EAL Learners: Combating Bullying

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EAL Learners: Combating Bullying

Author: Christine Hanley, EAL Specialist

When I was teaching early literacy to adults some years ago, I had two teenage students from a refugee background join one of my classes. They were beginner-level English as an Additional language (EAL) learners and both were non-literate. They had been expelled from the local high school for fighting. At the time, there was a national fundraising campaign to support children in troubled parts of the world. Unfortunately the catchphrase for this campaign ‘only a dollar a day’ was turned against the former refugee students at this school where they were labelled and taunted as the ‘dollar a day kids’ by groups of locally born students. These two boys felt excluded and humiliated by this and repeatedly retaliated. This ultimately led to their expulsion and prevented both of them from continuing their education at school.

Bullying at school is, unfortunately, commonplace in many countries around the world and we know that being bullied has led to sometimes very negative outcomes in too many instances. Many of our refugee and migrant EAL learners in schools who are already vulnerable because of their prior experiences and often interrupted education are the most vulnerable to bullying. Social inclusion is a key factor for their successful resettlement but what those two boys experienced was social exclusion. Our EAL learners in particular need specific support with how to respond appropriately and effectively when they are being bullied.

What is bullying?

Bullying is when an individual, or a group of individuals, repeatedly and knowingly does something harmful to another individual, or group of individuals (Department for Education, 2017). The repeated nature of the action is what determines whether the action is bullying or an isolated, possibly accidental, harmful incident. Often there will be an imbalance of power. The four types of bullying are physical, verbal, social or relational, and electronic or cyber (Swit, 2019). Social or relational bullying is most commonplace at school with migrant and refugee students most likely to become bullying victims (Guo et al. 2019). In the case of the ‘dollar a day kids’, those learners were being actively isolated and excluded by members of the majority group of locally born learners at the school.

How to deal with bullying

A school-wide response based on zero tolerance of bullying provides a foundation for addressing this issue in a meaningful way (Swit, 2019). A bully-free culture can be achieved by adopting a clear coordinated focus on establishing shared values of respect and celebrating diversity that are understood and accepted by everyone in the school community, including families (Department of Education, 2017). School staff need agreed strategies to deal with bullying situations consistently (Menesini & Salmivalli, 2017). Another factor that deserves careful thought is inclusive versus exclusive timetabling. Separating our EAL learners into their own class or stream while they learn English can slow social integration and lead to social isolation at school (Guo et al, 2019). However, carefully chosen small groups that support pre-learning can facilitate the building of confidence in English and friendships of those with similar experiences. Care needs to be taken to ensure that learners don’t feel excluded by including them in classes that do not differentiate to their competency level and that work is always providing comprehensible input (Krashen, 2004).

According to Menesini & Salmivalli (2017) there is less bullying in a school when bullying is not accepted by everyone, so including all our learners in this development is critical. Many young bullying victims do not talk about what is happening to them (Swit, 2019). They do not know who to approach to make it stop and they often do not have the language skills to explain their situation or express their emotions. All our learners need to know what bullying is and how to respond to it. This includes knowing what to do and what to say when they are being bullied. Just as importantly they need to know what to do and what to say when they see someone being bullied. This is especially true for our EAL learners at school.

We need to equip our EAL learners with the resources that will help them to respond appropriately to a bullying situation by purposely teaching the concept of bullying – both what it is and what it is not. They need to know who they can talk to safely at school in this situation. We also need to maximise opportunities for them to integrate with other learners at school. This is something that will benefit all learners as they get to know more about each other. This in turn helps them to develop empathy which is important for social cohesion (Department for Education, 2017). In addition, we need to actively teach the language our EAL learners need to describe their experiences and any associated feelings.

If this had been put in place for those two teenage boys, it might have prevented them from ending up in my adult learner class as a last resort for them to continue their education and have any chance at successful resettlement.

You can find two reference resources in the buttons at the top and bottom of this article, one for beginners and the other for post-beginners.



Department for Education. (2017). Preventing and tackling bullying. publishing.service.gov.uk

Guo, Y., Maitra, S., & Guo, S. (2019). “I Belong to Nowhere”: Syrian Refugee Children’s Perspectives on School integration. Journal of Contemporary Issues in Education, 14

Krashen, S. D. (2004). The power of reading: Insights from the research. ABC-CLIO.

Menesini, E., & Salmivalli, C. (2017). Bullying in schools: the state of knowledge and effective interventions. Psychology, Health & Medicine, 22(sup1), 240-253. DOI:10.1080/13548506.2017.1279740

Savage, K. L. (1993). Literacy through competency based educational approaches in J. Crandall and J. K. Peyton (Eds.), Approaches to adult ESL literacy instruction. Washington DC: Center for Applied Linguistics. 

Swit, C. (2019). What is bullying? The Education Hub. What-is-bullying.pdf (theeducationhub.org.nz)

Wellbeing at School. (2012). What bullying behaviour is and is not. www.wellbeingatschool.org.nz

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