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06 Oct 2023

If it isn't bullying, does it still matter?

Exploring classroom conflicts and how to manage them



Karli ran across the playground, calling out, "Miss! He won't let me join his game! He's always bullying me like this."

Miss Jones, who was a little tired of Karli's frequent complaints, responded as kindly as possible, "Alright, Karli. Let's remember what we discussed during circle time - we should try to handle these situations on our own."

Karli interrupted, saying, "But Miss, I tried that. He told me I don't know the rules, so I can't play."

Miss Jones suggested, "Well, why don't you ask him to explain the rules, Karli?"

Karli then went up to James and asked him to explain the rules. Unfortunately, James replied that he only wanted to play with Katy and Sam. Karli came back to Miss Jones in tears, and Miss Jones comforted her. She reminded her that we don't always want to play with the same people, and that's okay. She encouraged Karli to play with Kyle and the others in their group for today and suggested they see how things go with James tomorrow.

Later that day, Miss Jones realised that she might need to take her own advice, as she had been feeling left out in the staffroom recently too. 

If this scenario sounds familiar to you, you’re probably a primary school teacher who is used to dealing with pupils’ friendship dynamics (and no doubt this resonates with all other educational professionals too). While not fitting the bullying definition, it's clear that day-to-day relationships aren’t just challenging for young people like Karli and James, but also for adults like us and Miss Jones.

This blog will explore what bullying is, the grey area between bullying and day-to-day disagreements and the emotional toll this can take on both young people and adults. 

What is bullying?

Bullying is defined as 'the repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, involving an imbalance of power.' It can manifest physically, verbally, or psychologically, and it may occur in person or online. However, identifying bullying isn't always straightforward. It's more complex for the person experiencing it and for those around them.

And when it’s not bullying?

As teachers, we tend to know the above definition of bullying and we know how to respond to it, what we’re not always quite sure about is how to respond when it isn’t bullying. 

There are many different types of conflict, yet the emotional toll between them is strikingly similar. To demonstrate this, think back to a time where you have fallen out with a friend, or been in a situation where somebody at work or in a social situation hasn’t liked you. How have each of these situations made you feel?

To help put this into words, I’ve drawn up the following table comparing how each of these situations can affect us:

Emotional Impact 
Can cause emotional distress, fear, sadness, anger, and anxiety.  Often leads to feelings of betrayal, sadness, anger disappointment, and confusion.  Typically results in feelings of rejection, insecurity, sadness, self-doubt, and hurt. 
Negative Self-Perception   
Can affect your self-esteem and self-worth, causing self-doubt and insecurity.  Can cause self-doubt and lead you to wonder if you were to blame, damaging your self-esteem.  Can make you question your likeability and worthiness, impacting your self-esteem. 
Social Isolation 
You may withdraw socially as a way to avoid any contact with the bully.  Often leads to feeling isolated as you come to terms with potentially losing a friend.  Feelings of exclusion and isolation are common, especially when the person is part of a wider group. 
Impact on Mental Health 
Can contribute mental health difficulties like depression, anxiety, and PTSD.  Can affect mental health with worries and potential feelings of anxiety and depression.  Can affect mental well-being by causing you to feel stressed and sad. 

We all know how much bullying can affect someone’s day-to-day life. We also know how much drifting from friends or feeling left out can affect us - making it impossible to focus on tasks and taking the enjoyment out of the smallest things. In short, we know that even if it isn’t bullying, it still matters.

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The Impact of Our Reactions

Yet, while we’re busy in the classroom, how many of us have used a phrase such as “try not to tell tales”, "try to speak to them and fix this yourselves' or “falling out with friends can happen sometimes” when dealing with our pupils? I know I have. 

When in a position of care it is challenging to manage this as we need to be aware of some information, yet we cannot spend our entire day listening to accounts of each playground issue. However, we must also consider how our responses affect young minds - we can try to teach our pupils the difference between tattling and telling but does that solve the difficulty they are experiencing in that moment? How often have you seen (or shared) memes about feeling left out or not being ‘everybody’s cup of tea’? It highlights a common struggle. Have we, as adults, truly mastered navigating these complex emotions ourselves? And if we’re not there yet either, how can we support young people in developing their lifelong emotional skills?

There's no single way to identify and solve this issue. However, 21-year-old Lucy offers valuable insight in her article for Rethink Mental Illness about her struggles with mental health,:

'The root of the problem was really my inability to love myself unconditionally for who I already was.'

This applies to both young people and adults. If a scenario isn't the dictionary definition of bullying, if someone isn't intentionally harming us daily, but we still suffer, what do we do? The solution lies in learning to be secure enough in ourselves to cope with friendship conflicts or being disliked. While we can't eliminate hurt feelings, fostering an environment that focuses on this can lead to significant changes in both our pupils and ourselves.

And if we know that we also struggle from these same feelings, perhaps we need to start looking at what we as teachers can do to feel secure in ourselves and in our ability to form and maintain relationships. Then - and only then - can we begin to empower the young people in our care to begin doing the same.

Then maybe, more of us will have the ability to recognise that actually it’s okay that a friend doesn’t want to spend time with you because actually … if you really think about it … sometimes you don’t want to spend time with them either.

Rachael is a former primary school teacher and has spent years educating herself on the topic of children's mental health. Both her training and lived experiences have made her extremely passionate about helping teachers approach day-to-day issues in schools with a focus on improving the mental health and wellbeing of themselves and their pupils. 


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