A paper presented at the NO2Bullying Conference on the Gold Coast 2015



Research has shown that people function optimally when they are driven by a sense of purpose and belonging, which gives their life meaning. Children need to have a healthy sense of purpose and belonging, otherwise they create ‘meaning’ through dysfunctional, destructive and dissociative means like bullying. This paper focuses on the systemic approach to community building, based on the theory of social ecology. We draw on strategies from a diverse range of programs like conflict resolution, non-violence training, anti-racism and intercultural communication. Using experiential learning processes from drama education, story telling, art and collaborative learning, we provide a multidimensional approach to addressing bullying and dealing with it in a creative way that really works.

The Paper written by Lyn Macpherson and Ben-Zion Weiss

The art of bully prevention and management lies in recognizing the underlying patterns that exist subtly at the foundational core of communities. These emerge in the interactions between individual members of the group. In this sense every individual is a reflection of the larger community – a fractal, or smaller part, of the greater whole. To create a cohesive environment from this perspective, the “bully” and “victim” become valuable tools providing an insight into the underlying structure of any community. Until we recognize and address this undercurrent, we will not effectively resolve the bullying epidemic.

Children are not automatically expected to know the curriculum – English, Math, Science. Why do we expect them to automatically know the underlying social threads that make up a constructive environment? There is a “hidden curriculum” that plays an even more vital role in our children’s education than the obvious curriculum (Lavoie, 2015). Community leaders need to teach the hidden curriculum and the formative core values of their community, constantly, in order for it to remain constructive.

This is more important today than ever due to the influence of mass media and the worldwide web. Mainstream news “normalizes” suffering, social media glorifies destructive behaviour, movies promote dysfunctional relationships, YouTube presents graphically violent videos. And research proves this exposure actually physically damages brain function.

Particularly during the formative and teenage years, serious long-term destructive changes to the pre frontal lobe of the brain occurs when young people are exposed to violence (Mathews et al, 2005). Dr. Wayne Warburton (2010) explains how

problem-solving capacity is stunted and primitive brain responses take over. Children repeatedly exposed to violence – whether real or fictional – become desensitized, and disconnected from themselves and others. They lack healthy levels of empathy and compassion, and lose their ability to respond to life in constructive ways. The effects are aggressive behaviour, hostility, and a combative response to conflict rather than a peaceful, non-violent approach (AD Infinitum, 2015).

Grossman & Deqaetano (1999) explain how deeply we are influenced by what we watch, see, read, play and do. This generates our actions. They believe the greatest risk with this kind of ‘entertainment’ is the emotional detachment it creates – to pain, suffering and loss of life. In fact, Grossman considers this emotional pollution the driving force behind a ‘virus’ of violent crime raging across the world.

What has this to do with bullying? In summary, it’s unreasonable to expect children to be exposed to violent movies, games and Internet sites, and then go to school and behave in compassionate, socially inclusive and caring ways.

The reality is bullying is a form of violence. Although we tend to see violence as a physical force intended to hurt, the Oxford Dictionary explains a second form of violence as: “Strength of emotion or of a destructive natural force.” Bullying involves both the obvious physical violence, and also the covert emotional form. This covert violence is usually carefully concealed and can potentially be more destructive than physical violence. It can be overlooked and given free reign to break down cohesiveness and degrade the integrity of a community.

The point is for bullying to thrive in communities it requires a community of ‘bystanders’ who allow the destructive actions of the bully. This complexity needs to be addressed to attain a sustainable result, rather than focusing only on conflicts that are between two individuals. As every individual is a reflection of the larger group, bystanders actually support and facilitate bullying, as general systems theory demonstrates.

General systems theory, as presented by theorists like Gregory Bateson (1975) and Joanna Macy (1985, 1994, 1998), acknowledges the interconnectedness of such phenomena and allows the complexity of the situation to be addressed. Bateson’s work has influenced the practice of family therapy in Australia. Its application has revolutionized the way this therapy is now practiced. It demonstrates the importance

of understanding systems theory in creating cohesive groups. If, for instance, an individual in a dysfunctional family goes into therapy, is healed, and then returns to the dysfunctional family, they are likely to regress to their previous state of trauma. However, if the whole family is involved in therapy, they can begin to see the dynamics within the family system that need to be addressed. Joanna Macy introduced Ben-Zion Weiss to systems theory when she explained the way that our individualistic society functioned as if we were separate from each other. This requires us to be strongly defensive in order to prevent attack, like billiard balls that bang against each other need to be hard to survive. On the other hand, if we were interconnected, as system theory proposes, then our ability to connect and interact with each other becomes our strength, just as the neurons in our nervous system need to be open channels in order to communicate nerve impulse messages.

