Behaviour Management Episode 8: Co-designing early years anti-bullying education

From Teacher magazine, I'm Jo Earp and you're listening to an episode of our series on Behaviour Management.

What bullying policies and procedures are in place at your school? Do they focus on a particular age range? And, do you run a specific anti-bullying education program? My guest today is Dr Lesley-anne Ey, a Senior Lecturer at the University of South Australia. Lesley-anne and her UniSA colleague Professor Barbara Spears have been working with early childhood teachers to identify problems with bullying in their own school context and co-design tailored education and prevention programs. In this episode we'll be discussing early childhood intervention, the Participatory Design method, and the feedback from the teachers and schools involved. So let's get started.

Jo Earp: Lesley-anne, welcome to Teacher. For this research you worked with 12 early childhood teachers in South Australia. Why was the focus on early childhood?

Lesley-anne Ey: The focus was on early childhood because there's very limited research in early childhood around bullying. And also it's quite absent from the curriculum – there isn't any formal instruction around bullying in early childhood and we know that early intervention across all social issues is key to prevent bullying and to prevent adversity.

JE: So the aim was for you, as researchers, to work with the teachers to co-design and implement a tailored bullying education or a prevention program. What are the benefits of taking this kind of co-design approach, as opposed to, say, giving teachers or schools a program and saying ‘here you go, implement this in your school'?

LE: The benefits are – when you're working with teachers, they know the context of the school, they know what's occurring in the school and also working with them that gives them a sense of ownership of that. So it's not experts coming in and telling them what to do, or providing them with a curriculum that may not be beneficial for the learning and education of the children within that context. So, working with teachers, they bring that expertise and that background knowledge of what is occurring in their schools, and what children might need to know to support them in understanding what bullying is. What we found with the teachers is they were actually really quite excited about doing this because they identified that it was a problem within their school and they didn't have access to any teaching materials.

JE: Another piece of positive feedback that you got from teachers involved in your study was that they really enjoyed the process – they found it energising and the skills that they learned would be useful, they were saying, when it came to modifying and implementing the program with new cohorts of students in the future. What do we know about this kind of empowerment and the effectiveness and sustainability of this kind of approach?

LE: It doesn't need to be teachers – any individuals that are co-designing something that are working together, they do have that sense of ownership, they do have that buy-in, they do have that empowerment, so it's more likely to be effective. When they have that buy-in, they're more committed to rolling that program out, further developing that program, and one thing that we found with this research is these teachers got results, so that was really exciting for them when we went back and re-interviewed the children and we found that the children had gained extra knowledge in relation to bullying. So the program actually worked and the teachers were very excited about that. The skills that the teachers learned in relation to co-designing this program with us and with some of their colleagues is something that they fed back to us that they'd be using in relation to other teaching topics and strategies.

JE: It's probably important to point out that this was a proof-of-concept study – can you explain what that means?

LE: A proof of concept is basically experimental, it's testing out the concept. It could be called a feasibility study or it could be called a pilot study. It's basically testing the concept that we were using – so, in this case we were using that Participatory Design method to work with teachers to see whether that was going to be an effective method to develop a program in relation to bullying, and we did find that it was effective.

JE: And that's why there were only 12 teachers involved in the study.

LE: It is, and it's something that we would like to further develop with a larger cohort in relation to early childhood. And with this proof-of-concept study we have identified that it can work.

JE: So, I want to talk about the co-design process that you used. The starting point (and this is the same with considering implementation of any program of course) is for teachers to think about their own school and student and community needs. So, you wanted teachers to identify the problem of bullying in their own context, why it occurs, who it effects and the magnitude of it, and then the aim was to design an intervention and evaluate the impact of that intervention?

LE: Well, the very first thing we did was ask teachers to identify the problem. So, look at what they considered the prevalence of the problem, who it was affecting as far as teachers, the school, the children, the parents, the families and who it was impacting on. So we basically got the context of what was occurring in their school, initially.

Then we looked at, what strategies or policies or things that were in place to try to prevent bullying. So, education strategies, policies and procedures to manage bullying incidents etc. We then presented them with the statistics and the results from the interviews that we had done with children so that they could then see what children's current understanding was in relation to bullying. … Before we worked with teachers we interviewed children and we asked children to define what they think bullying is, or to tell us what they think bullying is – we're working with early childhood, so we weren't using language such as ‘define', but we asked them to explain to us what bullying is. We then showed them a series of cartoons that had been developed by experts in Europe to work with children, and children had to identify whether the particular scenario in the cartoon was an act of bullying or whether it was not an act of bullying, and then explain why.

So, from the results that we obtained from those children, we shared those with the teachers. So teachers had a bit of an understanding of what children currently know in relation to bullying. So that's helped to support them in making decisions around what children needed to know. And, of course, in early childhood the fact that children haven't received any formal education [about bullying], one of the key results that came out of that was that children didn't know what bullying was, they didn't know how to define it, and they certainly didn't know the three elements of: intention to harm, repetition, and power differentials.

