Full transcript: Sharlene Chadwick

Michael Short: Sharlene Chadwick, thank you very much for your time.

Sharlene Chadwick: Thank you, you’re welcome.

MS: Welcome to The Zone. You are with Peer Support Australia, where you work with educators and your area of expertise - and you have been doing it for close to two decades - is bullying. Can we start, please Sharlene, with the big picture, the size and scope of the issue, and could you please include a definition of what we're actually talking about?

SC: Thanks Michael. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk to you. In terms of the bigger picture of bullying: bullying behaviours have been around for a very long time, and I'm sure that all of us have personal stories from our own school life of what we have either witnessed or been on the receiving end of. So, in that sense it is not an unusual or foreign concept to any of us. When we say bullying, all of us will have a mental picture of what that looks like and have a dialogue around that.

Essentially, bullying hasn't necessarily changed over the years in terms of the fact that students are being bullied; that hasn't changed from 20 years ago, 50 years ago or 100 years ago. What has changed is the nature of bullying behaviours. The prevalence of online behaviours is actually far more insidious than what might have been back in the day pushing and shoving in the playground.

So, what the bigger picture is really looking at now is what we term covert forms of bullying. This includes online forms of bullying. And that is the form of bullying that is very, very difficult to try to address because it is going on in secrecy. The people that are actually engaging in that are completely anonymous; it is hard to track them down.

And unfortunately, it is instant. I often refer to some instances when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s - the worst thing that happened was something was written about you on the back of the toilet door. And then the cleaner would come in that afternoon and paint over it. So therefore it was actually removed. But, as we all know, you can remove things off the Internet but it is still there; there is still a digital footprint for kids. So that it is the bigger picture that is actually quite damaging for young people.

It is also quite confusing, because as adults and as educators we're not quite sure what to do about that, and there is no easy answer and there is no magic wand or bullet for that. So in that, defining bullying behaviours is also quite difficult. What we don't want to get into is just creating a long list of inappropriate behaviours for young people, because sometimes young people then go `well I hadn't thought that that was actually bullying so that might be something I might add to my repertoire’.

For other students it might be `well this is something that happens to me all the time so that's what I'm going to be focusing on’. So as an organisation, Peer Support Australia, we define bullying and so do a lot of other experts nationally and internationally, as an imbalance of power, where there is a deliberate intent to cause harm and distress. We also focus in Peer Support Australia on the notion that a difference of opinion or relationship conflict is actually not bullying. I might have a bad day with a friend and I might say something that I regret, but if I go and make reparation for that, and I might go and apologise for that the next day, it is sorted out and we're friends again.

Key factors in bullying that make behaviours bullying behaviours are about power, intent and frequency. If those thing three things are present then what you have are bullying behaviours. But what tends to happen in schools is what we term relationship conflict. If that is unresolved and we don't know how to deal with it effectively – and, more importantly, young people don't have the skills to be able to cope with it - it becomes bullying.

MS: Can you give some examples of that sort of power imbalance?

SC: It might be older students, it might be students that are in a particular role in schools. My background is in teaching and so that's where a lot of my expertise comes from - a school context. It may be relational power plays. You know, `I think I am more deserving of this than you’. What also we tend to find in a lot of the literature is that bullying is actually a symptom of something else going on for a number of young people.

So, to just simply say to the child engaging in bullying to ‘stop that’ is not enough. Sometimes that power is the person engaging in bullying trying to feel better about who they are, because they have issues going on for them and they don't know how to cope with that and they don't know who to turn to and they don't have the skills, either.

MS: We will come back to some of that, but perhaps we should move now on to some advice for, first of all, young people. And we would be looking at different categories here, wouldn't we? There would be people who are suffering bullying and inappropriate behaviour. There would be those who would be doing it. And there would be others who would be observing it or aware of it. Could you go through, first of all, perhaps with somebody who might be suffering bullying, what would your advice be to a young person who is being bullied?

