Cari Roberts: How I managed to stop classroom bullying

From an address given by the broadcaster and writer at the ChildLine conference on bullying, held in London

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I've been asked to talk about the year I spent with Class 4 in a small village school in rural Norfolk. So, who were the children? Class 4 comprised 29 children. They had been noticeable as an exception to the norm. The main body of the class had been together since starting school with only three new arrivals and one departure.

I've been asked to talk about the year I spent with Class 4 in a small village school in rural Norfolk. So, who were the children? Class 4 comprised 29 children. They had been noticeable as an exception to the norm. The main body of the class had been together since starting school with only three new arrivals and one departure.

While the rest of the school maintained a high standard of behaviour and commitment to the school ethos, these children were impervious to censure or praise, exhortation or encouragement. In their behaviour to each other they were routinely unkind and unfeeling. It was not that they were emotionally illiterate. They had done Circle Time, Show and Tell, games with parachutes and beach balls – you name it, they'd done it. And still they poked each other with scissors and stole each other's pens.

I'm sure – now – that many acts of bullying went on right under my gaze but they protected me. I didn't find out until much later, for example, that the pen marks on Ellie's arm were not – as she had told me with a smile – just playing, but part of a long and secret campaign waged against her by Becca – who I had assumed to be her best friend. I had even seated them together. Ellie told me, three terms later, that she hadn't wanted to worry me because everyone else was so horrible and I had enough to do.

"Right," I said one afternoon, "you have 20 minutes to come up with 10 pieces of advice which we will make into a poster for the classroom wall with the title 'Friendly Advice'. I'll be at the computer". We had already had a couple of sessions in which I had explained that they were to have a 20-minute slot each afternoon which we would call Class Discussion Time. They could organise it in any way they wished but there would be a task or I would ask them to answer a question as a group.

As I sat, trying to give the impression that I wasn't listening, they decided that they should have a chairman (who they resolutely insisted should be called Chairman despite my later reflections on the word) and that it should be a different person every day in alphabetical order. Oh, and you could say no if you didn't want to do it. No one ever did.

By day two they had discovered that it would be very handy to have someone to write things down. "My mummy is secretary to the Governors," announced Kerry, "we need a secretary". Lots of nods. "Fastest writers only," said Jonathan. There was a chorus of "yeahs". We were on our way.

Around the mid-term point in spring I was getting cocky. Colleagues had started to refer to The People's Republic of Class 4 and none of the children were taking up their usual place outside the head's door at lunchtime. The gods do not like cocky people. On maths planning day I sat in the corridor with the maths co-ordinator while a supply teacher took my class. You will all be able to predict what happened next. At the end of the day the room was a hideous mess and the supply teacher was in tears.

"This," I boomed theatrically the following afternoon, "will not happen again and your task is to come up with a way of making sure that it doesn't. You have 20 minutes".

I didn't set out to combat bullying because I didn't realise that it was happening until late in the day. Only then did I really understand the extent of the small, hidden bits of oppressive behaviour that had seeped into the class culture and undermined it.

Why did it stop? Well, it wasn't me. I didn't know it was there until I noticed its absence. The only factor in their environment which had changed was the Class Discussion Time and the provision of an opportunity to make real decisions about their class life.

So how are they now? They're good. They're still giving in to temptation but they're behaving like normal year 4 and 5 children. The main conclusion I've reached is that one of the keys to combating the kind of insidious, low-level bullying which blights the lives of so many children is giving them a say in their school life while maintaining enough visible control so that they feel safe.

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