We basically worked collaboratively with teachers. We were giving them information, they were giving us information and together we worked out what children, in their context, needed. We then showed them through the methodology process – looking at the Hagen Participatory Design method and what that meant and how we would collaborate to design this program.

JE: You mentioned the Participatory Design method and I'll pop a link to more information about that in the transcript of this podcast. In helping the teachers think about their tailored program, and map that out, you gave them a series of cards with topics on. They were asked to select the topics that they considered relevant to their own school context, and to sort or rank them into some kind of preferred teaching sequence. What were some of the topics and strategies that they selected from?

LE: Professor Barbara Spears and myself, because we are very familiar with the literature on bullying in relation to education strategies and what children need to know, we basically drew on the literature and presented [the teachers] with an assortment of topics for them to consider relative to the context of their children and what might be being taught across other areas. So, for example, a lot of schools had wellbeing programs in place.

So, the topics that we gave them were:

  • defining bullying, so, looking at the three elements of bullying of repetition, intent to harm, and power differentials;
  • defining what is not bullying, so that children can identify the differences between bullying or conflict;
  • looking at conflict as being a normal part of healthy development, so children are aware that nobody goes through life without conflict of some description – it might be an argument, it might be a schoolyard fight, there's always conflict and it is part of our normal healthy development;
  • managing conflict, so, strategies in relation to how children can brainstorm and think about how to manage conflict appropriately to prevent bullying;
  • understanding friendships, so, understanding what friendship is;
  • understanding diversity, so, looking at similarities and differences amongst children – and some of the schools that we worked with had very high diversity within their school context;
  • self-regulation;
  • resilience;
  • relationship building;
  • team building;
  • help-seeking, if a child feels like they're being bullied;
  • also, helpful and hurtful bystander behaviour – so this is looking at whether bystanders can intervene in a way or distract a bully to support the child who might be being bullied or to prevent them from being bullied, and also the hurtful bystander behaviour would be children that would be egging the bully on, or laughing at the bully, or giving that sort of positive reinforcement so that the bully keeps on doing that behaviour; and then finally,
  • what we can do to stop bullying – so, looking at preventative strategies.

We also gave teachers cards for … if there was something they thought that they would like to look at that wasn't within our list, so that they could also add onto that. Quite a few of the schools looked at recapping what the children had learned, and that was generally the last lesson, obviously.

JE: So, they set out all the cards on a table and had a look at what they felt children in their context might need, and also the order that they might roll them out in. You also talked to them about existing resources that are out there – one example might be the Bullying No Way website – and you also talked to them about ideas about activities they might like to do with their own students.

LE: They really liked the cartoon methodology that we used with the children so several teachers made up their own little scenarios that they were using as an educative tool for children to sort the scenarios into bullying and non-bullying scenarios. When they were actually designing their program and looking at particular activities that they could roll out to support children's understanding of each topic, that took probably a couple of hours whilst we were there but they also continued that after we had left as well.

And we did this across four schools and every school there was never a time where it was just one-on-one researcher and teacher – some schools only had one teacher participating, but that teacher was also supported by a school counsellor or the deputy principal, and there was another school where they actually had social work students from a university on placement, and those socal work students also sat in on those sessions. So it was always collaborative, there was never just one or two minds, there was always several minds.

The larger school, I think we had six to eight teachers I think in that school. They were really excited because they hadn't actually worked together as a whole Junior Primary cohort. Teachers in that school … Grade 2 teachers would work together in their programming, or Grade 1 teachers would work together, they hadn't actually ever all got together and worked collaboratively in their programming. So they had quite a lot of ideas buzzing around between them because there were so many people in that room at the time.

JE: Now, you've recently published a paper in the journal Pastoral Care in Education where you discuss the study in detail. On the issue of policies and procedures already in place at the schools involved, I found this quote from the paper really interesting, it says: ‘Some teachers suggested “the problem” was that the policies themselves related “more to older students”, suggesting that JP [Junior Primary] educators had not been involved or consulted in the development of that policy.' So, there were some problems there – firstly about a lack of awareness of policies and procedures, but also that lack of focus on early childhood and the primary years?

LE: Absolutely, there was one particular school where there were several educators that didn't know that they had a bullying policy and procedure, so that sort of indicates that it's not a topic of conversation – it's not shared, teachers aren't being made aware of the policy and procedure, how to access that and what they need to do in relation to policy and procedure. We did find through interviewing teachers about this that quite a lot of bullying incidents sort of got ‘passed up the line'. So, if there was an incident that a teacher thought might be bullying it then went to the school counsellor or the deputy principal, it wasn't managed by the teachers. And that was detrimental, to some degree, because teachers weren't learning about bullying, they didn't have a clear understanding themselves about what bullying was, how to define bullying, and also how to manage that, how to respond to that.