SC: The key advice to young people who are being bullied is don't suffer in silence; talk to someone, tell someone that it is happening. Part of what we do as an organisation is implement the peer support program in schools. A huge percentage of young people in schools actually know that bullying is taking place or are aware of it. It is about seeking that help. The actual capacity building that schools have with the majority of young people doing the right thing in our schools and willing to help and step in is extraordinary.

But sometimes we don't quite capitalise on the influence that they do have. So the key advice to young people who are being bullied is to actually speak up about it - tell someone that they know and that they trust. And to tell someone that they know can actually make a difference for them.

MS: What sort of people would you be talking about there? Parents? Friends? Teachers?

SC: All of the above. And keep telling until somebody actually starts listening. Bullying flourishes because it does happen in secrecy, and so it is important for young people to tell people they trust. And parents are the first port of call, because families are smaller than class environments and school environments, so it's important for kids to actually talk to their parents about what's happening and for parents to really listen rather than projecting oh well that shouldn't be happening and getting all emotional about it.

They really need to validate and listen to what is happening. For the student who is being bullied, or the young person who is being bullied, talking to a teacher can also be a very good idea. Most of us have a teacher that we go to, that we trust and that we've developed some kind of rapport with. They can also go to a friend - and what we're trying to establish in schools are peer networks; that peer-to-peer connection is vital to the support of young people.

So, in terms of the young person who is being bullied, it’s really about seeking out that help. But, of course, often they do not have the skills to be able to do that. You can imagine if it seems like your entire life is being overwhelmed, and all this is happening to you, you don't have the confidence to go to someone and say `hey this is happening, this is how I feel’. So it really is about that base level of developing skills for students who are engaging in bullying, too.

As we said before, sometimes it is a symptom of something else going on for them, and they are not always aware and can recognise that. And for some young people, the act of engaging in bullying behaviours is really a mechanism for them to just get rid of some of that frustration and anger they might feel. They haven't really thought through the consequences and the impact on other people. Some students do.

Some young people know exactly the impact and the consequences they are causing to others, but that again is part of that power for them. `I am feeling good about myself at last because I am doing this to you, and I'm not really interested in how you feel about that because I feel good’. And some students will engage in bullying because it's fun for them. For some students, for some young people, there are not enough of them to do in schools at break times. So we actually need to teach kids how to interact and socialise with each other again.

MS: The golden rule would be useful here, wouldn't it? You know, it is an unimpeachable idea that you do unto others as you would have them treat you.

SC: One of the key things that we look at in the peer support program is a range of skills, but one of the most important skills is the development of empathy. If I can actually have empathy for somebody else and try to put myself in their position, then I am less likely to engage in that behaviour.

MS: It is a very powerful message, isn’t it?

SC: Absolutely. Absolutely.

MS: Just before we get onto people who are aware of it, that is, that third category: the link between mental health and bullying. Presumably there can be a link. You have mentioned it for the perpetrators; there may be issues going on there that may be involved with things that are causing them to be anxious or depressed. And being the victim of bullying can obviously lead to feeling very, very troubled.

SC: There are significant links to mental wellbeing of young people and the systematic and prolonged impact of bullying behaviours. There is even a raft of literature coming through now that it is a direct cause of suicide ideation. We are not looking necessarily at attempted suicides, but looking at the fact that if systematic bullying is occurring in my life then I might start to think about what is the point.

And, again, the whole nature of online bullying has actually shifted that perspective in terms of young people's mental wellbeing. The bullying does not stop when they leave school; it goes with them 24/7. And so they are constantly exposed to reading those negative messages, reading those thoughts, reading those comments about themselves.

Nine times out of 10 they are an untrue, but of course when we're in that space… as we all know as adults, things seem worse at night. I know sometimes at night I think `oh this is the worst thing’ and then I wake up in the morning and think `oh that wasn't so bad’. But I am an adult; I have actually learnt the skills and have the support networks. So for young people and the direct link to an impact from mental well-being, yes bullying has a significant impact on them.

