Level: primary school, secondary school
The author of this article, Christina Salmivalli, has published several works on the theme of aggressiveness at school. She is currently working at the University of Turku Research Centre in Finland on a programme aimed at reducing aggression at school. The approach involves studying individual and collective psychological mechanisms related to violence.
The project, funded by the Finnish Academy and run by Christina Salmivalli, concerns 48 classes in 16 schools in Helsinki and Turku, Finland. The teachers were trained over a one-year period before implementing the project in their classes. The main focus is on collective mechanisms that come into play in ill-treatment and consequently on the work to be done with a whole class.
In the school context, where children and adolescents spend quite a lot of their time together, conflicts and aggressive and/or violent behaviours take place almost daily. Different types of aggression and other problem behaviours cannot all be intervened in only one way. As far as bullying is concerned, the mechanisms which maintain the problem, but also the keys for preventing and intervening it, often lie within the peer group.
Bullying is unfortunately a common type of aggression in schools. It is usually defined as repeated, systematic harassment in which there is an imbalance of power involved. The imbalance of power means that the bully has more strength, status, or other resources which make him or her more powerful than the victim. The imbalance may also be caused by the fact that there is a group of bullies attacking a lonely victim. Bullying may be direct (such as calling the target names, hitting or kicking the target) or indirect (such as spreading rumours about the target in order to manipulate the group members against him or her, or systematically isolating the target from the peer group). No matter how the harm is done, the repeated nature of bullying makes it a developmental risk for the victims - too often, bullying goes on for years.
Bullying and the peer group
Another feature typical of bullying is the group nature of it. Unlike many other forms of aggression, bullying takes place, and often gets encouraged and sustained within the peer group. The bully does not choose to attack when he or she is alone with the victim, but seeks situations in which there are others present. The way these “others” behave in bullying situations and with what consequences has been the focus of our research group for the last decade.
The participant roles in bullying refer to students’ (the “bystanders”) ways of being involved in bullying. For instance, some students eagerly join in the bullying when someone has started it and act as assistants of the bully. Others, even if not actively attack the victim, offer positive feedback to the bully by laughing, by encouraging gestures or just gathering around to see the bullying. These students are reinforcers of the bully. A remarkable number of students stay away and do not take sides with anyone, thus silently approving of what is going on - they are so-called outsiders. Finally, there are students whose behaviour is clearly anti-bullying: for instance, they comfort the victim, or actively try to make others stop bullying. They have been named defenders. (Salmivalli et al.,1996).
Even if most children and adolescents have attitudes that are clearly against bullying, in actual bullying situations they rarely express such attitudes. As many as 35-40% of school-aged children and adolescents take on roles of bully, assistant or reinforcer, and the frequency of those who withdraw and silently accept the bullying going on is around 25-30%. Many students thus behave in ways which rather incite than discourage the bully. The question of importance is: how to convert the (already existing) anti-bullying attitudes into behaviour in actual bullying situations?
Finding the power from the group
The “participant role approach” provides educators with a new perspective for preventing and intervening in bullying: what we should try to accomplish is changes in the dynamics of the whole group. Trying to make the bully behave differently rarely leads to a permanent change - it is not enough. In addition, we should be able to affect the behaviour of students in other participant roles. This means, for instance, making reinforcers and assistants stop what they are doing; making the outsiders show that they actually do not approve of bullying; making more students take on the role of defender.
I have previously (Salmivalli, 1999) identified three steps in curriculum-based preventive and intervention work against bullying.
1. The first step is Raising awareness. Bullying should be discussed with the whole class, starting with themes such as what bullying is and how it feels to be bullied, moving on to the group mechanisms involved. It is important to point out the fact that in the group, we often behave in a different way from what we think is right. Most students have attitudes against bullying, but yet in actual bullying situations they may behave in ways which encourage and maintain bullying in the class. Making students aware of the discrepancy between their attitudes and behaviour might be a starting point for a change. Introducing the different participant roles to students provides concrete content for such discussions.
2. The second step is Encouraging self-reflection. Again, the participant roles offer the students conceptual tools for reflecting on their own behaviour: what is my role when bullying is going on?
3. The third step is Exploring and finding solutions, i.e. helping the students find ways in which they could behave as individuals and as a group in order to put an end to bullying. For instance, it is possible and often beneficial to rehearse roles different from the previous ones by means of drama and role-play. Such exercises provide a safe context in which to rehearse anti-bullying behaviours that the students have not tried before, such as telling others to stop bullying, and to explore the feelings associated with them.