So that sort of implicated their understanding; they didn't have a need to have a look at the bullying policy and procedure because it just got handed up the line, so therefore they weren't aware of that. And when they looked it up – at all schools when we were talking about what policies and procedures are in place within that context they all looked up the bullying policy and procedure within their context – that's when they sort of discovered that the language that was being used, the strategies and methods to respond to bullying, weren't really very appropriate to early childhood.

This is where the gap lies. It lies within the formal education around bullying, it lies within the policies and procedures around bullying; early childhood is largely excluded from all of that and that becomes quite a problem when we're trying to educate around bullying. At the moment, early childhood teachers generally educate around social competence, being kind, rather than actually looking at bullying and helping children to understand what bullying is – such as having an understanding [that] the three elements of bullying must be in place for it to be considered bullying.

Some of the fallout from that – teachers were telling us that bullying was being over reported within their context, by children and by parents. Parents were trying to take things into their own hands, so they might have been confronting other parents in the schoolyard, because they perceived that a particular child was bullying their child. And that, again, goes to a lack of understanding and knowledge on behalf of the parents as well.

JE: Yeah, and there were some other problems raised by the teachers that you worked with – things like, staff turnover had been an issue, there was a lack of consistency there in how these things were dealt with, parent aggression (you mentioned there), and just the impact it was having on their teaching time.

LE: Yes, teachers reported that they were spending quite a significant amount of time dealing with conflict and bullying incidents, straight after recess and lunchtime. So that impacted on their time, because they had to discuss with children what had happened in this conflict and identify or decide whether they thought it was an incident that needed to be reported to a more management position, like a behaviour management position such as a school counsellor or deputy principal. So, this was impacting quite heavily on their time.

The lack of consistency, not all teachers … because of a lack of understanding amongst teachers, parents, children, some incidents were being reported and sent to a school counsellor for example to be sorted, or managed, and others were not. So again, it's that lack of understanding that impacts, or contributes, to the lack of consistency in how incidents are responded to or managed.

JE: We've touched on how lots of schools have social and emotional programs in place, and three out of four of the schools in your study had them, but none had a specific education program about bullying. Is that unusual then, in your experience?

LE: I don't think it is unusual. Schools always program to the needs of the children, to the needs of their context. So these schools were high risk schools that did require specific education on social and emotional education and wellbeing education, so schools were responding in that way. And I think one of the key issues in relation to bullying education is that it's not in the formal curriculum, as an education topic, so it seems to get overlooked. And when we approached these schools to do this research they were actually very excited to be able to participate in this and develop an educational program for their school because it's few and far between. So I don't think it's unusual that schools don't have bullying programs – particularly in early childhood – I think bullying doesn't really get addressed until it's introduced in the curriculum, which is round about Grade 4.

JE: One aspect of the researcher role in this collaboration was to map the programs that they came up with against the Australian Curriculum and Early Years Learning Framework. Why was this important for the teachers, and the school leaders to be able to do this kind of mapping?

LE: It helped them to apply it to something. It is in the curriculum. We were able to map the activities to the Early Years Learning Framework, we were able to map it to the Australian Curriculum, so it supported the need for bullying to be taught, and also how it fits into the curriculum. So therefore, when teachers are developing resources and lesson plans they are able to align it with the formal curriculum. I think that was very important for schools to be able to see, or for teachers to be able to see … it fitted in very well with the current curriculum that we have, despite the fact that bullying is largely absent, particularly from the early childhood curriculum.

JE: Mmm, so the links are there, you've just got to actually look for them I guess. In designing these context-based strategies and activities one of the schools involved the students actually – they introduced the unit, they had a brainstorm of their ideas, and they created a concept map. I want to share another quote from your journal paper, and this is from one of the participants. They say: ‘Our JP teachers worked together using a triangle diagram (strengths-based approach/tier intervention method) – [from] whole community (class) to individual and mapping of cards into topic order. As a group, we discussed what would be the best way to teach the students [at our school] and together we came up with a series of lessons and resources to help us implement the unit'. So, it sounds like this co-design process really helped them pull all the different strands together to shape the end program.

LE: Absolutely, so looking at the strengths-based approach – we do look at it from a community perspective, then to a group perspective, then to a single perspective. So it helped them to have a look at the whole school prevalence and problem, versus the class prevalence and problem, versus the individual children. So, it supported them in gathering all this information that they may not have actually thought about if they were trying to design a bullying program on their own.

They really did enjoy it and it really did extend their thinking. Initially, when they were talking about bullying and they were talking about the prevalence – and obviously at that point it's not actually researched within their school so it's all perception – they weren't thinking outside the box when they were thinking about trying to meet children's needs. So when we did present them with those cards it really ignited a lightbulb in their minds and they were really throwing out some excellent ideas in relation to what they could teach and how they could relate this back to bullying to support prevention.