MS: I saw an interesting documentary the other night about young people and the online world. One young person who was being bullied said - and I found this really fascinating - yes it doesn't stop when you leave school, but it was online that she was making lots of other new friends and you could see therefore the really positive and reinforcing side of that as well. So it can also be a very uplifting and empowering thing for a young person; if they are having a miserable time at school, they can have a happy time online after school.

SC: That's true. And herein lies the tension of the whole online world for young people. They are digital natives, to use that phrase, and that is how they connect. So we're also seeing that there is evidence that having a fairly active online life, for want of a better term, impacts upon mental health in a positive way, particularly for kids that will get together online and form groups.

So they realise that they are not the only person that this is happening to. It could be somebody else a street away that they never knew, or in another school, or in another state or in another part of the world. So the world is becoming a lot smaller for them and so, yes, technology is not bad.

MS: And we will get on to that in a minute with advice to parents. You mentioned before, Sharlene, empathy as a really powerful and important concept, and it is a beautiful one too, isn't it? Another concept here that I should imagine would be very important, and that can be given to young people, or we can help build in young people, is resilience.

SC: Absolutely. Resilience, and things like empathy, are obviously skills. But we just don't do an activity in class or sit down and do some thing for a course and go well now I am empathic for the rest of my life. They are skills we need to keep looking at through the course of our life, and resilience is absolutely a key one. It is fundamental, because regardless of all the fabulous work that a range of people are doing in this area, you will not stop bullying from happening.

MS: So how do you encourage resilience?

SC: How do we encourage resilience? Again, it is those support networks. But it is developing the coping skills for young people to surround themselves with people who are going to give them positive messages. So really it’s that third group that we haven't addressed yet, which is what a lot of the literature talks about as bystanders or onlookers.

A huge percentage of young people are aware that this is happening, and so giving them the tools, giving them the confidence to reach out to these young people and then providing them with a support network is a really significant coping strategy. Or times when I'm feeling overwhelmed because of all the negative noise going on for me - go and do something I enjoy doing, whether that's walking along the beach or plugging into some music or walking the dog, hanging out with friends, getting online, downloading some stuff, getting online and chatting with friends in a chat room.

Those sorts of things will help people develop resilience. But it's not a case of here is an activity and so we have now developed resilience. It's something we need to keep focusing on, and how we do that with young people is really get them to focus on the intrinsic strengths and qualities they bring, that they are a really worthwhile and valuable person.

MS: Also, I presume, realising that it's not a question of whether bad stuff will happen to you in life; it will. It's being armed with that knowledge and knowing that it happens to everybody - not necessarily bullying, but bad stuff - and it's not a question of whether it'll happen, it's how you deal with it.

SC: And how do you deal with it in a way that allows you to move forward from that situation, and to learn and grow from it. For us, resilience is really: okay this has happened, acknowledge that. I can't change it. It is what it is, so what do I need to do to move on from that experience and next time if something similar happens I've got some strategies and some skills to use, and I've got some other ways of being. I can actually make different choices in my life.

And that goes, too, for the young people and students engaged in bullying. This is a conscious decision, a conscious choice for them to engage in this behaviour.

MS: Let's finish with what `onlookers’ should do. What's your advice to somebody who is not being bullied, is not bullying, but is aware that it is going on?

SC: Again, it is to tell someone that it is happening. It depends on the age of the young person. There are slightly different strategies that we would suggest to primary school students, and others for secondary students. For primary age students, go and tell somebody that this is happening, that you had seen this and that you are aware of it.

Older students, adolescents, could be more than likely to actually intercede in that moment and to seek out the person who was on the receiving end and to just offer them empathy. `I saw what happened at lunchtime, are you okay?’ Or ‘I saw what was posted about you online’, and making some positive comment online or trying to intercede in that way.

MS: Should they confront the bully?

SC: Our advice is no, because sometimes that escalates the situation and what we don't want to do is put young people in harm’s way. Unfortunately, bullying is not a black-and-white situation. There is no definitive way of saying what will work each and every time. So it really is about putting safety of young people first and foremost. And that does not just mean physical safety; it's their emotional safety, as well.

