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Stop the bullying with empathy

POINTING fingers in the wake of the recent spate of fatal bullying cases in the country may seem futile but according to some experts, that could be the answer.

Bullying, they say, is a group process that comprises not only the bully and victim, but also bystanders – and all play a part in encouraging or stopping it.

Bystanders rarely play a completely neutral role in this “bully circle”, although they may think they do, Dr Christina Salmivalli, a professor of psychology at the University of Turku in Finland, has highlighted in her studies on the phenomenon in school.

Calling it the “social architecture of bullying”, Dr Salmivalli points out the “participant roles” in a bullying situation: assistants of the bully, reinforcers, outsiders and victim defenders (see chart).

“Bullying often takes place in a situation in which several members of the group are present; even the ones not present are usually aware of what is going on, due to the fact that bullying by definition happens repeatedly, over a period of time.

“So, not only do the bullies and the victim constitute an important element in the bullying process, but so, too, the ‘others’,” she argues.

Targeting these “others” and their powerful role as bystanders in a bullying situation is the strategy of KiVa, a research-based bullying prevention programme for schools in Finland that Dr Salmivalli co-developed at the university with funding from the Finnish Education Ministry.

Rather than focusing solely on punishing the bully, the programme focuses on increasing the empathy of bystanders and encouraging them to think about how to intervene in a bullying incident, especially when teachers or school administrators are not around

Alanen: ‘Worse than the bullying itself was that nobody defended them or made it stop’.
Alanen: ‘Worse than the bullying itself was that nobody defended them or made it stop’.

As Dr Salmivalli puts it, “Even if the majority of children in the class do not participate in active bullying behaviour, they may behave in ways which make the beginning and continuation of the bullying process possible.”

Assistants of the bully, for example, don’t initiate but join in the bullying while reinforcers of the bully do not join in but give verbal and non-verbal signs of approval like laughing and applauding. The outsiders simply turn a blind eye to the abuse and violence despite being fully aware of what is going on.

As in the case of 19-year-old hate crime victim T. Nhaveen in Penang, who died after being beaten and sodomised by a group of his former schoolmates – he had allegedly been bullied since school.

In the fatal bullying case of Malaysian National Defence University (UPNM) student Zulfarhan Osman Zulkarnain, he was allegedly tortured for two days on campus, before being taken to a doctor at a private clinic to have his injuries treated, and then “hidden” at an apartment nearby.

The “ignoring” of what is going on between the bully and victim by witnesses may be interpreted by the bully as approval of his or her behaviour, asserts Dr Salmivalli.

KiVa’s international project manager Johanna Alanen agrees.

“In many countries, schools practise zero-tolerance policies, which experts say punish students but do not teach them about bullying.

“KiVa teaches them about bullying while ingraining empathy in students. And when students are taught the simple concept of being supportive and speaking up for their bullied peers, the outcome is tremendous,” Alanen tells a visiting group of Asian journalists in Helsinki recently.

Since it was introduced in 2009 in 1,465 schools involving over 500,000 students aged between seven and 15 years old, the programme has shown a significant decrease in bullying cases in the Nordic country, with some 98% of victims involved feeling their situation has improved.

This is not to say that bullying is not confronted head on in schools that have adopted KiVa.

In each “KiVa school”, there is a KiVa team made up of the school personnel including the principal and teachers, who will meet with the identified bullied student and bullying student and his or her accomplices to stop it.

“The bullies need to be confronted for their unacceptable behaviour while the victims need to feel they are being heard and helped by the adults at school,” says Alanen.

Unfortunately, not all bullying can be solved, she notes, “That’s the reality. Sometimes there are cases schools cannot handle – they are a crime, so the police need to get involved.”

Still, increasing the empathy of students remains a strong strategy in the fight against bullying, she stresses.

“When we interviewed adults who were bullied when they were young, many said their worst experience was not the bullying itself but that nobody defended them and helped to make it stop. It made them feel like ‘nobody’.”

Those who bullied when they were younger, meanwhile, felt they were “somebody” then – many said they felt “cool, powerful and popular”.

Studies have shown that children who bullied others tend to continue the aggressive behaviour into adulthood, and some even go on to commit crime; so what people learn about bullying early on in life, and the important skills to deal with it, can make a difference later, says Alanen.

And as the recent cases in Malaysia showed, it might prevent tragedies.

Related story:

KiVa – proven effective

Bullying , anti bullying program , Finland