Commentary

Every individual counts when tackling bullying

In Parliament, Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng shared that bullying in schools is "stable and managed" and that 5 per cent, 10 per cent and 20 per cent of Singapore's 15-year-old students experienced physical, social and verbal bullying respectively based on a national student survey in 2015.

As a teacher, educational psychologist, school counsellor and parent, I have seen bullying cases over the years. From my experience, I can say this: One bullying case is still one too many.

When it comes to bullying, every individual counts. Tackling bullying requires a whole-of-community effort, not just schools.

Schools are well equipped to handle hurtful behaviours and students learn social skills, empathy, respect and awareness of how negative action can affect others. But bullies can range from children to adults.

While adults may have established coping mechanisms to manage bullying, children do not have those skills yet. As a community, the first step towards helping children tackle bullying is to understand what bullying really is, and not just its negative effects.

Bullying is defined as a deliberate, repeated pattern of aggressive behaviour. Often, bullying is an imbalance of power or strength between the victim or target, and the bully or initiator. There are physical, verbal, social and/or cyber forms of bullying, all of which can be direct, indirect or passive depending on circumstances.

Whether the bully is an individual or a group, the consequence of bullying is painfully felt - physical, emotional and/or psychological harm and discomfort. In any child-bullying incident, it is not just the victim and the bully.

We need to recognise that there are always five persons involved: The victim, the bully, the bystander, the teacher, and the parent. Importantly, each can help to manage and prevent bullying in schools and online.

THE VICTIM IS NOT HELPLESS

Children can respond proactively to bullying. Typically, children are at risk of being a target of bullying because of various reasons - physical appearance, disability, illness, personal characteristics such as being introverted, or even low or high academic performance.

In all instances, victims need support from peers, teachers, parents or other adults. They need to learn how to respond to bullying which can include learning to avoid situations where they are alone, acquiring social skills, building their self-esteem and being encouraged to recognise and report bullying when they see it happening.

THE BULLY IS ALSO A VICTIM

As a counsellor, I discovered that nobody aspires to be a bully. There are often underlying reasons resulting in children becoming one.

Often bullies are insecure and bullying is a means to gain control of their lives, for example, parents' divorce or a death in the family which they could not control. It is equally important to understand the reason(s) why a child bullies while tackling the bullying behaviour. Without understanding the reason, any action taken will only subdue the bullying momentarily before it surfaces again. Just like the victims, we also need to help the bullies change their behaviour as well as face the challenges that are shaping their bullying behaviour.

I used to counsel a child who was bullying her classmates. It turned out that she was the only child and it was her way of making "friends". We worked on her social skills and she has stopped bullying since.

THE BYSTANDER IS POWERFUL

Often, bullies count on the bystanders being afraid or indifferent to stop them. Bullies tend to back off when their fellow students show disapproval or speak out against them. We need to develop in our students empathy, compassion, moral courage, problem-solving strategies, and the life skills necessary to become proactive and helpful bystanders.

Students need to understand that as bystanders, they are accountable and are responsible for stopping bullying and cyber-bullying when they see it happening. By not doing anything, they are actually condoning and encouraging the bullying. If they feel they cannot stop it, they can report to a teacher as soon as possible.

THE TEACHER NEEDS TO BE OBSERVANT AND KNOWLEDGEABLE

Teachers are responsible in creating a safe, bully-free environment for students. When students feel safe, they are more inclined to report bullying to their teachers. It is crucial for teachers to be familiar with a school's policies, code of conduct and actions towards bullying and discipline.

While the Ministry of Education provides support for teachers, it is nevertheless essential for teachers to be observant, firm and consistent in intervening and enforcing action needed to address bullying. The actions they can take include addressing bullying behaviour, emotional hurt and relational strains that can arise from bullying. The school counsellor, a specialist staff, is important in supporting teachers to address bullying and to help rebuild positive relationships between the bully and the victim. Working with teachers and parents, counsellors help to resolve the underlying problems and prevent bullying from happening again.

THE PARENT IS ALSO RESPONSIBLE

As a teacher and counsellor, I have seen a whole range of reactions from parents when they found out their child was a bully, ranging from denial to apologies to indifference.

As parents, the instinct to protect is strong but we need to be aware of our biases towards our children. We need to recognise the warning signs that our children can be involved in bullying - be it as a victim, bully or bystander. To do so, we first need to have regular and open communications with our children. We can teach our children how to solve problems without resorting to violence, give positive feedback when they behave well to build their self-esteem and confidence, and encourage our children to help others in need.

We should also watch our own behaviour and language because our children learn from us in how they behave and react to others. If our child reports a case of bullying, we have to take it seriously and never ignore or downplay the bullying. But it is important that we keep calm and validate the facts of the incident.

Parents and teachers working in partnership is necessary to address bullying. Working simultaneously with the teacher and specialist staff should always be the first course of action. The mutual interaction between school staff members and parents can drive home the message that a school is a safe and supportive environment and a calm collective approach to a peaceful resolution is far better than force.

Ultimately, tackling and preventing bullying requires a holistic approach. It requires commitment, effort and participation not just from stakeholders in education, but every member of society. Bullying does not need to be a problem and we have the power to stop it.

• The writer is a research scientist at the National Institute of Education's Centre for Research in Pedagogy & Practice.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 06, 2017, with the headline 'Every individual counts when tackling bullying'. Print Edition | Subscribe