MS: Classical advice was bullies are cowards; punch a bully in the nose and they will back off and stay off. Yes or no?

SC: No.

MS: Okay, why no?

SC: Again, as we said before, often the student engaging in bullying behaviours is going through other issues. And there is a cycle of students who have been bullied who then become the person who engages in bullying - because they start to see `well hang on, they (other bullies) have got friends over there and I don't have many friends so maybe if I engage in that behaviour as well I'll have some friends’.

So sometimes if you're then resorting to retaliation and violence, you're actually only encouraging kids that that is perfectly okay to meet your needs; that it's a perfectly acceptable way in our society to get what it is that you want. And that is not the case. The concern and the issue is that there are no quick-fix solutions. And unfortunately some people want immediacy. `We want this dealt with now’, and to punch them in the nose is how we deal with it now. But the underlying issue, what motivates those students to actually engage in that behaviour, is not being looked at, not being addressed and not being dealt with appropriately.

MS: So the optimal mechanism is to go and talk to somebody who has the authority, and the resources and understanding, to intervene and to get to the bottom of the situation - and that is a teacher, a parent…

SC: Or another trusted adult. It might be a sporting coach. It might be a church leader. It might be a scout leader. If you have other co-curricular activities - band, choir all those sorts of things – or it might even be an older sibling.

MS:  What do you say to young people who are being bullied and they are intimidated and they feel, you know, we have a culture in Australia of don't dob people in, and they feel well, yes, all the advice is that I should go and talk to an adult who I trust and they will intervene on my behalf, but that will only make it worse. What do you say to a young person who has that fear?

SC: Well, their fear is accurate. It is accurate to have that fear, because a lot of the times when they do report, the bullying does escalate - because no matter how many times we say to kids that they won't find out, they find out. And, again, that's part of the notion of using bystanders and onlookers.

Because there are some students who say `tell me to go and talk to someone about it, forget it. I can't do that’. So it's then about using these other kids who are witnessing or seeing it to be their voice. But what we also say to young people and what we also say to parents and to educators is that bullying will be reported and, yes, it may get worse, but then there are people around them who can support them.

On one level I've often said to teachers that somebody has that kid’s back now. So we're all looking out, we're all more conscious of what's going on and so the bullying will then decrease. But if bullying is happening and I choose not to tell anybody because I don't know how or because I'm afraid to, or I don't even recognise that what's happening to me is bullying, or other people are not interceding for me, it will get worse and then that's going to have a significant impact on my mental well-being, and who knows what can happen from there.

MS: So the big picture here is it will get better. There is no chance of it getting better if you don't act, but if you do act it may in the short term escalate. But it will eventually get better. But if you don't, there is no chance.

SC: Absolutely. No chance.

MS: And that is a strong message, isn't it?

SC: Yes, it is.

MS: Just before we move on from young people, Sharlene, apps: we have talked about digital natives. I am aware of some really good apps out there. Do you think they should put them on their mobile phones, the bullying app, and be able to have that as a resource that helps take them through `if this, then that etcetera? Is that a good idea?

SC: Yes. What we look at in Peer Support Australia is bullying being about a relationship issue. So it actually means relationship issues need to be dealt with. Bullying didn't occur overnight, so the solutions for this are not quick-fix solutions. And bullying is not just one version of things. It happens in a range of contexts and a range of different age groups.

What we try to promote to the wider community is we need to try lots of different strategies in lots of different ways - apps, resources, downloads and videos for kids, peer-support programs, a whole range of things. Eventually, if we're all saying the same message, it will sink through and change can happen.

MS: How are you getting your message through? How does Peer Support Australia work? How do you work? How do you educate the educators?

SC: And that's where we work - we work with teachers. And we function on what we call a whole school approach. It's not just about working with teachers, it's not just about working with young people; we work with parents as well. If we're all on the same page and talking about the same thing, then we have got a better chance of recognising that what's happening is bullying and being able to get to it before it escalates even further and supporting young people through a range of issues that they have.