The participant role approach thus also provides concrete content for curriculum-based, class-level interventions themselves. Working with the theme may include discussions, exercises, literature, drama, and so on. The main point is that every one can do something to stop bullying, or at least to make the victim feel better. In Finland, some materials have been prepared to aid curriculum-based work on the participant roles in bullying. These include a package with overhead transparencies and suggestions for discussions prepared by the author (Salmivalli, 1998), as well as role-taking exercises developed by a group of drama pedagogues, Theatre in Education (Top Tie, 1999).
Of course, the point is not to accuse all students, but to show that every one of them can affect on what is going on in the class. Every one can also do something to stop bullying, at least to make the victim feel better. The group members together can decide: we accept no more bullying in this class.
Group-level work alone is not sufficient, however. Acute cases of bullying that come to attention of the teacher often demand working with individual students, for instance, having serious discussions with the bully or offering support to the victim. Group-level interventions are, however, an effective increment to these traditional approaches.
“Lifting spirits” is not enough
It is often assumed that in a context of a “positive class atmosphere” there is less bullying than in a class with a more negative climate. Our unpublished data from 16 school classes suggest, however, that the class atmosphere (reported by students themselves) as such is not connected with whether or not there is bullying in the class. What actually has been shown to predict whether or not bullying occurs, and whether the students are likely to take sides with the bully or the victim, is the content of the group norms related to bullying (Salmivalli & Voeten, submitted). These norms are more or less conscious, unwritten rules about which behaviours would be prescribed (expected) or proscribed (not appropriate) in the group.
Lessons from an Intervention Program
There is a study in progress in our research group, which aims at clarifying what happens in a school class during a successful intervention. This includes analysis of whose behaviour can be affected. For instance, as the result of an intervention campaign in the school: do more children start acting as defenders? Do reinforcers of the bully stop reinforcing him/her?
The preliminary observations show that there was lots of variation between schools. At this point, I can only describe what was done in a very successful project school which managed to reduce the number of victims from 22.1% to 8.6% during the first six months. According to the teacher reports, in this particular school the core interventions consisted of:
(1) taking up the issue of bullying regularly with students, discussing especially the participant roles involved in it (targeting the ROLES)
(2) formulating, together with the students, class rules against bullying (targeting the NORMS), and
(3) organizing systematic follow-up discussions each time after intervening in an acute case of bullying (targeting the INDIVIDUAL BULLIES in a systematic way).
The interventions included the following:
In all three classes involved in the project, the curriculum-based work started with discussions guided by the package of transparencies and materials prepared by the author (Salmivalli 1998). The series of overhead transparencies includes themes to be discussed, such as, What is bullying, How does it feel to be bullied, How the bystanders are involved, i.e. introducing the participant roles with very concrete examples, and, finally, What can we do about it?
Teachers reported that going through these materials was followed by small-group work, analysing stories with a bullying theme from the participant role perspective (recognizing the participant roles in the stories, analysing the consequences of different behaviours), and thinking about positive solutions to the stories.
All three teachers reported formulating class rules against bullying and hanging them on the wall so that every one could see them. This was done together with students, especially from the participant role perspective (i.e. the rules had to do not only with bullying, but bystander behaviours as well), and preceded by a general discussion about bullying. Also the sanctions for breaking the class rules were decided together, the students voting for the sanctions to be chosen.
In two classes, regular class meetings were started. Each Friday the class discussed together how the week had gone, was there anything to be cleared up between the students, and so on. In one class, an acute case of bullying had been discussed together in a class meeting. The students had thought about whether it was bullying, harmless teasing, or what. They had then thought about each one’s role, and discussed how to avoid similar episodes in the future.
In all three classes, several acute cases of bullying were intervened via discussions with individual students. These discussions were followed by systematic follow-up meetings, to control whether or not the bullying actually had stopped. The teachers had paid attention to the fact that, in their classes, new defenders emerged. The students themselves had also become active in telling teachers how someone had intervened in a bullying episode in a positive way. When the students had told the teachers about such behaviours, the class had rewarded these “new defenders” with applause. In this particular school, the frequency of students in the defender role increased from 16.5% to 21.5% over the first six-months period of the intervention.
For further information please contact:
Department of Psychology,
University of Turku
FIN-20014 Turku – Finland
Fax: 358 2 3335060
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