Dahunlyne Shylla, Kavita V. Jangam, Preeti Jacob
Teachers have an important role to play in the lives of students. More than ever before, schools are being looked upon as safe spaces to foster students’ well-being – both physical and mental. But despite their best intentions, schools sometimes fall short. The pressures of completing the syllabus and the rigors of academics make caring for the students’ mental well-being an additional charge, one which schools often don’t have the bandwidth to deal with in a sustained manner. Thus, the need for schools to invest in counsellors and have a robust, sustained mental health programme to handle their students’ mental health needs.
Apart from the children’s own mental health difficulties or family related issues there are a set of issues that are specific to the school context which may interfere with the mental and sometimes physical well-being of their students. Bullying in school is one such problem which schools have to confront head-on. Bullying is a universal problem, so much so that it is often considered “normal”, at times “character building” or even a rite of passage. Needless to say, bullying is a harrowing experience, one that can have long-term negative impact on the mental health and well-being of students.
However, bullying is not an easy problem to fathom. It is a complex issue – one where there is often a history. Without a doubt, there is need for deeper understanding – both from the perspective of the victim and the person(s) perpetuating the bullying, as both parties need help. Professor Rigby, a stalwart in the area of preventing bullying in schools, has explained eloquently how bullying operates – a complex interaction between the child’s personal characteristics, their family background, which may be troubled, along with unhelpful societal influences such as patriarchy, which promotes toxic masculinity and misogyny. The above mentioned factors, among others, when given an opportunity to blossom and flourish through the school’s educational climate, ethos and specific policies or lack thereof heads towards bullying, further perpetuating malicious and perverse behaviour. The core aspect of bullying is an imbalance of power; it is used to harass, hound or intimidate an individual or a group of individuals, repeatedly over time. The motivating factor for the individual or group that bullies others is the distress caused to the other(s) which makes it particularly pernicious to tackle. The answers therefore lie in mitigating some of these risk factors especially with respect to the ethos and policies of schools vis a vis bullying. There is a need for a “whole-school approach”. Taking clues from stalwarts such as Professors Olweus and Rigby, this article hopes to offer insights into bullying with the aim of helping schools address bullying in a systematic manner.
Prevention of bullying
It is important to understand that in order for anti-bullying measures to be effective in schools all stakeholders need to have a say, as well as participate in decision-making and policy building. Before a new policy can be put in place, the previous school policy must be reviewed by the school management. There is therefore a need not only for a “whole school approach” in its policy implementation but also in its objectives and design. This kind of a school policy must be embedded in its philosophy, attitudes and therefore actions. There must be an ethos of respect and appreciation for diversity in every aspect – roles, abilities, ethnicity, gender, culture, etc. Group dynamics has a huge role to play in bullying and this must be kept in mind by schools. One of the ways to achieve the objective of inculcating respect and appreciation for all is by building a positive classroom climate. A few ways to foster a positive classroom attitude are:
• Classroom rules, including acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, need to be developed and agreed upon collaboratively with the students and implemented consistently, preferably from the beginning of the school year.
• The teachers must strive to develop a democratic and egalitarian space but with a clear understanding that the people in authority will step in if the democratic space is threatened. This idea of every member being accorded equal respect and dignity must flow from the teacher. For instance, humiliating a child in front of others for getting poor marks in a subject or for a particular kind of behaviour threatens the milieu.
• It is also important for students to understand each other, be aware of different identities – religious, cultural, language, sexual orientation, etc., but the inherent principle of equality of rights, opportunities and duties in their diversity.
• Teachers need to talk to the students regarding the impact of bullying on others and as well as on the school milieu. Positive feedback needs to be provided when students exhibit appropriate pro-social behaviour. It must be encouraged. In order to cultivate an atmosphere of students helping one another, team building exercises must be part of the learning environment.
