A School Community & Case by Case Problem Solving Approach© Charles Emmrys PhD
The act of bullying can be defined as an act where a child intimidates or is aggressive towards another in order to gain status, prestige or social advantage at the expense of the child being bullied. It is an almost universal form of peer to peer aggression that few people fully avoid as they are growing up. But even if it is common, it is nonetheless very painful to experience and potentially damaging to one’s self esteem and self-confidence if you are a victim. If you are a bully, the short term effects are less important but the longer term effects are just as compromising. If the adults around the child and the children themselves respond appropriately to the events, a traumatic event can turn into a learning opportunity. If adults do not intervene, bullying situations can last years, causing stress and stress related physical and psychological diseases that can last a lifetime.
Many Types of Bullying Events
Adolescence & Its Unique Challenges
Adolescence is an explosive period of life that corresponds to a rather dramatic increase in cognitive capacities and new physical impulses including the urge to redefine self, to engage in more sexualized relationships, to move away from parental authority, to question existing social norms etc. The youth sees their problem solving abilities increase, their capacity for abstract thinking expands dramatically and their ability to understand complex social structures becomes far more mature. They are, in other words, far more competent in most spheres. When it comes to social decision making involving themselves, however, their overall abilities remain less than optimal.
It also corresponds to an important change in social structures with peer groups getting bigger and more fluid. Changing peer groups is much more frequent and the coalescing of peers with similar interests is now more frequent than forming groups who live close together or are part of the same class.
The Bullying Process in Adolescence
Whereas for 7 to 11 year olds, bullying events can easily be divided between intra group and extra group aggression, adolescent bullying is far more complex given the complexification of the social landscape. Because peer groups are more motile, bullying events can be the result of leaving an old group or joining a new one. Bullying can also happen around partnering conflicts. Prestige issues also become complex.
For the teacher, the starting assumption is that the characteristics of bullying in adolescence will resemble what was called in the younger grades “intragroup bullying” and can effectively be addressed using community based approached matched with individual problem solving and teacher and parent involvement.
School Community Wide Interventions
School community interventions were the first to be developed and were aimed at creating environments that made bullying less rewarding and respectful coexistence more rewarding. This was first done in Norway after a series of teen suicides related to bullying. These school interventions included education about bullying and its impact on individuals, school activities including psychodramas, essay and art projects aimed at encouraging respectful relationships and clear rules and important sanctions levied against those involved in bullying. This carrot and stick approach has been shown to be effective but its effectiveness seems highly related to the level of investment of the school staff and other adults in the child’s life. The principal in particular plays an important role in making the school wide interventions effective.
Key to making a community intervention work is to make the sanctions for bullying very clear. This should be communicated to both children and their parents and all should be informed that should a child be involved in bullying either as a victim, a bully or a witness, the parents will be called. This would be part of a larger information package that each student and parent would receive on entry into the school and which would also include findings re the effects of bullying, the price paid by the victim and the bully and the importance of a community wide response.
Once these instructions are given, the adult then tells the kids that he will see them the next day at recess time to find out if they have found a way to make it work. If all goes well, he meets with them three days later at recess time to check in. If that goes well, he sees them in a week. At the end of the third check in, the teacher asks the group if they feel like they can take responsibility for managing themselves or if they want to keep meeting with an adult. Usually, the children are only too glad to take responsibility at that point since meeting with an adult is rarely how they want to spend some of their recess time.
In the uncommon situation where the children fail to resolve their differences, the adult can do one more thing to give the children a bit more incentive. The instruction would go as follows:
1. OK kids, you don’t seem able to resolve this so I will ask you to not play with each other for two days and think it over and then come to see me.
Almost always, these measures will help resolve the conflict. On the rare occasion where it does not lead to a resolution, then the kids will need to simply stop playing with each other, a solution that almost always leads to sadness and some loss of friendship.
The role of parents for all the children is potentially crucial. All adults involved, including all parents of all the children, should basically encourage a resolution of the conflict and stress the learning opportunity. They should avoid defending their child or demanding the removal of another child from the group. The consistency of the message communicated to the children from all adults concerned is the single most important factor affecting success in these interventions. Preparing as a parent-adult group for the intervention cannot be stressed enough. Often the teacher will play a crucial role in educating the parents about the intervention to be pursued, the value of it for all children and the role that parents need to play.
Dealing with Extragroup Bullying
Extragroup bullying is a conflict between two children where the target of the aggression is often one that has no relationship with his aggressor. The bully is typically supported by a cohort of his friends and the target is much less powerful, younger or different from the norm. In such cases, intragroup interventions tend to be ineffective. It is also a scenario where other peers who come to the defence of the targeted child risk being themselves the target of bullying by the bully and his cohort. For that reason, letting the kids work it out among themselves rarely works. We suggest that the person who works with the child doing the bullying should be an adult with authority.
The intervention should be structured in the following way.
Dealing with Bullying – Case by Case
It is generally recognized that there are no community wide interventions that can control bullying without there being effective ways to intervene with individual cases. The following are approaches that we feel are supported and useful.
We strongly suggest that the staff not take a “prove it” approach. This approach essentially makes bullying “something you can get away with if you are smart” and indirectly empowers the bully. The approach of investigating all allegations and making a big fuss of things will essentially make the school a less inviting place for bullies.
Identifying Those to Include in Interventions
Bullying during adolescence, like intragroup bullying for primary school aged children, should be seen as a form of conflict that is best managed by responsibilizing the group to improve its ways of interacting. In essence, during adolescence, there is but one group with various points of interest and activity centres. Some members of activity centres are stable, others move around and others still remain peripheral to the whole complex process. In adolescence, position and role becomes more important than the particular group one spends most of their time in.
When a child reports a bullying experience, the adults should meet with the group that seems the most involved. This may mean meeting with the bully and his/her supporters and the friend and his/her supporters. Defining who is involved can be difficult but care should be taken to define those that could and should have stopped the bullying event from happening (the watchers) and responsibilizing them as community members that failed in their responsibility to act. As soon as the students are identified, the student’s parents are automatically contacted and invited to be part of the process as per the approach described in the information.
The Message Stays the Same
The participants of the bullying prevention intervention should be referred to the bullying information package that all would have received. The package would describe not only what bullying is and how it affects adolescents but also the process for resolving bullying behaviours and what role students and their parents will be invited to play in resolving the conflict. The basic message of the process is the same one used with younger children, namely:
Case by Case Interventions, a Step by Step
Once the involved parties in a bullying incident have been identified, the following steps are undertaken:
Bully and Victim
On Parent Involvement
Bullying is something that all parents hope their children will never be involved in either as victim, aggressor or as encouraging watchers. So any call to a parent by a responsible teacher or group leader will be difficult for the family to accept. We strongly advise, however, that the adults responsible for the children not shrug this difficult task. Though these calls often result in strong emotions being expressed in the family, tempers eventually die down. It is at that point that solutions are better understood and accepted. Even when the facts are not completely clear and the actual event leading to the process remains the object of contention, the exercise itself should be seen and described as one that leaves all concerned better citizens.