The program works nationally in both primary and secondary schools across all sectors, and it's not just anti-bullying that we focus on. That's just one module that schools can actually nominate to do. We focus on resilience, optimism, values, and as we said, bullying is a relationship issue and if you are teaching kids the skills of empathy, resilience, respect, diversity, acceptance of differences, then you are actually dealing indirectly with bullying without saying `we're running an anti-bullying program’.

MS: Parents: you have mentioned them there in that whole of school situation. What is your advice to parents generally, and specifically, Sharlene, if they fear that their child might be being bullied or being a bully? And what should they say to young people generally, because then you have to be onlooker side as well? Presumably parents should be saying to their young people `if you witness this, you need to do something’?

SC: That's right. Parents operate in the community at a different level. There are parents who are coaches of sporting teams, for example. So parents don't just have the role of being parents of this group of children; they have a responsibility broader than that. Advice to parents: if you think something is going on, keep talking to your children.

My background is in secondary teaching, and I know that once kids get to a certain age they might actually stop talking to their parents. It's about having that notion from a very early age of developing a relationship with your children, so that you know what makes them tick. Parents are actually quite critical and vital to dealing effectively with bullying. To be able to inform schools; sometimes schools and teachers don't know that it's happening, because by the time that we teach 30 kids, and particularly in a secondary context I may not see them every day, so three days later I might think well there is something going on for that student, but I haven't quite pinpointed it yet.

So advice to parents is to really be aware of what your children are doing when they are closeted away in their rooms at night with whatever mobile device or electronic device they have, and to work in conjunction with school communities and to work in conjunction with their children. Sometimes parents say `well, my child is being bullied online so I have restricted their access online’. What you are then doing is punishing the child for being bullied, and that is not appropriate. As we have talked about before, those kids are online connecting, socialising, involved in things that make them feel better about who they are, and by removing that you're actually punishing them for not doing anything wrong in the first place.

MS: If you see that your child is being bullied, either because they talk to you or because you observe it through shoulder surfing or you come across it online, what should you do?

SC: Intervene.

MS: How?

SC: That's the $64-million question. It depends. In terms of intervention; if it is shoulder surfing, shut the site down. Disconnect the computer. Turn it off and then go and have a discussion. If it is something that they are aware of because other children, brothers and sisters for example, said this happened at school today, have that discussion with the particular child. Inform the school.

The advice we do give to parents as an organisation is don't enlist other parents. Don't ring other parents. Don't go and find the other child on the street or in the playground of the car park or whatever. Let the schools try to deal with it. And bring the schools in early. As I said, sometimes the schools aren't aware that it is going on. That is not because they're choosing not to know; it's just because they don't know that it's happening.

MS: When they are called in, are they good at it? Are the schools well-armed these days to intervene?

SC: More so than they were. There is a range of mandatory reporting that schools need, and there is a range of resources that schools can access and schools are getting better at accessing resources outside of the school community. That includes counsellors and other community health agencies that will help not only the other person but the family as well.

MS: We're running out of time; we could talk about this for hours, and it is such an important area of life, isn't it, because it affects your well-being profoundly. You have said that it is something that is not going to go away, but it is something that can be ameliorated. Are you seeing progress in terms of awareness?

SC: Absolutely. We in Australia have one of the highest reported incidences of bullying behaviours in the world. Now, most people when they hear that think that means we have got a lot of bullying happening. What that actually means in the context of bullying is an issue is that we have a lot of strategies, a lot of programs, a lot of funding put into a range of resources to deal with bullying behaviours; more so than any other country in the world.

That is why the reporting is high. Because, like most things, when we raise things to consciousness we're actually more aware of it. If you buy a new red car, you see every red car of the same model and you didn’t notice them a week ago. So that is why that happens. In terms of progress, we are making a lot of progress. Unfortunately though it is like two steps forward and one back every time we do it. Bullying is a learnt behaviour, and so what we need to do is actually take stock every so often and look at where our young people are learning inappropriate ways of interacting with each other.