• Teachers must keenly observe classroom and out-of-classroom behaviour. According to Professor Dan Olweus, staff surveillance was the single most effective way to reduce bullying in schools. Teachers must also be aware and alert to changes in their students’ behaviours and find ways to communicate with them.
• It is necessary to create an atmosphere where help seeking is not only accepted but encouraged. For instance, mocking people who seek the school counsellors’ advice or having a dismissive attitude towards the school counsellor is not a good way to encourage students’ to seek help.
What must schools do if someone reports an incident of bullying to a teacher?
There is also a need for standard mechanisms that must be put in place for identification and reportage of bullying as well as help for children/adolescents who have undergone bullying or those who have perpetuated it. This is where the school policy matters – having a procedure in place to address bullying is a requirement for these incidents to be taken seriously. These rules cannot be made up on the fly. If rules can be bent, or if rules are implemented differentially then it is unlikely to change the ethos of the school and the attitude of the students. The attitude of the school (management, teachers and students) towards the complainant explains quite a bit about the ethos of the school, its staff and students. If the complainant is blamed, disparaged, subjected to further humiliation for having the temerity to complain or if the response is detached, then it is likely to have a chilling effect on other children who may have troubles as well. There must also be a policy in place to report by those who have witnessed the bullying. Dismissal of the complaint and the complainant is the worst possible response by the school management.
How can schools help those who have experienced bullying or have been bullied?
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the child who was victimized needs help and support. But the jury is out on the kind of support that children who face or experience bullying need or want. Psychological support through one-one or group counselling and peer support are important aspects. Parental involvement is also an important component. However, if there is repeated victimization, there is a need to understand the reasons for the same and help the child who is victimized develop better self-protection strategies through assertiveness training, social skills training and alternate ways to seek help from the system.
How can schools help those who have bullied others?
Children who bully or have bullied others also need help. Professor Rigby argues that there are three approaches that a school can take while dealing with children who have bullied or bully others. These are:
• The moralistic approach
• The legalistic approach
• The humanistic approach
In the moralistic approach, moral pressure is exerted on the student who has bullied someone by engaging with the student’s sense of rightness and the school’s moral principles. There is no real understanding of the incident(s) or why the student did what he/she did or for any real reparations. It may help one set of students who may need to be reminded of their need to conform to the moral authority of the school. Of course, all of this rests on the fact that the school has a moral policy in place for such matters.
In the legalistic approach, the school has a “Behaviour Management Policy”. This policy can even be formed collaboratively with the students so that there is a greater investment in it. The “policy” will kick in as soon as any child breaks school directives. There are grades of punishment that are awarded based on the misdemeanor ranging from school chores to time out to detention or even suspension. These rules are explained to students and parents at the beginning of the academic year. The usefulness of this approach is that “justice” is swiftly served. However, again, there is no real engagement of the child who has bullied another, no reconciliation with the other or reparation to the other. The child who bullies the other may feel like a “victim” of the system and may further harass the complainant or become further “hardened”. Also, the strength of the above-mentioned system depends on the degree of surveillance; otherwise, it is one person’s word against another’s which becomes difficult to adjudicate fairly and without implicit biases.
The third approach is the humanistic one, where the child who has bullied another is not merely considered a troublemaker, but is regarded as a person with thoughts, feelings and worries. In this approach, the system tries to understand him/her in an effort to help, rather than outright condemn and therefore influence behavioural changes which are long-term. Central to this idea is the respect accorded to everyone and the need to genuinely understand another person while making that person also understand the victim’s viewpoint. Through the process of therapy, the child learns to accept responsibility for personal change as well as hopefully develop concern for another. In the humanistic approach, acceptance is key; acceptance of the person but rejection or disapproval of their behaviour. Mediation also forms part of this approach. However, this is not an easy approach and may be seen as being “unfair” to the victim or as being “soft” on the person who has hurt another.
