COMMENT:

After-school clubs were where many of us learned skills that we kept for life. New research indicates that they may also be a simple way to improve the way we combat bullying in our schools.

According to research, one in three children experience bullying – and those numbers haven't shifted much from those of earlier generations. This means that being picked on in the playground may sadly seem like an inevitable part of growing up for some children in New Zealand.

Bullying is a distinct type of aggression where people deliberately hurt others in ways that include name-calling, threatening, isolation, spreading rumours and sending hurtful messages through their digital devices.

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The long-term effects of bullying are significant to society, with research showing that children who are bullies at school are more likely to be convicted of criminal offences as adults and to have more difficulty throughout their lives with relationships and substance abuse.

Bullying can occur at any time in life – it is not limited to our children by any means. However, interventions that target the social problem of childhood bullying - children being aggressive against other children - may help to reduce the same individuals repeating the behaviour later on in life through workplace bullying.

The way that bullying occurs shifts with age. Physical bullying is more common in younger students, with verbal and cyberbullying more common as students move to high school. The teenage years are an extremely important and formative period in a person's life, and bullying during this time, in particular, can have long-term effects on its victims. One study showed this by using high-resolution scanning techniques to map the brains of 682 teenagers aged between 14 and 19 years old.

Of these teenagers, 36 had reported experiencing chronic bullying during their lifetime. This persistent bullying resulted in lasting damage to their developing brains with the study finding a decrease in the volume of the parts of the brain called the caudate and putamen when compared to students who had not been bullied. The caudate is thought to play a crucial role in how the brain learns and processes memories - specifically, it uses information from past experiences to influence future actions and decisions. The putamen regulates movements and affects learning.

Strategies to reduce bullying have the potential to not only positively affect individual lives but also society in general. Bullying appears to be a consequence of nurture more than nature, which means that the creating and implementation of interventions at a young age can help our children to learn more social behaviours.

One study published in the journal Educational and Child Psychology this week found that students who felt a greater sense of belonging both to their school community and within their family were much less likely to become bullies.

In the research, more than 900 students were surveyed to assess their sense of belonging among their peers, family and school community in addition to their experiences around bullying behaviour.

The results indicated that the more a student felt like they belonged to a school community and that the school had activities that they felt like were for them, the less likely they were to report partaking in bullying behaviours.

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The study's authors encourage school and community leaders to establish a varied set of clubs and community building events which create a supportive environment for students to feel like they can contribute to.

Although strategies to reduce bullying involve many factors, including family relationships, this new research shows that in addition to providing core curriculum-based content, the simple act of creating an accepting and supportive space for students where they feel like they belong could help to prevent bullying in schools.