“It’s just banter, Miss!”: Dealing with inappropriate behaviour

Ben Lovatt

Ben Lovatt is The Training Effect’s lead facilitator for PSHE programmes. He has more than 10 years of experience planning, developing and delivering within frontline services. This has incorporated delivery within the private, public and voluntary sector with both statutory and non-statutory bodies.

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Website: www.thetrainingeffect.co.uk/ Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Image credit: I'm Alan Partridge, BBC Image credit: I'm Alan Partridge, BBC

We live and work in a society where the emergence of new and specific safeguarding themes are a regular occurrence. Radicalisation is a key priority as noted in the most recent education strategy, and child sexual exploitation remains high on the agenda of local authorities nationally. Indeed, young people, schools and teachers are faced with a range of issues to overcome.

 This article aims to:

  • Provide useful and reliable tips for teachers.
  • Explore the rise of banter.
  • Challenge teachers’ thinking on ‘why’ young people bully.
  • Provide an ethos and an approach to be most effective when responding to bullying.

But first, what’s the context?

Ditch the Label, an anti-bullying charity, reports that being bullied does not just happen to a small minority. One in two young people experience bullying before their twentieth birthday.
Far from being an isolated issue affecting vulnerable people, bullying is an issue which permeates society. And it isn’t just young people who are the victims of bullying; according to the TUC (Trade Union Congress) nearly a third of workers (29%) have experienced bullying in the workplace.

With around half of all young people and a third of adults experiencing bullying, it is clear that effective strategies and interventions are needed to help address this issue.

‘Banter’ and ‘bullying’ – what’s the difference?

To answer this question it’s important that we try and define the two terms. However, defining either term can be problematic; there is no one definition that can adequately describe the experiences of everyone who has been on the receiving end of either behaviour.

A myriad of definitions exists to describe bullying, developed by a diverse range of organisations. It is helpful to identify consistencies that can be observed in these different definitions, and some of the regularly observed consistencies include:

  • Repeated negative practices or actions.
  • Directed at one or more people.
  • Usually unwanted by the victim.
  • Behaviours that cause humiliation, offence or distress.
  • Behaviours that may be carried out as a deliberate act or unconsciously.

Over the past few years we have seen the inexorable rise of banter. Put simply, banter is the dismissal of potential hurtful or inappropriate comments as nothing more than ‘verbal sparring’ or a caveat to cover up completely inappropriate behaviour. The Oxford English Dictionary says that banter means "One in two young people experience bullying before their twentieth birthday."‘to make fun of (a person/s), to hold up to ridicule’.

As with all behaviours there must be an outcome, and it is widely accepted that for the victims of bullying the outcome is a negative one.

We should acknowledge that, prior to the act causing a negative outcome, the process that leads to it is the same. But it seems we only decide whether the behaviour is ‘banter’ or ‘bullying’ based upon the victim’s ability to cope with or manage the circumstances.

This presents us with a number of challenges:

  • Bullying has become subjective and the responsibility has shifted from the     perpetrator’s behaviour to the coping skills of the victim.
  • As a society we are becoming more permissive of bullying, and one person’s ‘banter’ is another person’s ‘bullying’.
  • Whilst for the most part young people know that bullying is wrong, do they always identify their behaviour as bullying or simply banter?

For us to address banter and bullying on a universal scale, cultural change is needed; not just in the way we view these behaviours, but also in the way we choose to respond and address it.

Banter to bullying

Banter can easily turn into bullying if it’s allowed to escalate in the classroom.

When young people bully others they do so to gain power, purpose or control over a victim.

There are a number of factors that increase the likelihood of a young person bullying others, but evidence suggests that traumatic or stressful experiences within the last five years are significant. Such experiences can include, but are not limited to, bereavement, parental separation and break-up and, in some instances, even gaining a sibling.

Challenging home lives where young people experience rejection may also increase the likelihood of engaging in bullying and inappropriate behaviour, as do insecure friendships and relationships that lack security and consistency.

As we know already, bullying remains a specific"Punishment becomes positive reinforcement." safeguarding theme and clearly a young person engaging in bullying behaviour poses a risk of harm to others.

However, we should not discount the vulnerability of the perpetrator, as the factors that increase the likelihood of bullying suggest that the young person engaged in bullying behaviour may also be experiencing some form of trauma or stress.

Young people bully as a way of coping with an issue that they have not dealt with or are not dealing with. When we consider the drivers for bullying in the first place, it may not be all that surprising to hear that three out of four people who bully do not identify their behaviour as bullying (according to research by Ditch the Label). This adds a layer of complexity when addressing bullying behaviour amongst young people as it presents us with two quite separate issues, the risk of harm from others and the risk of harm to others.

What does effective intervention look like?

Traditional responses to bullying and bad behaviour have focussed on punitive measures that highlight the behaviour and punish it accordingly. Whilst this strategy might seem logical, punitive responses may not be as effective as you might think for two reasons.

Firstly, the perpetrator gets the attention that they crave from the teacher, the class and their friends. Remember, people bully or banter because of an unmet need, an issue that they are not coping with.

Secondly, punishment becomes positive reinforcement. You are mirroring the behaviour of the bully by exercising punishment through your status, hierarchy and authority. If we are to go a step further and consider the implications of punitive measures on the perpetrator, then all we are doing is adding to the stress and trauma that already exists in the young person’s life.

For intervention to be effective and begin to change behaviour then it is crucial that we consider four key aspects:


1. Supporting the victim – bullying can have hugely negative consequences for victims and affect them physically, emotionally and behaviourally. It is important for us to acknowledge the victim’s feelings and to hear what the victim needs to feel safe.
2. Challenge the behaviour of the perpetrator – remember, three out of four people who exhibit bullying behaviour do not identify what they are doing as bullying. We are more likely to be successful by trying to create empathy towards the victims through our challenge and helping the perpetrator to identify that there are more positive ways to manage their own feelings.
3. Support the perpetrator to change behaviour – people are not inherently bad, and if the perpetrator was able to manage their feelings in a positive and safe way then they would not be engaging in inappropriate behaviour in the first place. Consider how you are able to support them with coping strategies, social and emotional learning and building a support network.
4. Repairing harm – restorative approaches have a proven track record of success – use them! There are lots of resources related to restorative approaches available online. A good place to start is the Restorative Justice Council; they have a range of resources available on their site.


Teachers need to keep banter between pupils in their classroom in check. Healthy banter can be acceptable and even help develop the relationship between teacher and pupils, but boundaries of acceptability must be set and enforced. Monitoring continued banter or bad behaviour is a must and intervention will be required if the behaviour gets out of hand.

In summary, here are seven tips to take away and think about moving forwards.

1. Banter can be an excuse for bad behaviour – ‘It’s just banter’ is a phrase heard in many classrooms across the country. Don’t let it develop into anything else.
2. Understand why – think beyond behaviour and why certain pupils may be misbehaving in the classroom.
3. Seek a resolution – establish what all parties concerned need.
4. Manage stress – there must be a more productive way to cope and manage difficult emotions.
5. Raise awareness – speaking about it makes us aware of it. We can only challenge it if we know about it and we can only stop it if we recognise it.
6. Upskill young people – social and emotional capabilities are learnt skills and are needed by all young people to effectively transition into adulthood.
7. Understand the impact – creating empathy helps to diffuse the situation.

How do you tackle banter and bullying? Share your strategies below.

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