Steps to a bullying-free school

Issue: Volume 98, Number 7

Posted: 2 May 2019
Reference #: 1H9tgD

Learning how to understand those who are different from oneself is at the heart of Te Awa School’s bullying prevention culture.

Forming positive relationships is key to the culture of Te Awa School.

Te Awa School in Napier goes out of its way to teach social skills to every student from day one and builds its culture around nine key themes.

Teaching social skills daily builds respect between students, teachers and whānau. It can be as simple as ensuring students know how to say ‘thank you’ or when to say sorry and promoting the use of kind words, making eye contact or looking at the person you’re talking to. Principal Tim Van Zyl says it’s so simple, but many students are just not taught it.

One of the reasons Te Awa School is well known, and often recommended by other schools and parents, is for knowing how to support students who present more complex or challenging behaviour. The school makes sure to establish a high-trust culture, which helps teachers address any incidents head-on, says Tim.

“The relationship between parents, whānau and school is so important, it forms the basis of a positive school pathway for the students. It’s about being open and honest and sharing information. This is the only way the school can help a student and whānau who have perhaps had a challenging time at school.”

Elijah is one of the first students to arrive at school and loves to sit and read from his reading box before the start of the day.

One of the key things Te Awa did at the beginning was to establish a clear statement of what bullying is, what it means and what it looks like.

“Bullying happens often, it’s repeated, it’s a form of getting power over someone else, and it’s purposeful,” says Deputy Principal Greta Van Zyl.

Greta says ensuring staff understand and know how to deal with a bullying incident is important, but it all comes down to the school culture and ensuring everyone is talking the same talk. 

“Everyone has to follow the expectations that set the culture – this includes all staff, right down to the caretaker. The students know and understand these expectations.

“PB4L has allowed us to build up the systems within our school. It means there’s a clear pathway and understanding. Everyone knows the processes and consequences, and everyone knows exactly what’s going to happen if they do something that’s not okay.”

The school’s values were set and agreed to by all, then the expectations were clarified. The values are based around being K.E.E.N: Knowledgeable – Ako, Enthusiastic – Whakawhanaungatanga, Empathetic – Aroha and Nurturing – Manaakitanga.

Tim says that they set all expectations in the positive form so everyone knows how to behave and are not being told what not to do.

“It means we say to the students in a school assembly setting, ‘To be knowledgeable, give your full attention and sit with your legs and arms folded, to be enthusiastic, you need to be an active participant. To be empathetic you need to listen without talking and be proud when you receive an award and to nurture, you clap when someone receives an award’.

“It’s incredibly straightforward. I think sometimes people make it too complicated. Every single staff member lives and breathes these expectations.”

Tim says clear expectations are everywhere, for example when transitioning between classrooms, in the bathrooms, in the school playground and the library. “We start off each term by reminding the students of each of the expectations. You can’t tell a child off if they don’t know the rules.”

Keeping an annual student survey allows the staff to identify any students who say they are being bullied or know of any students who are being bullied by others – allowing early interventions. Teachers also keep track of the results as part of their pastoral system. This helps identify the year groups of students who are feeling more vulnerable.

Greta says that you soon see if new students are causing issues.

Students start the day with brainfood before their mahi each day

“Last year we had an influx of Year 5 students so we saw a spike in incidents in that year group. They were new to the school so weren’t totally clear about our expectations and culture.”

The school carefully tracks their progress, to make sure what they’re doing is working. When they first started the school surveys, data showed around 45 per cent of students said they were being bullied by others more than twice in a month. Since the school focused on early intervention, supporting students and teaching strategies, they have seen a drop to below 16 per cent of students saying that they are being bullied more than twice in a month.

“Our goal is obviously to have no students say that they are being bullied but we have seen significant decreases in incidents,” says Greta.

Prevention and intervention are critical, as no prevention will make bullying disappear on its own, says Greta. “Typically around 20 per cent of students may need some form of additional support in this respect, this could be as small as encouraging a student not to watch when an incident is taking place.”

Greta says the majority of students model positive ways of interacting and act as role models to help those that may have additional needs to behave in a way that’s respectful. This means they don’t give the bully the power by standing around, laughing and encouraging them.

“Because of the systems we have in place, the children quickly learn the behaviour of the students who have additional needs – and know how to respond. They’ve learnt to say ‘excuse me, that’s not how you behave at Te Awa School’. It’s important to empower children to teach each other and stand up to bullying, and this is what makes the difference. Often it’s the case that bullies lose their power if they don’t have an audience.”

