Antibullying programs: Do we have it right yet?

Antibullying programs: Do we

have it right yet?

By  Dr. Carol Battaglio

Bullying has been around since

schools were first invented, and for

just as long teachers have exerted

valiant attempts to curb it. Yet,

despite these, sometimes gargan –

tuan efforts at prevention, incidents

of school bullying just won’t seem

to go away. Yes, we have had some

success: on the average, our anti –

bullying efforts have decreased

rates of bullying by about 50%. But,

it is troubling to note that some

schools that have applied compre –

hensive antibullying programs have

experienced increases in bullying of

up to 15%. Is something missing

from our antibullying strategies?

A retired drama teacher

recounted to me how he and his

friends in Grade 5 harassed an

unfortunate classmate whose only

fault was being 5’ 10,” big, soft, and

awkward. They used to tease, trip,

and shove this unfortunate “giant”

until he broke down in tears. The

teacher advised him he was big

enough to stand up for himself—say

stop, I don’t like that—a tactic that

only intensified the teasing. The

drama teacher still regrets his parti –

cipation in this hurtful behaviour,

and would like to be able to apolo –

gize, even these many years later.

Fortunately, this harassed,

embarrassed, and humiliated victim

did not find a weapon and return to

school to retaliate—perhaps to stab

a student, to shoot his classmates,

or maybe to burn the school down.

If he had, he would have been

labeled as a terrible bully and would

have been punished accordingly,

perhaps suspended permanently

from the school—unless he killed

himself, too. More likely, this

unfortunate boy became a chronic

absentee from school, his academ –

ics deteriorating due to his anxiety

and stress, until he quit school.

(Almost 30% of students who start

Grade 1 do not graduate.) Subse –

quently, throughout his adult life he

may have suffered underemploy –

ment, chronic depression, and have

anger management problems.

In an ideal world, the teacher

could have intervened on at least

three dimensions: First, individual

(self-identity and self acceptance);

second, belonging and connection

(group dynamics and cliques); and

third, respect for differences

(conformity vs. respect for unique –

ness as a part of school culture).

Currently, most antibullying pro –

grams are limited to positive

encouragement (such as lessons on

the virtues), and negative conse –

quences (such as zero tolerance

and suspensions), with some PR

attention to slogans of social

responsibility. Furthermore, the

schools antibullying attempts tend

to be focused on individual respon –

sibilities and social interaction. We

teach the virtues, courtesy in the

hallway, and fair play on the

playground—worthy enough topics.

But bullying is a process involving

needs for power and self-defense,

not a personality characteristic or a

learned behaviour.

If only there were evil people out

there insidiously committing evil

deeds and it was only necessary to

separate them from the rest of us and

destroy them.

But the line dividing good and evil

cuts through the heart of every

human being….

– Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1982

Ask any group of adults if they

have ever been bullied at home,

school, or work, and about 66% will

admit it has happened to them. Ask

how many will admit to being the

bully, and the number will likely be

about 50%. Since a majority of

adults have experienced both being

bullied and being the bully, can we

simply consider bullying as part of

the human condition? Hopefully,

not! Bullying seems to be a role

people play in a given context—

bullied at school, a bully at home, or

vice versa. My research indicates

that bullying is not so much a

“learned behaviour” as it is a

response to a stressful, overwhelm –

ing situation. Yes, anger manage –

ment strategies and enforcing

appropriate consequences help, but

perhaps we also need to shift our

emphasis from fixing individuals

who misbehave toward looking at

what needs to change in the social

culture of the classroom and the

school. The school may be guilty of

committing the “fundamental

attribution error,” a classic axiom in

social psychology:

A failure to recognize the

importance of situational factors in

affecting behaviour, supported by the

inflated belief in the importance of

personality traits and dispositions in

affecting behaviour.

– Ross & Nisbett, 1991

Another error in our current

antibullying strategies may be the

emphasis on behaviour and conse –

quences—the external evidence of

conforming to rules—and a lack of

attention to issues of respect—the

internal engine that produces bully –

ing and aggression. I am referring

not simply to respectful behaviours,

but to a foundation of respect that

includes self-respect and respect for

others within a classroom and

school context that demonstrates

respect for uniqueness.

In the words of a tomboy, a

victim of bullying:

I want to encourage [teachers] to

just recognize that people have their

own experience, and…foster the

individuality, yet include similarities of

all of us, the basic fundamental

needs…such as to belong.

Individuals involved in victimiza –

tion are almost universally lacking

in self-respect. Students, aged

10–15, are struggling with

existential issues of self-identity.

When they are unsure of

themselves, others who are

different can represent a potential

threat they may feel a need to

defend against. Without selfacceptance

and self-respect, it is

difficult to respect others! Those

who bully may also lack selfrespect,

but many actually have

exaggerated self-esteem, especially

those involved in defending the

boundaries of tight (elite) cliques.

Bullying is often a game of status, a

process of settling the hierarchy in

the classroom. Self-acceptance and

self-respect are winning strategies

in this game.

Sometimes the academic context

of the classroom, dominated by the

need to enforce standards, can

become a force implying a demand

for conformity. If the teacher

exhibits a lack of respect for differ –

ences, it can become a model for

students to follow, and any student

who exhibits differences—whether

different learning styles (LD or

giftedness), early or late physical

maturation, gender differences

(tomboy or gentle male), disabilities

(speech, blindness), differences in

ethnicity or socio-economic status—

loses the respect of the cool group

(respected by the teacher), and in

the status game of bullying

becomes vulnerable to abuses.

Likewise, in a school context

where authoritarian structures are

dominant, the status quo can

become the “right” way, and any

deviation is likely to be interpreted

as pathological and problematical. If

conflict resolution and mediation

are not applied seriously and in a

timely manner so that conflict is

mitigated in the early stages, then

often the victim will be the one who

retaliates with passion—and the

one who bears the blame and the

punishment. As a result, the stu –

dents (who know the inside story)

may lose respect for school author –

ity processes, and proceed to take

the law into their own hands.

Despite all our efforts, bullying wins

again!

The antibullying programs that

emphasize authority-based strate –

gies (to teach good behaviour and

to search and destroy the offenders)

are worthwhile efforts, to be sure,

but are only providing a partial cure.

We need more than an official code

of conduct to make bullying

behaviours unacceptable in our

schools. We need a culture of

respect and acceptance for our –

selves, and for our relationships

with others, and one that is demon –

strated in the day-to-day operation

of the classroom and the school

culture—a challenge to consider as

we plan the coming school year.

Dr. Carol Battaglio is an elementary

school counsellor, Surrey School

District, B.C.