Is your child being bullied at school? 10 signs to look for.

10 signs your child is being bullied at private school

How to spot bullying in the fee-paying education system

Suspecting that your child is being bullied is, without a doubt, hugely emotive. I’ve encountered both anger and denial from parents, and it can remind us of moments of own school days that we’d rather forget.

By law, state schools must have a behaviour policy in place to help prevent and deal with bullying among students, among staff, and between staff and students. These policies should be available to all teachers, pupils and parents. Private schools are exempt from this law, and although many choose to include such policies, the system is not bound by the same regulations.

Other reasons why bullying can be a problem in private schools are the longer days and option of boarding. Although many schools have excellent pastoral care, when children are away from their parents for longer periods there are greater opportunities for bullying to take place, and the signs can be harder for parents to spot.

So, what are the telling signs that parents should be on the look out for?


1. Avoids periods of low- or un-staffed time

Children who are suffering at the hands of bullies usually suffer most when an adult is not present – playtime, in the changing room before and after games, common rooms, and in the gaps between lessons. If a child is commonly late for a lesson, or tries to get out of sports, that’s a sign they are avoiding being alone with other children.

2. Becomes the class fool

Playing the fool is a distraction technique. Bullies usually pick on other children for their own amusement, so a child may presume it is safer to amuse then in a non-abusive way. By making jokes at their own expense it is less hurtful than hearing it said by someone else. This can be a tough one to see through, as outwardly the child may appear confident and happy, so look carefully, and see if their behaviour has changed suddenly, or is different around different peer groups.

3. Poor academic performance

If a child who has previously done well at school suddenly starts failing academically, that’s a clear sign something is affecting their performance. It could be anything from illness to problems at home, but being bullied is a common reason for children to become distracted at school or hoping to fade into the background with mediocre grades.  Playing the class fool often goes along with these dropping grades because of the redirection of effort into the non-academic performance.

4. Appears depressed

Both feeling low and actual clinical depression can be side effects of the pressures of growing up, but obviously can be exacerbated if the child is being marginalised or abused. Look for the common signs of depression or breakdown, including changes in eating habits or sleep pattern, and becoming withdrawn. It’s important to tackle depression early, in case it heralds imminent breakdown, self-harming, or attempted suicide.

5. Misbehaviour or anti-social behaviour

Young people often experiment with smoking, drinking or drugs.  Sometimes this is a result of more aggressive peer pressure than is normal, or by the desire to escape their feelings of hurt and inadequacy, or by the need to appear stronger, older, cooler than those doing the bullying, Likewise, aggression, sullenness or disrespect for teachers can be a bullied child’s way of trying to gain the respect of their bullies.

6. Has few or no friends

A child who is not invited to parties, trips into town, other children’s houses is often being ostracised, whether as a cause or effect. If a child is socially marginalised at school, others in the class will be reluctant to befriend them, as this puts them squarely in the bullies’ firing line. In a painful cycle, the child without friends is more exposed to being bullied, has fewer avenues to help and may become more withdrawn and solitary.

7. Missing or damaged possessions

If a child becomes a bit of a scatterbrain, constantly losing gym kits, hockey sticks or money, this could be a sign of something more serious. This is especially true if you find these things hidden in unusual places. Bullied children often have to hide the evidence of their broken belongings, or make excuses for ‘losing’ things so they don’t have to answer difficult questions about how they came to be damaged or lost.

8. Bruises or other marks

It might seem obvious but children can be good at hiding the signs of violent bullying. If a child insists on wearing long sleeves or trousers on a hot day, or seems unusually accident-prone they may be hiding marks from teachers or parents that would need explanation.

9. Illness, faking illness or factitious disorder

Being bullied is a traumatic experience and can result in actual physical symptoms. Constant headaches, stomach pains and feeling sick are associated with the stress of bullying. And while the occasional desire for a ‘pyjama day’ can be understandable, if it becomes a constant habit it may be a sign that there is a problem at school. Factitious disorder, of which Münchausen’s syndrome is an example, is where the child may have all the symptoms of being genuinely unwell, but have been self-inflicted or exaggerated to avoid going to school.

10. Seems different after playing at the computer

Look out for a child who has become protective and sensitive about their digital life and seems distressed after being online. It is natural for children to have a few secrets but the best way to protect a child from cyber bullying is to know their online life – visit their favourite sites, check their posts and limit screen time.


Boarding schools

The problem here is that parents don’t see their children on a daily basis, so it might take longer to notice changes. It is more important than ever to trust your instincts: you know your child, even if they’re in troubled teenage years. If you think they’re ‘not themselves’ or behaving oddly, that could be an indication that something’s not right at school.

There are also more unsupervised areas such as common rooms and boarding houses where bullying can easily go undetected. Boarding schools can multiply the effects of bullying as there’s no escape; it can go on 24 hours a day, so it’s important to watch for signs and address them quickly and effectively.

A lot has changed since the days of ‘fagging’ and other institutionalised bullying in private education. Unfortunately, some shadows of the past still remain in some places, and the overwhelming sense of isolation felt by the victims of bullying is just as painful as it ever was. This topic may be divisive but it is something that needs to be tackled calmly, swiftly and with sensitivity.



Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments