Why aren't schools doing enough about bullying?

School bullying: look. To ask. Act.

The new school year begins. For many children and young people, this also means in 2019: expectant tension, hope, excitement. And for 14 percent of them: pure fear.

14 percent is the statistical number of young people who are seriously affected by bullying experiences in the course of their educational career. In 9 out of 10 classrooms and in practically all schoolyards in Germany, dramas take place every day that hardly anyone sees. Bullying happens in front of everyone and is almost always neglected. That's why it's so powerful - and damaging. Of course, it first harms those affected, usually one speaks of "victims", but nobody really wants to be a victim. Bullying also harms the perpetrators themselves, the so-called bullys, because they only act out of supposed superiority, which does not mean any real strength. Many of them compensate for their own feelings of inferiority with overt or covert violence, and these feelings persist, often for life. Bullying even harms the “onlookers” or fellow travelers - and even those who try to stay out of it. Because they know that something unjust is happening, that they pass by the suffering of classmates with a shrug. It will not leave them indifferent inside their soul, but cause long-term guilt feelings. And it harms the teachers, who often intervene too late, feel overwhelmed by it or have no suitable concepts for dealing with hostile actions against a small number of the students who are entrusted to them.

What is usually referred to as "bullying" in Europe is called "bullying" in the Anglo-American language area. What is always meant is the same: a large number of negative actions against an inferior person over a long period of time, which lead to social exclusion. Bullying is a group process, otherwise one would speak of a conflict between two people. But it is only through the dynamism of a group, often the work environment for adults and school or class for children, that great damage can be done, sometimes with limited resources.

The somewhat too fat, clumsy-looking boy, let's call him Erik, has poor motor skills and is slow; when he falls, everyone thinks it's funny, so people like to help out, to be pushed. You can mock and expose him, so that he becomes more and more insecure, which makes his outsider position worse - hardly anyone dares to get in touch with him anymore. Nobody wants to have anything to do with a “loser”. And Erik doesn't tell his parents about the growing problems for a long time, even if he brings bruises and torn things home with him because he is now openly attacked and beaten. He resigns, takes refuge in virtual worlds like Fortnite & Co. - Or the very clever, almost highly gifted girl, here Paula, who knows an answer to all questions in class and keeps it to herself out of fear, but as a “nerd "And" Advertiser ". She is simply inquisitive and two years ahead of her peers, which at some point annoys most of her teachers. She processes her stress through even more self-control, she begins to starve and injures herself with sharp objects where no one sees it. - And Ly-dia, whose parents came to Germany from Eastern Europe, tries to appear particularly German, but because at the age of nine she already has a noticeable breast development and is getting her period, she only finds negative reactions. She begins to attack her environment and blacken her best friend, where she allies herself with older, violent girls and commits crimes. Your stomach ache doesn't just come from the hormonal change.

These and many other children have to cope with the actions of a few classmates, which are perceived as extremely unfair and incomprehensible, and the reactions of the silent or applauding majority. Some do not show anything and stuck their anger and desperation as long as it somehow goes away. Others become aggressive, defend themselves, develop abnormalities and are considered to be disruptive, although they only try to assert themselves. Prescribing hyperactivity medication doesn't help. And again others are becoming more and more quiet, only cry in the evenings when they fall asleep and withdraw completely, do not want or can no longer go to school. This leads to severe depression, anxiety disorders, behavior that transgresses boundaries, alcohol and drug abuse, psychosomatic complaints, self-harm, and sometimes a serious suicide attempt. Or they go one step further, as happens every year in many countries and about which the media do not report, if possible, so as not to create a role model, no “Werther effect”. This can hardly be guaranteed in times of ubiquitous electronic media and the constantly developing "social media". The public can be lucky if there is a serious, serious portrayal of the problems of mentally stressed young people like in a well-known American TV series, even if warning voices see the danger of imitation and identification. Affected people often post their difficulties and symptoms in all conceivable forms in the networks without actually being heard or receiving offers of help. And bullying or bullying is a major cause of their troubles. At least one of the main triggers.

If you take a closer look at the real reasons, as do school psychologists, school social workers, psychotherapists or child and adolescent psychiatrists, the findings are more complex. Then the bullying appears more like an indicator or catalyst for existing difficulties, because: The school is the place where different young people come together in their most sensitive phase of development. Here, through the actually positive competition for good learning results, they are in a “market of skills” that also reveals their problems to others and makes them vulnerable. Sometimes extremely vulnerable, especially if you belong to a fringe group or minority anyway. The social climate is very different even for the teaching staff from school to school. There are also many among them who cannot cope with every situation. Sometimes it happens that with their pedagogical means they can no longer assert themselves in front of the power of a school class or in front of individual students and their provocations and feel themselves to be victims of bullying. Of course, this phenomenon not infrequently also occurs the other way round, when insensitive or overwhelmed educators exclude certain children and - intentionally or unintentionally - expose them to bullying, leave them alone, corner them. The increasing pressure to perform in society, the social selection, seems to promote this.