The school has established a high trust model between whānau and school. “We say ‘we can do this for you, and what can we do to help you,’ says Greta. “If there’s a problem, we immediately make contact and if needed we go out to whānau and visit them in their home; this type of contact is also made for positive incidents.”

The school believes it is all about promoting resilience. Tim says that resilience is the ability to bounce back from stress, adversity, failure, challenges, or even trauma. It’s not something that students either have or don’t have, it’s a skill that students need to develop as they grow.

Teachers can help students build resilience and confront uncertainty by teaching them to solve problems independently. Students need to be taught strategies that allow them to work through a problem and develop their own problem solving skills, he says.

“It’s important to encourage students to take healthy risks. Something that pushes a child to go outside of their comfort zone. When students avoid risk, they internalise the message that they aren’t strong enough to handle challenges. When students embrace risks, they learn to push themselves. Our key message is to embrace mistakes – theirs and ours – that’s how we learn.”

Examples include trying a new sport, participating in the school play, presenting work at a school assembly or making new friends, says Tim.

Tim and Greta’s trip to Finland and Wales in 2016 primarily looked at the KiVA anti-bullying programme that is run in schools. Te Awa had been running the programme for the last two years, but they had the opportunity to also attend the University of Turku in Finland where a study is being carried out on the effects of bullying on youth, and how it relates to suicide and crime rates.

Tim and Greta are adapting what was learnt from overseas models to suit Te Awa School. In Wales they spent time in schools which cater for students needing learning support to learn how they deal with bullying, with a focus on teaching life skills, emotional skills and recognising emotions. This has been a big motivator in adapting the current programme at Te Awa School to include these skills.

The difference between New Zealand and Finland, says Greta, “is that we’re so competitive here”.

“I think things are slowly changing with Kāhui Ako,” she says, “but we somehow try to outdo each other when really we should be working together. School culture in Finland promotes diversity and the students celebrate it, they have realised they can achieve more working together, rather than against each other.”

Te Awa School listens to the student voice, so the students know they’re loved. A growth mindset and a high-trust model are imperative, says Tim.

“Our school is built on love,” says Tim. “And it truly is.” I have that expectation on my teachers, and tell them during their interview ‘you have to love these students as if they’re your own’. It’s all about relationships. Students learn when they like their teachers.”

Tim Van zyl on the Bullying-Free NZ theme: Celebrating being us | Whakanuia Tōu Āhua Ake!

We need to have everything set up so that people can be who and what they want. We need to embrace and celebrate diversity within our schools, but it can’t happen overnight. Within the Māori culture, it’s about sharing yourself first, leading by doing, then the children follow in terms of diversity. It’s about building those relationships with whānau. 

Ashanti and Nevaeh working cooperatively and sharing their learning plans.

The Bullying-Free New Zealand School Framework

Research-based guidance from Bullying-Free NZ, an initiative of the Bullying Prevention Advisory Group, indicates there are nine core elements to an effective whole-school approach to bullying prevention. These elements are inter-linked – each is important to making bullying prevention and response more effective.

A positive school culture underpins every aspect of school and classroom life, determines wellbeing and effective bullying prevention in schools, and establishes an environment where positive behaviour is the norm. Work that improves school and classroom climate can help address factors that act as catalysts to bullying.

Establishing, teaching and following clear and consistent behaviour expectations in relation to bullying is a critical part of a whole-school approach.

Data collection is also a critical dimension of bullying prevention. Robust data enables schools to build a clear picture of the nature and extent of bullying problems in their school, allows them to make plans to prevent and respond to bullying, and ensures their actions are making a difference.

Find out more about the nine core elements of a successful bullying prevention approach in the Bullying-Free NZ School Framework at

The Wellbeing@School student survey(external link) is free of charge to schools. 

Key takeouts

  • Teach social skills right from the start.
  • Have clear, consistent systems that everyone in the school knows and understands.
  • Set clear values.
  • Use data, annual surveys and pastoral care as part of your student management system.
  • Be student focused – if something is going on for a child, it’s one of two things: either they’re trying to avoid something or they want something. Sometimes what they bring in from home means they can’t focus. Perhaps they haven’t had breakfast, or don’t have lunch or are cold.
  • Go to whānau first. Be proactive about building relationships with family/whānau. Ensure they hear good things about their child too.
  • Build resilience, the ability to bounce back from stress, adversity, failure, challenges, or even trauma. It’s a skill that students need to develop as they grow.
  • Study overseas models and get as much as you can from them.
  • Have a growth mindset and a high-trust model.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 10:59 AM, 2 May 2019

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