Anti-bullying policy guidelines to support pupils with a visible difference in schools

Research-based anti-bullying guidelines to help you create an inclusive and welcoming environment for students with a visible difference.

Your school will already have an anti-bullying policy. However, it’s important to ensure that the issues faced by children and young people who have a visible difference are included.

The advice and suggestions on this page are based on research findings and experience of working with children and young people.

We hope this will help schools foster a positive and inclusive school experience for all children and young people, and help ensure your school’s anti-bullying policy supports pupils with a visible difference.

An infographic - yellow text on a green background - which says that 1 in 2 people with a visible difference have experienced bullying about their appearance in school

Advice and suggestions to address bullying based on appearance

First take a look at this video, which features young people with a visible difference talking about their experiences of bullying:

To ensure your anti-bullying policy support students with a visible difference, follow the guidelines below:

Training for staff

  • Regular CPD to equip all staff to prevent bullying and to identify, report and address all incidents involving all forms of bullying.
  • Specific staff training concerning appearance-related issues in education. This will include developing and maintaining high expectations of pupils who have an unusual appearance.
  • Effectively managing the social challenges associated with visible difference. Just doing the activities in the research will help to prevent bullying.
  • Staff need to be confident and comfortable exploring appearance issues with pupils, where appropriate, in the context of lessons and discussions.

How to support a child who is being bullied

  • Where bullying has targeted appearance or where the child who has been bullied has an unusual appearance, the staff who are tasked with addressing the bullying behaviour should carefully avoid being drawn into any consideration of the appearance of the child who has been targeted by the bullying behaviour.
  • However, it might be understood that a child who has been bullied would benefit from supportive input to help them feel or act less vulnerable. But this should not be mixed up with the response to the bullying, otherwise the vulnerable child may feel that the bullying was their fault. You may wish to share our self-help resources for children and young people with a visible difference.
  • It is never a child’s disability or appearance that “causes” bullying, even when this is targeted by the bullying. The bullying behaviour must be understood and addressed as a behavioural lapse or unacceptable behaviour by the child or young person doing the bullying.
  • When a child is vulnerable to being left out, they are more at risk of being bullied. The support they receive to help them develop better social skills and more social confidence should be delivered in a way that cannot be construed as giving them what they need to stop them being bullied.
  • Hold regular classes and school-level meetings with parents to keep them in the picture about how their child’s school addresses bullying. The child who has been bullied and their parents will need to know exactly how the problem behaviour is being addressed.
  • All forms of bullying need to be reported so children know that bullying incidents are always dealt with quickly, fairly and effectively. Otherwise, they will soon decide not to report bullying incidents. Or even worse, they will think that reporting bullying makes it worse.
  • High expectations help counter unwitting negative attitudes connected with visible difference, ensuring high staff expectations of all children and young people, including those who have an unusual appearance.

Be well-informed

Theories on prevention and effective responses to bullying in schools is a vast research area. Below are some key research findings that are especially relevant for preventing and addressing bullying that targets a child’s unusual appearance. This evidence base can be used to support your anti-bullying policy.

  • School staff have been found to underestimate and underreport bullying of children who have special or additional educational needs or disabilities. These children are in fact especially subject to bullying in school, as are children who receive one-to-one support in lessons.
  • Good peer relations and peer support across perceived differences strongly protects against bullying. Improving the confidence and social skills of all children concerning their own appearance significantly reduces bullying that targets appearance. Children who bully and children who are bullied are sometimes the same children.
  • Most forms of bullying target appearance. Children who have a condition, injury or illness that is visible to others are bullied twice as much as children who do not have a condition, injury or illness that affects their appearance.
  • Children with a visible difference often have extensive experiences of being subject to teasing, name-calling and ostracism. Bullying may not explicitly target a child’s unusual appearance but will nevertheless exploit a stigmatised vulnerability.
  • Bullying behaviours at school are part of a broad continuum that includes isolation and ostracism, physical and sexual abuse and hate crime. Some 30% of children who are bullied do not tell anybody about their experiences.
  • Bullying interventions which explicitly or unwittingly cast children or adults as victims or rescuers will tend to perpetuate and even worsen bullying behaviours.
  • If the child targeted by the bullying behaviour is (unconsciously) seen as weak and vulnerable and needs peers or adults to rescue them, then the child with the bullying behaviour is likely to be (unconsciously) seen as a more powerful persecutor. By contrast, keeping the focus on everyone’s standards of behaviour, with respectful behaviour expected of everyone, avoids labelling those who are bullied as weak.

Anti-bullying organisations across the UK

You may wish to refer to or contact the other organisations listed below when developing your anti-bullying policy.

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