However, there are also approaches that clearly reveal different personality traits in bullys or those affected - they cannot be generalized and must never be misused to assign blame. However, children from socially isolated, underprivileged families or with an attachment disorder triggered by their earliest childhood experiences are more at risk of becoming “victims of bullying”. They have less chance of turning to their caregivers with confidence or receiving good support, because they have never been brave or successful in doing so. And when the 12-year-old son of an addicted couple, whose apartment the police has to move to at least once a week to end a fight, vent his pain and anger on his classmate who is actually superior to him, this can also be understood. Nevertheless, it is of course not correct or permitted and always requires the immediate active influence of responsible adults. But what can they do when they experience what physical, psychological or social violence is going on in school or increasingly in virtual space? It is often difficult enough to recognize that bullying and cyberbullying are tangible, dangerous developments because they are often characterized by a wall of silence over a long period of time. The shame of those affected and sometimes hidden feelings of guilt on the part of others are behind this.

The first and most important thing is to look. To ask. Show real interest. To be just as close to those affected as to those who commit such aggression or who “just” watch. Many people will not say anything or trivialize everything when they first address them; they need patient and consistent, but also highly sensitive, follow-up. In order not to banish the bully forever into the corner of "evil" by hastily condemning his aggressive, perhaps even violent behavior, in which he can settle well nowadays, the "no blame approach" was invented. This is an understanding intervention approach for milder forms of bullying and especially for younger students who are more easily accessible for education, support and learning. Instead of just being condemned and rejected in public, the perpetrators should actively deal with their actions and in the best case even become experts in helping others, who in turn have to experience recognition of their situation and not exposure. But those affected have to be led out of the position of the unfortunate "victim" and made into actively acting, courageous and trusting fellow men. Without an effective boost to their self-esteem, they will run the risk of being bullied again and again. "No blame" is not a fluffy cuddle education, as many self-appointed experts suspect, but the best possible prevention of an endless spiral of violence that otherwise leads offenders straight to prison. It starts in the classroom, sometimes in kindergarten.

But of course there must be people who use clear, unambiguous words and actions to first ensure that all forms of violence are stopped and that bullying experiences are precisely explained. The one-week suspension from school lessons, which is currently the rule in the event of significant violations of compulsory schooling and disruptions to the house rules, cannot be enough here. With all the understanding of the conditions in which it arises, it takes confident adults who announce where the limit is and who cannot be fooled. In every school and other educational institutions there are employees who are shown great respect by all those involved; it does not always have to be the headmistress. And the school social worker, who knows and understands both sides of the coin, must by no means be left alone with this problem. In addition to open, clear discussions in the context of the class or with parents, the teachers also need mutual advice, who finally have to learn to admit when they no longer know what to do. Or external supervision. Studies show that up to 85 percent of teachers say they notice and stop bullying, but only 35-40 percent of students would say so. All adults need an in-depth examination of their ideas of justice and injustice, violence and effective help, not only in the case of bullying. But those who experience themselves as ineffective, do not think they are heard enough, or carry around an authoritarian understanding of obedience instead of democratic convictions, will never judge the situation correctly or incorrectly assess their possibilities. And which school sends its teaching staff to training courses on the subject of bullying, cyberbullying or violence at school on a regular basis?

Some particularly violent students, some of them also girls, can only be put on a different path through direct confrontation with their behavior, especially if their conflict resolution strategy is exhausted in intriguing, scornful or hitting. Then anti-aggression training by trained staff with a good concept can lead to changes - if possible voluntarily and not only by order of a judge. The vast majority of bullying incidents can and should be ended well in advance; for that we have to recognize them. Last but not least, this year's child protection symposium in Wittenberg on October 9, 2019 serves this purpose. At this all-day training event, all interested employees from education and society who come into contact with the topic should learn a lot about "bullying in everyday life of children and young people -gendlichen “and deal with the detection, intervention and prevention of this phenomenon. In addition to the bullying itself and our individual reaction, it is also about violence prevention, de-escalation, conflict resolution options, media consumption and methodological work. Registration for the specialist day, which was deliberately placed in the autumn holidays in order to enable as many educational staff as possible to participate, can be made in the next few weeks via Kinderschutzfachag.wittenberg (at) web.de or by fax: 03491/479 995 543.

And those who want to get information or further training beforehand can do so on relevant websites, for example www.schueler-mobbing.de by Werner Ebner, “Planet Wissen” on the ARD homepage or www.schueler-gegen-mobbing .de are suitable. In the last few years there have also been good books that deal with the topic in different ways, for example "Mobbing in School" by Karl Gebauer (Beltz Verlag), "Fast Intervention in Mobbing" by Wolfgang Kindler (Verlag an der Ruhr) , “Courageous against bullying in kindergarten and school” by Francoise Alsaker (Hogrefe) or “You victim! When children finish children ”by Mechthild Schäfer (rororo). If the problems cannot be solved alone, counseling centers and school psychologists are available; psychiatric treatment or psychotherapy may be necessary in the case of major psychological problems or trauma. But the most important thing is: As parents and educators or simply as fellow human beings, we should be close to our children and pay attention to their sometimes hidden signals without patronizing them. This prevents lifelong “victim careers” and makes our society strong. This makes school a good place to learn and prepare for life again, because: the brain wants work. Don't be scared. We will all benefit from it.

Author: Joachim Perlberg,
Senior Consultant at the Salus day clinics for child and adolescent psychiatry in Dessau-Roßlau and Lutherstadt Wittenberg; Specialist in child and adolescent psychiatry / psychotherapy

Questions to the author:
Email: j.perlberg (at) salus-lsa.de
Telephone 03491 42009-0