One of the things that teachers reported back to us afterwards, I was just thinking about the impact on teaching time, one school implemented a card system. A system where if children had a conflict or a problem and they wanted to take it to the teacher and they thought it was bullying, they had to tick off on the card whether they thought that the conflict was intentional, to hurt or harm another person or themselves, whether there was repetition there, whether it has been ongoing or it has occurred more than once, and whether there was a power differential, whether they felt like they couldn't respond or they didn't have support, or the other child was bigger or older, etc. So, that little card system, actually one of the teachers reported back it saved them an awful lot of time because if children had that conflict they would go over, pick up the card and tick, and if they weren't able to tick all three it wasn't classified a bullying incident. So, it also supported the response strategies as well.

JE: That's one of the activities they introduced. I wanted to really focus the main part of today's podcast on the co-design method, rather than the individual responses – because, we've discussed how important it is to base programs on your own context, your own need, and the process itself actually is the heart of this study. But I do want to touch on what happened with the implementation. How were these programs received?

LE: The program was received very well by the teachers, they really enjoyed the process and the collaboration. They enjoyed having, I guess, the researcher's expert knowledge to be able to guide them. They enjoyed working collaboratively with other educators or counsellors, or deputy principals in some cases, to be able to design a program within their context. They learnt so many new skills in relation to how to think more broadly and to consider things that they may not have considered before – so, looking at defining the problem, identifying who it impacts. And when they identified that it's not only impacting the children, it's also impacting them as teachers, it's impacting other children that may not even be involved in the incidents because of the time that it's taking up from their teaching, it's impacting the school, having to manage some of these issues, and also parents, with an inability to understand what bullying is and that also impacts on time if you've got parents that are over-reporting bullying incidents.

When children were retested in relation to their understanding of bullying, their knowledge of bullying had really improved, so the teachers were really excited about that. … They had built those skills to develop a program specific to the context of their school, but also the context of their class. So, being able to identify what worked really well for them and their class, what didn't work so well, what they might need to change – so some of the things that Reception teachers reported back, specifically, was looking at the language at the language of intent to harm, repetition and power differentials. So, they were already thinking about ‘how can we introduce this language in a more early-early childhood-friendly way?' So, they were still going to introduce them to those formal definitions but also think about how to help children develop a really clear understanding of what these terms meant.

JE: Finally then, from this proof-of-concept study, it seems this co-design approach is something that could be transferred to other schools who really want to tailor their own programs and meet their own community needs.

LE: Absolutely, I think this proof-of-concept study has actually provided evidence that this is a very transferrable, usable, assessable method. And it can be used across all subject areas, so it's not specific to early childhood, it's not specific to bullying, it can be used across all subject areas; and it can also be used across all disciplines, it doesn't necessarily just need to be prevalent for educators.

One of the exciting things about this study, that excited the teachers, is the fact that they were able to develop a program that was tailored to meet the needs of the school context and their class and their children. So that was something that they were really quite excited about and can be transferred, obviously, to other schools.

The fact that teachers were empowered and took ownership of their program, improved the effectiveness of that program. So we found that, when we interviewed the teachers they were very positive about the whole process and also about the results that they received in relation to children's knowledge being very vastly improved. And this is likely to make this program more sustainable; because of that ownership, they're likely to continue with this program, tweaking it, further developing it in response to the context or the new cohorts of children that come in.

JE: Yeah, so, as teachers, learning skills that they'll use again in the future. As I mentioned, I'll pop a link in to the transcript of this podcast to the Participatory Design method we've been talking about today and I'll also put a link to the journal paper – and there's lots and lots of information in there about the workshop process, about interviews with the children, the issues raised by teachers and so on, so there's plenty more for listeners to dig into if they want to. For now though, Dr Lesley-anne Ey, thank you so much for sharing your expertise with Teacher.

LE: Thank you very much for having me.

That's all for this episode. If you enjoyed this podcast, there are more than 170 episodes to binge on in our archive at – including more from our series on Behaviour Management covering topics such as the effects of teacher praise and reprimands, and the importance of planning for positive behaviour. The Teacher website is where you'll also find the transcript of this episode and some related articles. And finally, we'd love for you to rate or review the podcast in your podcast app, and subscribe to the channel, to ensure that new episodes land in your feed as soon as they're available.


Ey, L. A., & Spears, B. (2020). Engaging early childhood teachers in participatory co-design workshops to educate young children about bullying. Pastoral Care in Education, 38(3), 1–14.

What bullying policies and procedures are in place at your school? Who was involved in drawing them up? Is the language suitable for all ages, including your youngest students? Are all staff aware of these policies and procedures?