate energy-conserving behavioural response. The setting for these social experiments was a laboratory. The brains of mice and rats were dissected following each behavioural task. Slices of tissue were examined to determine the levels of reward and stress induced by each type of ‘social situation’ manipulated by the researchers.

How does this relate to anti-bullying week? Well, in terms of brain structure, neurochemistry and behavioural responses, mice and rats are considered to bear a close enough resemblance to humans to deem such work ethical, justifiable and relevant.

Are children born knowing that bullying is inherently immoral, or, are we dealing with impulses that are ‘natural’ and therefore ‘justified’ on the grounds that ‘children will be children’?

This is the question that Ruter Bregman addressed in his wonderful book, ‘Human kind’. On the one hand, there is the view that humans may possess abhorrent traits, for example, John Adams’ vision of all men as ‘potential tyrants’ and Sigmund Freud’s thesis that we descended from ‘generations of murderers’. On the other hand, Rousseau’s much earlier realisation that the moral compass of humans had in fact been corrupted by land ownership and the extent to which social institutions (such as the baronial system) rewarded competitive and ‘loyal’ behaviour with enhanced social status, titles and land. This socially hierarchical system was normalised to such an extent that as humans, we lost touch with our natural compassion, health and vigour. Moreover, Bregman’s research showed that Rousseau’s argument was supported by countless examples of human courage and kindness. Furthermore, he discovered that explorers of the eighteenth century and the mainstream media had constructed blatantly false narratives that claimed dreadful events of human brutality had taken place, particularly within communities that lived traditional life-ways.

In the past year, stories of bullying as a global phenomenon have peppered the mainstream news. These have included an account by Raphael Rashid of a weekend rally of 200,000 South Korean school teachers protesting against the harassment they received from parents and that among their colleagues, one hundred teachers’ lives had been lost to suicide.

In southern California, Ramon Antonio Vargas reported on the lawsuit brought by the parents of fourteen year old school boy Diego Stoltz against the school district. Two of Diego’s own classmates had verbally and physically assaulted him, and he had lost his life to the injuries nine days after the attack. This took place on the school premises at lunchtime and another child had videoed the violence. This story shows that there is no room for complacency when enforcing an anti-bullying policy. Bullying is not just dangerous and corrosive, it can be fatal.

Complacency can be driven by an unease around standing up to bullying. However, in a school with effective leadership, where it is not tolerated at all, a strong ethos exists in terms of respect for teachers, pupils, learning equipment, school uniform and the fabric of the building. Expectations of high standards, however, are not necessarily self-sustaining: they are earned through consistent maintenance - it takes effort to keep children safe.

I visit schools every week and see teachers working hard to ensure that respect is maintained by a deliberate commitment to upholding the high behavioural values of the school. This is clearly visible when pupils move between lessons in every corridor and flight of stairs.

It is easy for standards to slide. When this happens, how might bullying affect learning? There are two main ways. First, if the atmosphere in a school lacks respect and tolerance, then pupils will feel hyper-vigilant and their attention will drift because they are alert for the wrong reasons, anticipating threat and wondering how to strategically position themselves for safety. This response is a necessary behavioural adaptation, but it diminishes cognitive focus, control and recall. Learning suffers.

The second way bullying affects learning is more insidious. It’s a narrowing of the bandwidth of ideas that pupils are willing to contribute and the questions that they are willing to ask in a classroom where individual contributions are not respected. In a culture of bullying, the perspective of the bully overrules opportunities for discussion, clarification and exploration. To move beyond ‘one size answers’, to ‘multiple answers’, pupils need to feel comfortable with expressing individual opinions or engaging with perspective-taking and the influence of context.

Deeper learning is also limited for one more reason, the so-called ‘narrowing of the curriculum’. The squeezing of arts subjects to the periphery of the curriculum is a huge loss in itself, but particularly so in this context, as arts subjects cultivate discipline, self-expression, dialogue, and prioritise collaborative working.

To conclude, the importance of enforcing an effective anti-bullying policy cannot be overstated. It is more than a matter of wearing odd-socks on ‘Odd socks day’. All schools must become places of safety, security and respect. Pupils who already carry visible negative effects from exposure to stress in early childhood, for example, need to know they will not be targeted, as they are vulnerable through no fault of their own. They deserve to focus their attention on learning and thriving as much as anybody else.

Research shows that headteachers who are successful leaders, with a strong vision and a clear set of values, have established an ethos of respectful conduct for everyone in the school community. An anti-bullying policy that works at all levels of implementation is the key to maintaining an effective and inclusive learning environment.

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Read more about this topic by clicking the links below

Temenos and Safety in Schools

We often hear about the dangers of cyberspace, where cyber-bullying is rife and children are vulnerable. Now imagine for a moment the relief of reaching the ultimate refuge. Temenos is a Greek concept that describes a sanctuary, a space of absolute safety and harmonious balance, where individuals uphold an immutable self-respect and where criticism and judgment are suspended.

Rhythm and connection 3/5

Mythical tales of abandonment, involving fear of the jaws of death followed by the joy of reunion are familiar themes in stories from all around the world. Sound is a primal medium of connection and communication via mid brain processes that are rapid, subjective, subtle and subconscious. Similarly, the telling of stories, the recitation of poems and songs are also examples of how auditory signals are woven together to communicate for example fear, distress and joyful reunion, or other emotions.

Rhythm and reading comprehension 1/5

In the Simple View of Reading, reading comprehension is described as the ‘product of’ skilled decoding and linguistic comprehension (Gough & Tumner, 1986). The recent focus on oracy (for example Barton, 2018) highlights a focus in some schools on linguistic comprehension. According to researchers, the proportion of children beginning school with speech, language and communication needs is estimated at between 7 and 20 per cent (McKean, 2017) and unfortunately, communication issues carry a risk of low self-esteem and problems with self-confidence (Dockerall et al., 2017).


Rutger Bregman, Human kind: A hopeful history, Bloomsbury Publishing

Raphael Rashid, South Korean teachers stage walkout over harassment by parents and students 4th September 23, accessed 26th October 23

Ramon Antonio Vargas and agencies, Family of boy, 13, who died after bullying attack get $27 million from school district, 15th September 23, accessed 26th October 23

Tags: attention , inclusive , leadership , teachers , pupil well-being , compassion

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