Understanding the experiences and perspectives of Ontario teachers with identity-based bullying

xray perspective of 6 room types including a library, gymnasium, classroom, conference room, and music room.

A project report of the OSSTF/FEESO Research Grant for Emergent Issues and Priorities

Identity-based bullying (IBB), sometimes also referred to as bias-based or stigma-based bullying, is bullying behaviour rooted in discrimination, where an individual1 is targeted due to characteristics related to an actual or perceived social identity. This intersection of bullying and discrimination goes beyond the individual and instead, reflects negative actions targeted at entire groups based on their identities. Teachers have been found to play a key role in promoting a positive school climate and reducing bullying behaviour,2 and yet, while considerable research has been conducted on teacher perceptions and responses to traditional forms of bullying (i.e., verbal, physical, cyber), less is known about teacher experiences with IBB.

Through the support of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF/FEESO) Research Grant for Emergent Issues and Priorities, OSSTF/FEESO members were invited to participate in a cross-panel and cross-system study to address the following research question: ‘What are the experiences of Canadian teachers with identity-based bullying and what factors contribute to their likelihood of intervening?’ Each participant was randomly assigned to one of six identity-based bullying scenarios:
ethnicity-based, academic-based, appearance/weight-based, sexuality-based, race-based, and religious-based bullying and were presented with a vignette depicting a hypothetical bullying scenario related to their assigned form of IBB. Then teachers were asked a series of questions about how often they witness IBB, their perceptions and responses to the scenario, and other factors that determine their likelihood of intervening. 941 participants were included in the final analyses for the study and some key findings are highlighted in this article.

First, teachers were asked about how frequently they witnessed their assigned IBB. As shown in Figure 1, across all types of IBB, except for race, most teachers (32–40%) reported witnessing the form of IBB a few times a year. For race-based bullying, almost a third (31%) reported witnessing it once or twice a month. Across the other forms of IBB, about a quarter (23–26%) reported witnessing it once or twice a month. A small percentage of teachers in all scenarios indicated that they witnessed the form of IBB once or twice a week (6–17%) or almost every day (3–6%).

Chart 1

Teachers were also queried on how often students reported their assigned type of IBB to them. Figure 2 shows that across all scenarios, most teachers (28–37%) indicated that students reported IBB incidents to them a few times a year. About a fifth to a quarter (19–26%) of teachers stated that students reported incidents to them once or twice a month, and a smaller percentage indicated receiving reports once or twice a week (8–13%) or almost every day (2–4%).

Chart 2

Each teacher was also asked about their likelihood of intervening and their perceived seriousness of the scenario. Statistical analyses found no significant differences in the likelihood of intervention across each type of IBB scenario. In other words, teachers were equally likely to intervene in any scenario, regardless of the type of IBB. Next, they were asked about the perceived seriousness of the IBB scenario, and similarly, the analyses found no statistically significant differences across IBB types. Teachers viewed each scenario as equally serious, regardless of the type of IBB incident. That said, while no differences were found across IBB scenarios for likelihood of intervention and seriousness, additional analyses found that there are teachers who are more likely to intervene based on individual perceptions, school climate, and personal and school characteristics.

Several teacher perceptions were found to predict their likelihood of intervening in IBB scenarios. Teachers who reported more empathy for the victim of IBB were more likely to intervene. Similarly, teachers with a greater reported sense of responsibility to resolve and prevent the IBB scenario and with greater self-efficacy or confidence in responding and preventing IBB were also more likely to intervene. Analyses of teacher demographics found that female teachers were more likely than males to intervene, and among secondary school teachers, subject area teachers were more likely than homeroom and support teachers to intervene in IBB scenarios. No relationship was found between the number of years a teacher has taught and their likelihood of intervening.

School climate characteristics also predicted teachers’ likelihood of intervening. Teachers with students that were more concerned/sensitive about their peers (i.e., concern for community, respect for diversity, enjoy working together), were more likely to intervene. Teachers in less disruptive classrooms were also more likely to intervene compared to teachers in more disruptive classrooms. Additionally, teachers in more culturally diverse schools were more likely to intervene than teachers in schools with less cultural diversity. Moreover, teachers who reported having students who show high achievement orientation (i.e., more motivated, concerned about achievement, and like to be challenged academically) were more likely to intervene in IBB scenarios. Also, it was found that teachers in schools with administrators who are likely to intervene in and encourage intervening in IBB scenarios were more likely to intervene themselves. Relatedly, being in a school where other teachers are more likely to intervene also increased the likelihood of a teacher intervening. Finally, teachers in schools with clear policies on how to intervene in IBB were also more likely to intervene.

School demographics also predicted the likelihood of teacher intervention. Teachers from schools with high socio-economic status (SES) were more likely to intervene, compared to teachers in low SES schools. As well, teachers from schools that serve larger communities were more likely to intervene compared to those who taught at schools in smaller communities. Those who taught at co-educational institutions were also more likely to intervene compared to teachers at same-sex institutions. Lastly, public school teachers were more likely to intervene compared to private school teachers.

Next, teachers were presented with a series of responses to their respective IBB scenario and asked to indicate their likelihood of responding that way on a scale of 1–5 (1=not at all likely, 5=very likely). As seen in Figure 3, the most common response across all types of IBB scenarios was to directly address the issue. This included soliciting empathy and reparation, promoting social acceptance, and challenging the bully’s statements. Other responses varied by the IBB scenario. Punitive responses included punishing and reprimanding the bully and the students who supported the bully. Responses that encouraged working together focused on collaboration and advising assertion to the victim. Seeking external help referred to contacting parents, reaching out to administrators, fellow teachers, school counselors, and written or web-based resources to help with the situation. Separating the victim included moving the victim to another group and telling the victim to ignore the bully.