And with more emergence of how accessible the world is and how immediate the world is through all of their electronic devices, that's going to become a little muddier as well. But we are making progress. Even though a lot of the statistics, when we look at them on face value, looking at things and not improving, they actually are improving because we have got whole-school programs and we're including parents and looking at key skill development like empathy and resilience and we're looking at empowering and skilling those kids that actually know it is happening. And we're actually naming in for what it is and saying to kids `this is not okay’.

MS: When you say you learnt behaviour, Sharlene, it touches also back on a point that you have been emphasising - which is that there are underlying causes for bullying. What are the main reasons people bully?

SC: Power. Some people bully because it's fun for them. `I got them to cry, I got them to react’.

MS: That is a perverse idea of fun.

SC: Absolutely. It is `fun’. They think it's fun: `I'm going to push your buttons to see what kind of explosive reaction I can get’.

MS: But why do they do that?

SC: Because it is social theatre for them.

MS: What are some other reasons why somebody might bully?

SC: Boredom. `I'm bored, I'll just keep niggling you until I get a rise out of you. It's entertaining for me’. And that is the reality for some students, some young people in schools. They actually don't have enough to do to keep them occupied. So part of what we do with the whole-school approach is looking critically at what is happening in the playground. What have you actually got for your kids to engage in other than engaging with each other in inappropriate ways?

Students will engage in bullying bully for power, sometimes because they think it's fun. It's not fun for anybody else, and we absolutely know that. They are bored. They have low self-esteem. Or there might be some kind of mental-health issue going on for them, and they know no other ways of coping.

MS: You mentioned before - and it's kind of in some sense is strange, isn't it, that you would suffer a behaviour and then repeat it, even though you know that it caused you distress - but is it the case sometimes, and you say that people being bullied should talk to a trusted adult, it might be the case that that trusted adult can't be the parent because they might be in a home situation where they are being not treated well. Do you often find that?

SC: Yes. We give advice to young people to tell a trusted adult. Whilst we give this advice, we know that for some young people they don't have a trusted adult that they can go to to share this information with. So that is why peers become even more critical and crucial. Most adolescents will willingly sit down and talk with friends before they will open up and talk to their parents about anything. And so it really is using that two-fold approach.

But, yes, there are some parents that are in family situations where bullying is happening across the board in that family and it's difficult for the kids to then be able to say well I will talk to mum or dad about this when I actually see it happening at home. And that's here we say it is learnt behaviour. The family is a significant contributor to where students are learning inappropriate ways of behaving.

MS:  You deal with a lot of distress in this area. What is your view of human nature? Do you think people are intrinsically good, or do you see it as a much more grey thing and it's not binary, good bad, black white?

SC: It is probably more grey, but intrinsically I believe that there is good in everybody. Particularly in my experience of teaching over the years, there are some students that the system had written off, and part of the joy about being an educator is that you start to see that there is something in that child that I can actually try to bring out.

And when you see some of those kids absolutely shift, that is what it is about. So, with my wealth of experience and the number of young people I've worked with and the number of adults I've worked with over my professional life, I believe we're all intrinsically good.

MS: We are hideously out of time. A couple more quick questions, though: Why do you do what you do? What motivates you, Sharlene?

SC: What motivates me is that I believe that I can make a difference to a significant number of young people. And I can do that more effectively working for Peer Support Australia in the role that I'm in than being a classroom teacher, which is what I was

MS: So Peer Support Australia allows you to amplify your expertise?

SC: Absolutely.

MS: what is the hardest thing you have ever had to do?

SC: The hardest thing I have ever had to do was to watch my grandmother with Alzheimer's. To watch this wonderfully vivacious and slightly eccentric lady just lose completely who she was. And strangely enough, the best part of that was actually when she died, because then all of us knew that she was free of that affliction. And that was the hardest thing I have ever had to do, to watch her suffer through that five or six years.

MS: That must have been terrible. And it is something a lot of people, and an increasingly number of people, are going through and having to go through, given our demographics. I'm sorry you did. I'm very glad that you came today, and I thank you very much for your time.

SC: Thank you.

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