"But Miss, it was only banter..." How do we equip children with the skills to understand when banter has gone too far?

In schools and youth organisations, banter is a common interaction that can foster camaraderie and strengthen relationships. However, the line between friendly teasing and harmful behaviour can often blur, leading to misunderstandings and even bullying. In partnership with Nottingham Trent University, we have developed a brand new CPD online training course and toolkit to help the children’s workforce navigate this delicate balance.

Banter & Bullying

What is banter? 

First, it’s essential to clarify what we mean by banter. According to Oxford Languages, banter is defined as "the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks". It's a reciprocal interaction that typically occurs between friends, involving a "verbal ping-pong" of comments meant to be light-hearted and humorous. As Ben, a Year 9 student, succinctly put it in Nottingham Trent University’s own research: "Banter’s just like, kind of, it’s, well, it’s with your mates ... if you know someone well and you know that they won’t get offended”.  

Why understanding banter matters 

A 2023 study by Nottingham Trent University highlighted significant gaps in teacher preparedness to handle banter and bullying. Only 37% of teachers felt equipped to manage bullying, and a mere 19% to manage banter. This underscores the need for better resources and training to address these issues effectively, which we have addressed with our new training and toolkit.  

Key learnings about banter and bullying:  

  1. Banter is playful, positive, and reciprocal: True banter involves mutual participation and understanding. 

  2. Banter can appear aggressive: To outsiders, banter may seem harsh, but among friends, it is understood as fun and helps strengthen bonds however, we should be aware of the signs of it going wrong …  

  3. Banter can go wrong: Sometimes, banter can unintentionally hurt someone’s feelings, highlighting the importance of recognising the difference between playful teasing, when things go too far and intentional harm. 

  4. Recognise intent and context: It is crucial to distinguish between innocent mistakes and behaviours intended to harm, which can escalate into bullying. Mistakes should be corrected quickly and we should be empowering children to feel able to speak up when a joke has gone too far.  

When banter goes wrong 

Despite the best intentions, banter can cross the line into harmful territory. Topics identified by young people as inappropriate for banter include family members, appearance, self-harm, death, and targeting perceived differences. When banter is shared with a wider audience or repeated excessively, it can lose its playful nature and become hurtful. 

As Jane, a 19-year-old, explained to Nottingham Trent University, "It’s all kind of funny until other people get involved then it’s not. They don’t have the same mindset as you do". This sentiment reflects the complexity of maintaining the line of acceptability in banter. 

Navigating verbal and non-verbal cues 

Understanding verbal and non-verbal cues is critical in recognising when banter is appropriate. Tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions all play a role in conveying intent. However, for some pupils, including neurodiverse individuals, these cues might be harder to interpret, necessitating explicit communication and support. 

In online interactions, where tone and body language are absent, cues such as emojis, GIFs, and initialisms like "jk" (just kidding) or "lol" (laughing out loud) become essential. 

Banter & Bullying

Empowering young people 

Setting personal boundaries 

Encouraging young people to set and respect personal boundaries is vital. They should feel empowered to voice discomfort when banter goes too far. Role-playing scenarios and using examples from media can help illustrate how to handle such situations. 

Implementing a whole-school or setting approach 

A consistent, school-wide approach supported by strong leadership is crucial. Engaging the entire school community —students, staff, and families — in developing and understanding practice around banter and bullying that is reflected in school policies ensures everyone is on the same page. 

Celebrating diversity 

Promoting an inclusive environment where differences are celebrated helps prevent banter from turning into bullying. Recognising and challenging derogatory language is essential in fostering a respectful and supportive community. 

We’re here to help!  

Equipping young people with the skills to navigate banter requires education, empathy building, and clear boundaries. By understanding the fine line between playful teasing and harmful behaviour, and fostering an environment of respect and inclusivity, we can help ensure that banter remains a positive part of social interactions for children and young people, rather than a gateway to bullying.  

Banter or bullying? Navigating the line of acceptability - FREE online CPD training

Drawing the line between banter and bullying - a blog by ABA Director Martha Evans

Find resources for Anti-Bullying Week 2023, which focused on the difference between banter and bullying

The Anti-Bullying Alliance's website page on 'Banter'