Peaks in the 12-14 year age group, says research
Peer bullying is one of the most common school experiences of violence and one of the leading causes of suicide in adolescents. Research on bullying started 40 years ago and is defined as 3 characteristics: ‘aggressive, intentional acts carried out by a group or an individual repeatedly and over time against a victim who cannot easily defend him- or herself’.
Hence, three criteria are important to define a behavior as bullying:
3) an imbalance of power
Bullying poses special risk for vulnerable children, such as children from a different caste, religion, race, or children with disabilities, children suffering from diseases, children from the lower socioeconomic groups in short, any child different from the peer group.
Bullying is recognized globally as a serious but complex problem. The phenomenon has been extensively studied in the West. Bullying has different forms, physical, verbal, social (isolating the victim) and recently bullying on the internet. Research indicates bullying peaks between 12-14 years and then gradually declines. Also, with age bullying moves from being direct and physical to indirect and relational form.
Research indicates bullying peaks between 12-14 years and then gradually declines
Data on prevalence rates of bullying in schools is widely variable due to measurement difference or how the construct is perceived in a certain context. Research from high-income countries indicates 9-25% of children are bullied and about 2-9% frequently engage in bullying behavior. Data from low- and middle-income countries is not as extensive but also indicates quite high prevalence. An added challenge in low- and middle-income countries is that some forms of bullying are culturally accepted, raising the possibility that the experience of bullying may be higher than what is indicated in studies.
Bullying has serious negative consequences on the mental and physical health of the victims leading to missing school and poor school achievement. Anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem has been commonly reported. Some experts argue that it can also have a negative impact on the by-standers.
Effects of bullying are directly proportional to the severity of the experience. A few studies have suggested effects to be carried into adult life. On the other hand, there is a higher risk for those involved with bullying to engage in criminal behaviors with a dose-effect relationship. To sum up, both victims and the perpetrator are at increased risk of negative consequences for mental health.
While there have been considerable anti-bullying programmes in the West, recognition of bullying and subsequently intervention programmes has been very limited in low- and middle-income countries. Given the weak governance structures in the education sector in these contexts the risk of bullying behavior is magnified.
Anti-bullying interventions in schools have focused on reducing the probability of occurrence of negative behaviors through positive discipline methods, having policies in place, involving parents, and enhancing the role of by-standers which seems to be crucial.
9-25% of children are bullied and about 2-9% frequently engage in bullying behavior
In terms of behavior sciences, this is termed as negative reinforcement i.e. working towards reducing something aversive or painful. The limitation of this approach is that it doesn’t simultaneously encourage uptake of a positive behavior through appropriate reward systems. This rule applies equally if not more to the motivation for by-standers.
For the by-standers to take an active role and demonstrate compassion to reduce suffering of the victim through speaking up, positive values need to be recognized. Moreover, they will need a community of bystanders who believe in the same values to overcome their fears; hence a culture change is imperative. While this may sound very basic, the reality is positive behaviors not valued are not adopted.
Therefore, an alternate strategy is required which involves cultural transformation through systematic challenging existing norms complemented with simultaneous recognition of newer values including compassion, courage, and support for the vulnerable and the victims. The strategy includes not just training and continued mentorship for children and youth for compassionate skills but also rewarding them for demonstrating compassionate behaviors at school and district level.
I propose the use of positive reinforcement as the strategy to encourage the by-standers and potential perpetrators by creating a reward system for being kind and compassionate guided by intrinsic motivation. The proposed innovation pivots on operationalizing science of compassion in a manner that is feasible and sustainable via integrating into existing roles and routines.
The aim would be to create a culture of compassion which involves appreciating children, a platform for them to talk, lead and engage with the leadership and de-stigmatization of being victimized with a focus on reinforcement of positive behaviors implying universal strategy for emotional well-being.
The intervention plans can be designed by professionals with relevant understanding of not just bullying but implementing and institutionalizing reward systems at scale like organizational psychologists. Activities can be planned in the class and in the school assembly to share examples of positive behaviours demonstrated.
These behaviours will need to be broken down and described specifically for young students. These behaviors can be noted in the assessments and shared with parents on a regular basis. The school management needs to encourage but also model such skill sets.
This culture change has to work on a whole school approach and later as a whole district approach for all the schools in the district. A similar reward system can be established for the school management whereby they can report evidence on culture change in the district office and be duly recognized for it.
The innovation can potentially be scaled-up by both private and government sectors as there is a huge need for such intervention models to ameliorate the emotional and psychological wellbeing of people particularly the youth. Adaptation of intervention packages by private and government schools would be the first step toward sustainability. There needs to be an adequately trained cadre to meet the demand. One recommendation is to include school-based internships for the psychology trainees as a strategy to help them complete their credits as part of their course requirement.
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Muneera A. Rasheed is a paediatric psychologist by training and a former public health faculty at Aga Khan University. Her experience has included designing complex behavior change interventions for both national and international contexts with a special focus on shaping cultural values