Anti-bullying and harassment programs that are nested within a positive school environment (characterized by emotionally supportive peer-peer, staff-student relations, and staff-staff relations) have better outcomes. School culture has been defined as the set of beliefs and norms shared by students and staff.1 There is variation in the extent to which adults and young people identify with the school and accept school values. For example, young children are more likely than adolescents to accept a teacher’s authority and student codes of conduct. Adolescents, especially those who are frequently involved in anti-social behaviour, are likely to oppose school values and teacher authority. Boys are more likely than girls to reject school values and norms, and lack empathy for victims.2 An important element of school culture is school membership (student perceptions about acceptance and belonging at school).
Student level of bonding to school is related to emotional, behavioural and educational outcomes. Students with strong bonds experience fewer emotional and behavioural problems and have better educational outcomes compared to students with weak levels of engagement. School safety and student mental health are closely related. When bullying takes place, students are likely to report feeling unhappy and unsafe at school. When bullying is not addressed by school staff, many children are exposed to repeated incidents, increasing the likelihood that they will view aggressive behaviour as acceptable and rewarding. Victims of persistent bullying are more likely to suffer psychological harm and social exclusion compared to non-victims. The reduced mental health of frequently victimized students adversely affects learning outcomes. Exposure to bullying behaviour at school is likely to exacerbate problems among students already pre-disposed to emotional difficulties. Victimized students have elevated symptoms of anxiety and depression, both of which interfere with learning at school.
Students exposed to favourable school culture (marked by a warm and caring social atmosphere, positive student behavioural norms, a strong school emphasis on academics, and a strong school emphasis on learning goals focussed on mastery and understanding of curriculum material) develop a strong personal sense of school membership based on feelings of support and acceptance and belonging from classmates and teachers. Feelings of membership in turn improve academic and behavioural functioning and overall mental health both directly and indirectly through enhancements in self-esteem.3
Children with emotional and behavioural disorders are most likely to have a low sense of school engagement. Emotionally supportive schools, which are critical for high-risk students, have lower levels of violent behaviour than schools that do not provide emotional support.4 The school acts as a protective factor, serving to buffer children from family problems, negative peers and environmental risks.
Readers wanting a more in-depth discussion on these issues can refer to Totten and Quigley’s Bullying, School Exclusion and Literacy discussion paper prepared for Human Resources Development Canada (2002).