This changes our understanding of learning, making experiential learning the priority, especially when it involves understanding human relationships. Experiential learning enables the process to unfold and reveals the layers of factors involved. Some of these factors will be conscious but many will be unconscious, as part of the “hidden curriculum”, often arising from cultural considerations for example.

Experiential learning uses story circles, drama, dialogues, art, discussions and other creative processes of reflection – both through language and other forms of expression. The effectiveness of this way of working has been proven through extensive research into programs like Cooling Conflicts, Conflict Transformation Through Drama, and other examples of research in social ecology.

Drama and story telling provide ways to develop empathy and understanding which may not be directly threatening to the perpetrator or the victim, and which allow the function of the bystanders to become more explicit. Through techniques drawn from Forum Theatre and Socio-drama, situations can be enacted and possible interventions explored in front of an audience who become ‘spect-actors’, to use a term from Boal’s Forum Theatre. This name derives from the way that the ‘spect- actors’ of the Bullying Scenario are invited to be engaged directly in the process by either suggesting possible ways to de-escalate the conflict situation that the bully has created, or by enacting one of the roles themselves.

This transforms the bystanders into spect-actors. They then become active participants, rather than passive observers.

When we apply these strategies to the bullying situation it can be very empowering for the victim of bullying, who is usually suffering from a feeling of being disempowered by the bully and even a sense of isolation from his or her community. When the story of the bullying is presented in the context of a public performance, the community becomes engaged in this process of transformation. In this way the bystanders are included in the story. It is for this reason that the Cooling Conflicts process that involves drama and peer teaching has been so effective in dealing with bullying.

A common misconception is that bullies are insecure. This is not always so, as the quote below states.

Bullying is thought to be the result of the bully’s need to get and keep control over someone else. Contrary to the stereotype of the bully who is socially inept trying to make him or herself feel better, bullies have been found to have rather high self-esteem and to be social climbers. Child and adult bullies have a tendency to have low tolerance for frustration, trouble empathizing with others, and a tendency to view innocuous behaviours by their victims as being provocative2.

Cooling Conflicts evolved from an application of drama, in the form of Forum Theatre, to explore conflict situations as part of a whole school anti-racism project. It became part of Ben-Zion Weiss’ doctoral research on using drama education for anti- racism in the faculty of social ecology at the University of Western Sydney. Cooling Conflicts was later used for anti-bullying as well as anti-racism. According to the website:

The Cooling Conflicts program was devised by Griffith University Centre for Applied Theatre in partnership with the NSW Department of Education and Communities (DEC) and in association with the DRACON international research project into DRAma and CONflict, based in the Peace and Development Research Institute in Sweden3.

Ben, while teaching and doing research for his doctorate at Cleveland Street High School4, applied this theory effectively to address racism in a school where 60 to 80% of students had Aboriginal, Pacific Islander and other cultural backgrounds.

Cooling Conflicts also worked for anti-bullying, following the success of the anti- racism process, which is documented in detail in Ben’s doctorate (Weiss, 2007). It was also documented through wider research studies in 20075, by which time it had been presented in 120 NSW and Queensland schools. The research concluded that Cooling Conflicts tackled the problems related to bullying and conflict management with strong effect. Cooling Conflicts asks students to respond to the causes of bullying and, through intervening in scenes of bullying, they can contribute to changes in behaviour that transforms the outcome of the bullying process.

A solution to the bullying challenges lies in introducing new methods, applicable to the world today. Thanks to the wonderful reality that brains can evolve, through neuroplasticity, we are able to retrain and re-mould damaged brain function simply by creating new learning pathways. We need to introduce socially cohesive programs into our communities – it is not a luxury, but an absolute necessity. We cannot afford to continue down a path of education that breeds division and disharmony, as then that will become our reality on a large scale. We need to create and incorporate community-building programs which are built in to our community, and that become a regular part of it at every level.

