Teachers’ attitudes are critical for their responses to bullying and for setting classroom and school standards for acceptable versus unacceptable behaviours.
Teachers who downplay bullying are less likely to intervene when bullying happens and are more tolerant towards aggressive behaviour. Minimising the severity of peer victimisation either by perceiving bullying as normative or by dismissing the harm it causes is associated with teachers’ passive intervention strategies, such as ignoring the incident or telling students to deal with the incident by themselves.
Importantly, teachers’ beliefs and response to bullying contribute to shape students’ behaviour. For instance, the beliefs that bullying is a normative behaviour and that victimised students should be able to assert themselves are linked to lower levels of peer empathy for victims, which in turn increase victimisation and make defending less likely.Research has raised concerns that teachers may not sanction some less visible bullying behaviours, as they tend to underestimate their seriousness, while they may sanction some forms of bullying that are more visible and that physically harm the target. For instance, teachers are likely to consider physical assaults and verbal threats as bullying, but often they underestimate more hidden relational attacks (e.g., gossiping). Also, teachers show more sympathy for the targets of physical bullying than for the targets of verbal or relational bullying.
As a consequence, they are more willing to respond to overt incidents, which they consider more serious than less visible forms of bullying. For instance, teachers tend to use discipline when confronted with physical and verbal bullying. However, only a minority of them uses the same strategy to deal with social exclusion. In other words, teachers might overlook the seriousness of social exclusion, which is alarming, because the absence of consistent responses could legitimate this abusive behaviour and reinforce it.
Based on the findings of previous research studies, four core areas should be fostered in order to change teachers’ attitudes, and help them deal with bullying:
- Raise Bullying Awareness: Teachers’ beliefs and attitudes towards different forms of bullying should be challenged by informing them about the negative consequences of all bullying subtypes, regardless of being physical, verbal or relational. To help teachers prevent, identify and tackle bullying, they should be made aware of the extent, features and dynamics of bullying. Cooperation with school counsellors, and monitoring of bullying through annual surveys would help them to be up to date with the bullying cases in their schools.
- Foster teachers’ sense of responsibility: Some teachers believe that either parents or school counsellors should deal with bullying. They also hold other adults responsible for dealing with bullying episodes which do not happen on the school grounds (e.g., cyberbullying). However, students spend most of their time at school with teachers, which is one of the reasons why teachers are more likely to know about bullying, compared to parents. Therefore, it is extremely important to inform teachers about their role in tackling bullying, and about the most effective strategies to deal with this problem.
- Foster teachers’ empathy: Research has shown that teachers might express negative attitudes towards the target of bullying, and perceive them as disturbing. Increasing their levels of empathy would help them to better understand the feelings of victimised students and to support them. Students might also be more inclined to disclose their experiences of victimisation to empathic teachers.
- Provide Training: Previous research has shown that teachers express dissatisfaction for the lack of anti-bullying trainings during their preparation programmes. School policies should provide teachers with guidelines for monitoring, reporting and dealing with bullying cases. Training and written materials should help teachers to handle effectively the bullying cases. Teachers should also be provided with a space to share bullying cases in their school, and discuss them with more senior educators. Open communication with schools should be established for teachers to obtain instrumental and emotional support from co-workers, school psychologists and counsellors, and school board management.