Understanding the problem called bullying

Recently, across the world anti bullying weeks along with various campaigns against bullying were held.   Aim was to understand how bullying, and its various forms, threaten the safety of schools, hinder developing a stimulating learning environment, and lead to behavioural problems that prevent student’s development. Safeguarding our future generations has to be our prime focus. We are indeed accountable for this.  We need to equally emphasize the role of schools in understanding the issue of bullying, its different forms, like cyber bullying; what are the characteristics of a bully, the impact of bullying on children and how it could negatively impact their lives and mental health. And why do bullies behave the way they do, and how to counter its negative effects. 

Bullying neither can be excluded nor ignored. It has a direct impact on the student’s mental and emotional health if it is not handled in a methodical manner, and the root cause investigated and treated. 

Let us understand some common scenarios and contribute to the endeavour called Anti-Bullying.

Very often, the victims do not come forward to admit that they are being bullied. This way, they end up suffering in silence. From an educator’s perspective, how can a bully be identified by the school and teachers?

Every child has the potential to become a bully, even the victims of bullying can become bullies themselves. Identifying a bully can be difficult because the nature of bullying, especially when it is psychological rather than physical, or if online, is insidious and largely invisible. However, studies show that there are some traits that can be common to bullies:

  1. They are likely to be aggressive, dominant, possibly slightly below average intelligence (e.g. reading ability), but they at least average in terms of popularity
  2. It is probably untrue that bullies have deep-seated insecurities
  3. They do not empathize easily with potential victims
  4. Young bullies tend to remain bullies, even into adulthood and their children are often bullies
  5. Bullies also tend to commit other offences
  6. Bullies tend to come from backgrounds with lower socio-economic status and poor parenting
  7. Bullies tend to be impulsive and do poorly at school
  8. Bullies are more likely to come from backgrounds where they are criticized frequently and treated strictly, including being victims of beatings (especially boys)
  9. Bullies may have poor social skills.
  10. They can also be highly perceptive of feelings of low self-esteem in others and may seek to take advantage
  11. Children who are popular in lower primary and seen as leaders can become bullies if their dominance turns to aggression which is less well-regarded as they grow older.
  12. Bullies tend to have a pool of targets and this encourages persistence.  A shrinking pool of victims can increase the frequency and severity of bullying
  13. Inappropriate, knee-jerk reaction, and over response by parents and teachers can actually reinforce bullying behaviour.

The problem is that all of the above traits can lead to a stereo-typical view of what a bully is and this can be seriously misleading. A dominant bully can also attract followers who are passive onlookers but gain kudos with their peer group for joining in the abuse of a victim. This is why passive onlookers need to be held accountable.

Once a bully is identified in early stages, what can the school do to rectify such behaviour?

 Traditionally, bullying in schools was regarded as a ‘rite of passage’, i.e. something that children ‘go through’ as part of the process of growing up. Bullies needed to be stood up to and dealt with in kind, i.e. through posturing and minor fisticuffs among boys or hair-pulling among girls. Teachers would turn a blind eye to a bloody nose or black eye resulting from a playground tussle. However, this was also time when teachers could also employ corporal punishment, formally through use of a cane, slipper, ruler or strap/belt, or informally through throwing board dusters, chalk or twisting ears or shaking.

The elimination of corporal punishment of any description also led to an approach to bullying that was essentially passive, i.e. not to fight back, to report bullying to a teacher and allow the school to resolve conflict through teacher intervention, firstly in seeking a grudging hand shake or resort to typical punishments such as detention, copying lines, picking up litter etc. Most of these were ineffective because it took up valuable teacher time to monitor it and created resentment and created an excuse for vengeance by the party who was reported. Victims who ‘snitched’ on the bully would face ostracism from peers and the bully could claim ‘ a badge of honour’ for taking the punishment. Bullies revelled in the notoriety they achieved through recognition by the school as institutional authority. This led to the entrenchment of a bullying culture, with little prospect of escape for the victim.

 In recent years, students have begun to tackle the problem themselves and where this is supported by the school’s pastoral/wellbeing team, it is showing positive results. The essence of it runs counter to the prevailing thinking that victims themselves should stand up to the bully. Instead, a culture of exposing bullying rather than hiding it is encouraged. The idea that a bully may take revenge on a victim for reporting him/her and making the whole matter worse was a disincentive to reporting and carrying a complaint forward by parents. (Parents too can be concerned that reporting unprofessional behaviour by a teacher can make matters worse is still prevalent in some cultures.) However, building awareness on the nature of bullying and that ‘shining a light’ on any persistent behaviour that amounts to unwelcome teasing, harassment and intimidation, or threats to expose a weakness or ‘secret’, i.e. blackmailing the victim, will expose the perpetrator to the scrutiny of their peers. If the community consider that such harassment or intimidation is unacceptable under any circumstances, then a new culture of transparency can develop. We have also seen this with the development of the ‘Me too’ movement that confronts those who have subjected women to sexual harassment. Once there is kudos in reporting bullying and acceptance that onlookers are guilty of aiding, abetting or condoning an act of bullying by failing to report an incident, bullying is less likely to be hidden.

Some schools also advocate ‘restorative justice’ where bully and the victim meet under controlled conditions to understand what initiated the behaviour. It does not work if there are no consequences to the act of bullying, but it is useful after the consequences have been determined to attempt to re-build a more positive relationship, especially in a school where contact between former bully and the victim is inevitable. Restorative justice experiments can include a mediator who controls the discussion between the bully, victim and any attendant parents. This requires a great deal of skill since it can be more difficult to control parent anger and frustration than it is to control the children themselves. Restorative justice (RJ) needs time and preparation. It needs consent of all parties involved.  However, the benefits can be huge. 

Zubair Ahmad heads the Operations of Goldline Group Of Companies, UAE. He is currently leading the Education Division (Springdales School, Dubai) of the group.