We also need to educate parents about what they are allowing their children to be exposed to, and the way they interact with their children. If our responsibility is to build a cohesive community this is an elemental part of doing so. Covert violence – in the form of social isolation, abrasive language, disrespect or neglect, at any level – will destabilize and affect a community. When we address this reality, we will form pathways to a new reality. And the way we do this is vital.

Harmony Solutions uses techniques and strategies, including drama, storytelling, discussion circles and art, to create bully proof communities

Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor and pioneering neurologist and psychiatrist, concluded, “Striving to find meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man”. The learning techniques we use work through providing this sense of meaning. They educate and inform at a heart level, rather than a head level, enabling all members of the community – students, teachers, parents, administrators – to feel connected through a sense of purpose and belonging. They feel the value of this elemental and essential understanding. From there, every individual can flourish – and isn’t that what education is all about?

_____________________________________________________________________ 2 From http://www.medicinenet.com/bullying/page3.htm accessed 24/5/15 3Fromhttp://www.coolingconflicts.edu.au/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=19 &Itemid=26 accessed 24/5/15

_____________________________________________________________________ 4 Now Alexandria Park Community School
5 From http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=6538 accessed 6/6/15


AD Infinitum (2015) The Truth: Welcome to the Revelation. AD Infinitum Publishing. Amazon. www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00XZYSRVM.
American Psychological Association (2004) Violence in the Media – Psychologists Help Protect Children from Harmful Effects. Downloaded 23 October, 2013 from http://www.apa.org/research/action/protect.aspx Susan Villani (2001) Impact of Media on Children and Adolescents: A 10-Year Review of the Research. Downloaded 23 October, 2013 from http://www.lionlamb.org/research_articles/01C392.pdf

Bateson, G., (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind, NY: Ballantine
Bateson, G. (1980) Mind and Matter, A Necessary Unity, NY: Bantam
Boal, A. (1979) Theatre of the Oppressed, London: Pluto
Boal, A. (1996) Politics, Education and Change, in O’Toole,J. & Donelan,K., Drama, Culture and Empowerment, The Idea Dialogues, Brisbane: Idea
Boal, A. (1999) The Rainbow of Desire, The Boal Method of Theatre and Therapy, London: Routledge
Cooling Conflicts: http://www.coolingconflicts.edu.au/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id= 19&Itemid=26 accessed 24/5/15
Grossman, D. & Deqaetano, G. (1999) Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie and Video Game Violence. Harmony.
Lavoie, Richard (2015) Last One Picked, First One Picked On. Uploaded to YouTube video Feb 2, 2015. Downloaded 10 June, 2015 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T4Ggn0Mp3hY.
Macy, J. M. (1983) Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age, Philadelphia: New Society Publishers
Macy, J.M. (1993) World as Lover, World as Self, London: Rider
Macy, J.M. & Brown, M.Y. (1998) Coming Back to Life, Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World, Philadelphia: New Society Publishers
Mathews, V.P., Kronenberger, W.G., Wang, Y., Lurito, J.T., Lowe, M.J., Dunn, D.W. (2005) Media violence exposure and frontal love activation measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging in aggressive and non-aggressive adolescents. Downloaded 23 October, 2013 from http://spin.ecn.purdue.edu/fmri/PDFLibrary/MathewsV_JCAT_2005_29_287_292.pdf Medicine Net: http://www.medicinenet.com/bullying/page3.htm accessed 24/5/15 Warburton, W. (2010) Children and the Media: Healthy ‘Eating’ is the Key.
Weiss, B-Z. (2007) Challenging Understandings of Racism, through a Drama Education Praxis: Steps to an Ecology of Culture, University of Western Sydney: PhD thesis. http://researchdirect.uws.edu.au/islandora/object/uws%3A2373/datastream/PDF/vie w
Wright, D. (2000) Drama Education: a ‘self-organising system’ in pursuit of learning, Research in Drama Education Vol.5, No.1 2000, pp 24-31

Here’s a link to the website:



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