Tackling the bully

Shivani Mathur Gaiha and Spandana Kommuri

Every month, we bring you situations commonly faced by teachers that may be linked to the mental health of their students. We discuss possible responses and how you may approach these situations with sensitivity and mindfulness. Most often these “problem cases” are a topic of discussion in the staffroom and teachers use this opportunity to learn from one another. We hope you will use these cases to exchange views on appropriate teacher responses and share your stories with us at [email protected].

Ashish is a shy, quiet boy in class 7. His classmates put derogatory things on their friends’ WhatsApp group. During break he gets beaten up by them, his lunch is taken away and he comes to you for help.

Bullying is a major reason many students suffer from low self-esteem and confidence. Sometimes it goes to such an extreme that some students choose to harm themselves or end their lives rather than face bullying. It is very difficult for a growing individual to face bullying on a constant basis. The situation may get worse if a student does not have a healthy support system in place or is not able to confide in even a single person.

Bullies tend to take pleasure from others’ fear and form a warped sense of power dynamics. So, there is a high possibility that Ashish is not the only victim of bullying in your class or school.

As a teacher you can handle this situation in three ways:

With Ashish: Talk to him to give him a sense of support and give him hope that the situation can be resolved. It is important to reach out at an early stage, before he feels completely broken. Some students find it hard to approach busy parents to say what is on their minds and friends may be dismissive or distant at times. You may need to understand that you may be the only person who is able to understand the situation. Sometimes just talking to these students helps them feel heard and valued.

With the bullies: Once you have identified the bullies, it is important to take a few steps. If there is a case of physical hurt or harm caused to Ashish, you may escalate the matter to the principal or school authorities as per school rules. In any event, you must have a conversation with the bullies to understand why they are doing what they are doing. By doing so, you are indirectly letting them know that they can’t get away with anything under your watch. They must understand that they cannot further retaliate and cause distress to Ashish because he did not approach you to intervene. Many a time, bullies can cause further harm immediately after an intervention by a teacher or friend. If they say that they were just teasing Ashish or ‘pulling his leg’, you must be certain to let them know that distress caused by one student to another may hurt the student and overall hurts the school environment. Be sure not to communicate to the bullies that Ashish is not overly sensitive and that they were out of line.

Intervention in the classroom/Intervention by the school: You can initiate an anti-bullying campaign in the school through various activities. It can also be a theme for the month where students come up with activities to contribute to the campaign. You can design your assignments or projects in a way that they address the issue of bullying and its negative effects. In doing so, you are not directly targeting anyone, so anyone who is either bullied or who is bullying is able to understand the issue with more sensitivity and empathy.

This column was co-written by Shivani Mathur Gaiha and Spandana Kommuri. Shivani is a public mental health communication practitioner and post doctoral research fellow at Stanford University. Spandana is a counsellor, work-life coach and trainer with eight years experience, currently working with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Hyderabad) apart from carrying on with her consulting work. She is also a registered practitioner of RE-CBT from Ellis Institute, New York. This activity has been conducted under a public engagement grant awarded to Shivani Mathur Gaiha by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK.

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