In addition to the quantitative survey questions, participating teachers were also asked several open-ended questions. One question asked teachers to describe the knowledge, policies, training, experiences, etc. that informed their responses to the IBB scenario. Several main themes emerged from this question (see Figure 4). The most common response from teachers assigned to the academic, ethnicity, and weight scenarios was their values and sense of responsibility as a teacher. The most common response among the race scenario was to support students and reduce the short and long-term impacts of bullying. Teachers who were assigned the sexuality and religion-based bullying scenarios most noted wanting to develop student moral engagement and awareness against bullying. Prior experience and knowledge, including having previously experienced bullying themselves, having dealt with bullying in the classroom, and having taken training and professional development, were also mentioned across all scenarios. A small number also noted that they responded to follow policies and procedures.

Chart 3

Chart 4

Another open-ended question asked teachers what resources, mandatory training, or professional development activities are missing and needed to help address IBB. Four key themes emerged about what was missing to address IBB (see Figure 5). Across all scenarios, except for weight-related bullying, teachers most felt that teacher training and resources were missing and needed to address the scenario. Teacher training included the need for training from experts, anti-discrimination training, psychological training, training on creating inclusive classrooms, practical strategies, and best practices to deal with IBB. For the weight-related bullying scenario, half of the teachers indicated that student support and training were missing and needed. Relatedly, the second most common missing component for all scenarios except weight-related bullying was student support and training. Student support and training included the need for student psychological resources, extracurricular activities, inclusion education, conflict resolution, and cooperation training for students. Other missing components included having clear and consistent policies and procedures to deal with bullying, and parental engagement and education.

Chart 5

Results from this study indicate that a majority of teachers have witnessed identity-
based bullying in their classrooms, and many of them have students report incidents of IBB to them throughout the year. Prior research suggests that students who believe that their teachers disapprove of bullying are less likely to engage in it,3 and students want their teachers to take a proactive role in helping them manage bullying problems.4 The study’s findings show that regardless of the type of IBB, teachers are likely to intervene and view all types as being equally serious. This stands in contrast to the research on teacher responses to traditional forms of bullying, which finds that they tend to view physical bullying as more serious and report a higher likelihood of intervening in incidents involving physical bullying rather than verbal, cyber, or relational bullying.5 Given that IBB is the convergence of bullying and discrimination, and the role that teachers can play in addressing IBB, this is a promising finding.

Teachers reported feeling a strong sense of responsibility to respond to IBB and believe in developing student moral engagement and awareness against IBB. They want to support students and reduce the short-term and long-term impacts of bullying but require the appropriate tools to support and engage students. The participating teachers clearly stated that they need additional training and resources, including specialized training to address discrimination, inclusion in the classroom, and practical strategies to address IBB. Additionally, the findings indicate that having clear policies on how to intervene in IBB scenarios led to an increased likelihood of intervening, and teachers also specified this as a missing component needed to address IBB. Coupled together with the findings that teachers with higher self-efficacy or confidence in responding and preventing IBB scenarios are more likely to intervene, this suggests that there is a crucial need for training and support to help teachers build their capacity and confidence to address IBB.

In all, the findings from this study provide important considerations of key areas that can be strengthened for teachers and how they can play a vital role in fostering cultural diversity and inclusiveness in the classroom.

1. Brinkman, Britney. Detection and Prevention of Identity-Based Bullying. Psychology Press, 5 Oct. 2015.
2. Espelage, Dorothy L., et al. “Teacher and Staff Perceptions of School Environment as Predictors of Student Aggression, Victimization, and Willingness to Intervene in Bullying Situations.” School Psychology Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 3, Sept. 2014, pp. 287–305, https://doi.org/10.1037/spq0000072.
Sareento, Silja, et al. “Student-, classroom-, and school-level risk factors for victimization.” Journal of School Psychology, vol. 51, no. 3, June 2013, pp. 421-434, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsp.2013.02.002.
3. ‌Sareento, Silja, et al. “Student-, classroom-, and school-level risk factors for victimization.” Journal of School Psychology, vol. 51, no. 3, June 2013, pp. 421-434, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsp.2013.02.002.
4. Crothers, Laura M., et al. “Middle School Students’ Preferences for Anti-Bullying Interventions.” School Psychology International, vol. 27, no. 4, Oct. 2006, pp. 475–487, https://doi.org/10.1177/0143034306070435.
5. Craig, Katrina, et al., “Pre-Service teachers’ Knowledge and Attitudes Regarding School-Based Bullying”. Canadian Journal of Education/Revue Canadienne De l’éducation, vol. 34, no. 2, July 2011, pp. 21-33, https://journals.sfu.ca/cje/index.php/cje-rce/article/view/410.

1. Craig, Wendy M., et al. “Prospective Teachers’ Attitudes toward Bullying and Victimization.” School Psychology International, vol. 21, no. 1, Feb. 2000, pp. 5–21, https://doi.org/10.1177/0143034300211001.
2. Small, Philippa, et al., “Individual and contextual factors shaping teachers’ attitudes and responses to bullying among young children: Is education important?” Asia-Pacific Journal of Research in Early Childhood Education, vol.7, no. 3, 2013, pp. 69–101.

About Karla Dhungana Sainju
Karla Dhungana Sainju (she/her) Associate Professor of Criminology and Justice, Faculty of Social Science and Humanities, Ontario Tech University

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