Thus, there is no single silver bullet solution. There is a need to understand that the child who bullies others as also having troubles of his own and to deal with it in a holistic manner. There needs to be a biopsychosocial understanding of the problem behaviour and solutions that encompass all the above mentioned domains as well. For instance, if the child has a neurodevelopmental disorder such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Specific Learning Disorder (SLD) then a referral is necessary to address those issues. Parental involvement is critical and is also a way to evaluate the family and offer help and referrals, where appropriate. Parent management training may also be a requirement given that parents of children who bully others are often subjected to punitive methods of parenting themselves. Follow up, monitoring and regular, ongoing school counselling sessions are essential to keep up with the child’s progress over the years in school.
Bullying is a complex problem, therefore its solutions have to be comprehensive, holistic and inclusive. Schools need to acknowledge the destructive presence of bullying on their campuses in order to be able to deal with it effectively. Schools must develop an ethos where there is no place for bullying, where there is a culture of respect for all. Schools and teachers must strive to develop a positive classroom climate. There must be a mechanism to report bullying, if it does occur, and there must be help provided to both children who have experienced bullying as well as children who may have inflicted it upon others. Parent involvement with specific interventions is key. Today’s children are tomorrow’s citizens. If we want to build a robust country where values of equality and respect are universal, they must be inculcated in our schools and homes.
During the past year, schooling has shifted online due to the pandemic. This has meant that children are not physically present in the same space, and therefore, physical bullying has come down. But bullying too has shifted online. Emotional and cyber bullying is an increasingly prevalent phenonmenon.
Consider these examples – “Y” is a 17 year old girl whose friends posted nasty messages defaming her online. This resulted in a mental breakdown. 15 year old “A” was caught completely off guard when personal pictures that she had shared with her boyfriend went up online. The humiliation and betrayal that ensued sent her into a downward spiral.
16 year old “B” was suspended from school for spreading rumours about a classmate. It was later discovered that a fake profile was created in his name and was used to spread offensive content.
It is now clear that schools must have a policy for online bullying as well. There are many similarities in online bullying including the targeting of a person or people, there being a power imbalance and the recursiveness of it all. But what makes online bullying even more pernicious is the fact that the platform is wide and has an eternal memory.
Ways to possibly handle cyber bullying:
• Schools need to adhere to and follow guidelines developed by government agencies MHRD, CBSE, NCERT to ensure the prevention of cyberbullying and overall cyber safety.
• Educate students on issues of cyberbullying, computer safety and security, safe social networking, internet safety and ethics, safe online practices.
• There must be a school policy that clearly talks about reportage of cyber bullying and penalities if reported to be cyber bullying.
• Ways to report instances of cyber bullying legally must be discussed by the school.
• Similar to other forms of bullying there must be a “whole school approach” with a multi-pronged approach that aims to help victims and those who perpetrate it.
• Parents must be a part of the conversation on cyber bullying.
• If there is a need, refer to a mental health professional. Monitor and supervise online classes.
• Barr, J. J. (2016). Developing a Positive Classroom Climate. IDEA Paper# 61. IDEA Center, Inc.
• Juvonen, J. (2005). Myths and facts about bullying in schools. Behavioral Health Management, 25(2), 36-40.
• Rigby, K. (2007). Bullying in schools: And what to do about it. Aust Council for Ed Research.
• Olweus, D. (1994). Bullying at school. In Aggressive behavior (pp. 97-130). Springer, Boston, MA.
Dahunlyne Shylla is a PhD scholar at the Department of Psychiatric Social Work, National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru. Her areas of interests are in the field of school mental health, adolescent mental health, substance use disorder, psychosocial issues of migrants, child sexual abuse and adoption. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Dr. Kavita V. Jangam is an Associate Professor at the Department of Psychiatric Social Work, National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru. Her areas of interests and expertise are in parenting, child sexual abuse and children in difficult circumstances and school mental health.
Dr. Preeti Jacob is an Associate Professor at the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru. She was the first to complete her DM in child psychiatry in India. Her areas of interests include pre-school mental health, mood disorders and ADHD in children.