Monday, 20 June 2011

RESEARCH: Acceptance of Self and Others among Children: Implications for Bullying in Schools

This soon to be published research paper by Dr. Ken Rigby and Giulio Bortolozzo explores the attitudes of 212 middle school students towards themselves and others. As hypothesised, acceptance of self was significantly correlated with low levels of victimization and acceptance of others with low levels of bullying.

The intention of this post is to explore the implications of these findings for schools and teaching practice and suggest strategies (Rational Emotive Behaviour Education) to address bullying in our schools. But before that, a cautionary note!

A study by Dr Ken Rigby (Uni SA) and Peter Smith (Goldsmith College, London) reveal that 75 per cent of reports obtained from 27 countries (between 1990 and 2009) indicate a significant drop in student reported bullying and only 11 per cent reported an increase in occasional bullying.

In a recent article (Bullying going down, not up, Adelaide Advertiser, June 10th) Rigby reminds us that whilst the public perception may be that bullying is on the rise, the evidence suggests otherwise. Rigby believes that this perception:

‘… is due to the considerable raising of alarm about bullying and its effects over the past 15 years or so, and the increase in the reporting of serious incidents."

He goes on to say that:

"Stressing the serious effects of bullying is one understandable way of getting attention to the problem. Unfortunately doing so distorts the picture and takes attention from the many positive things that can be done, and are being done around the world, to address the problem more effectively."

Habits of Thinking and Victim Behaviour

# Unconditional Self-acceptance (USA) is the belief that self worth is not given to or bestowed on us by someone or something. It is given that a person is worthwhile because she exists and not because someone deems her so! This healthy (self helpful, rational) belief enables us to deal effectively with difficult situations (emotionally and behaviourally).

Insight 1 for students: Self-acceptance is a (healthy) belief. It is deeply held and is expressed in the way we behave and feel in day-to-day life. It is not connected to how well we do at something or how others view us. The belief that when we do good/bad we are not good/bad is an important insight to have. Doing and being are different ideas! This healthy belief is a protective factor against bullying.

As Jonas Salk (creator of the polio vaccine) replied to Martin Seligman (psychologist/author) when asked what he would do if he were a young scientist today:

‘I'd do immunisation. But instead of doing it physically, I'd do it psychologically.'

Dr. Albert Ellis (creator of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy) would say that teaching unconditional self-acceptance, ‘psychologically immunises’ students against the scourge of undue anxiety, depression and other emotional disturbance.

# Conditional Self-Acceptance is the belief that self worth is given to or bestowed on us by someone. It is a belief that a person is worthwhile only when someone deems her so! This unhealthy (self defeating, irrational) belief stops us from dealing effectively with difficult situations (emotionally and behaviourally) and may put us at risk of being bullied.

Insight 2 for students: Conditional self-acceptance is an unhealthy belief. It is a deeply held belief that gives rise to depression and anxiety because of the individuals need for the approval of others. Because we believe we are only worthwhile when others ‘tell’ us so we are at great risk because there is the reality that others we may like, may not like us.

Conditional acceptance of self is the belief that that we are only worthwhile when significant others deem us so or when we do well at something. This, Ellis reminds us, is self-esteem the ‘worst sickness known to man or woman!’ (See previous posts)

Our research says that many students who have constructed the irrational belief that their worth depends on others (Serious Approval Dependence SAD) may be prone to bullying. Why? They may believe that they deserve it and signal that they are not confident through their behaviour: e.g. withdrawn, passive. These behaviours will be accompanied by e.g. fear, anxiety, and depression.

Habits of Thinking and Bully Behaviour

# Unconditional acceptance of others equates with respect and tolerance. This is a healthy habit of thinking/behaving, which accommodates a range of qualities and characteristics observed in other people. When we hold this belief we accept that others are worthwhile irrespective of how they behave. Whilst having such an attitude we retain the right to choose whom we would like to associate with. We can for instance decide not to associate with a particular other for a disagreeable quality she may have but we do not then decide she is totally bad and treat her disrespectfully!

Insight 3 for students: Unconditional acceptance of others is a healthy habit of thinking. It means we are made up of an infinite number of qualities and characteristics and we cannot be defined according to any particular one of them e.g. if we do a ‘bad’ thing (steal a pencil) we are not totally bad. Conversely if we do something ‘good’ (feed the cat) we are not totally good. We can dislike an aspect of another’s personality or behaviour and choose not to associate with them but we respect them as fellow human beings of intrinsic worth.

# Conditional other acceptance equates with disrespect for others. This is an unhealthy habit of thinking. It drives intolerance towards others behaviours and qualities which we may find different, disagreeable, quirky etc. It allows some people in some situations to hurt others because they are ‘different’ ‘not normal’ etc who ‘deserve to be punished.’

Insight 4 for students: Conditional acceptance of others is an unhealthy habit of thinking. When we think like this we act inappropriately towards others because we tend to judge someone’s total being according to a behaviour or characteristic we may not like or approve of. It is quite ok to judge the behaviour as ‘bad’ but not the person.

A whole school approach to teaching these concepts through Rational Emotive Behaviour Education will do the following:

• Reinforce healthy attitudes and beliefs already held by resilient students
• Begin to challenge the unhealthy attitudes and beliefs held by vulnerable students and to help them build new healthy habits of thinking
• Help students understand that what they believe is connected to how they feel and behave

If students accept themselves unconditionally, they will understand that what people think of them is not as important as what they think/believe about themselves. They will tend not to depend on the approval of others and will therefore be less affected by any unfair and hurtful attention. They will be more self assured and assertive.

The research (Bortolozzo, Rigby) strongly supports the teaching of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy/Education as an effective anti bullying strategy especially in regard to helping those students who may be at risk of being bullied.

There are many REBT based resources available to teachers. I have written two resources People and Emotions for primary and secondary students and Have a Go Spaghettio! for early childhood learners. Anyone who would wish to purchase a copy can contact me via this blog site. You can visit for additional information and resources.

These are some of the latest publications by Dr. Ken Rigby, which can be sourced at

Ken Rigby (2010) Bullying Interventions: Six basic approaches. Camberwell: ACER Press
Ken Rigby (2009) Bullying in Schools: Six Methods of Intervention (the DVD): Loggerheads.
Ken Rigby (2010) Addressing School bullying: Education Queensland
Australian Government report on the Method of Shared Concern by Rigby and Griffiths
Responding to school bullying: a resource for teachers

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