SINGAPORE: Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng said last week that the Education Ministry doesn’t tolerate bullying in any form.
Though he said that every child has a right to feel safe and secure in Singapore schools, he also qualified that instances of bullying here are few, pointing to a global 2015 survey that said only 5 per cent of Singapore’s 15-year-old students experience physical bullying.
He was responding to a parliament question on the extent of bullying and relevant measures undertaken for both teachers and students involved.
His answer in Parliament came on the back of a widely circulated footage of a classroom brawl in St Hilda’s Secondary School, where an adult was present but did not intervene as he “did not have the training or authority to manage the situation” as an intern with an external agency.
A major problem in schools globally, bullying is certainly not unique to a few schools or to Singapore.
It has far-reaching consequences for a child’s emotional health, because of the aggressive acts and personal insults levelled repeatedly at the victim. Often, the bully is significantly more powerful than the victim, making it difficult for the latter to defend his or herself.
A loss of self-esteem, depression or even suicidal thoughts can set in. But it is also bullies who suffer, for domineering acts, when not corrected can contribute to further anti-social behaviour.
SCHOOL BULLYING AS A GLOBAL PHENOMENON
Worldwide, the percentage of children affected by bullying in schools tend to vary substantially. But this does not mean that some countries are more affected by the problem of school bullying than others.
This discrepancy is often a result of challenges in comparison because the extent of bullying is measured using different methods and questions.
For example, some children may be asked to recall instances of bullying that had happened to them in the past month, while others may be asked about bullying that has ever occurred in their lifetime.
Reports of bullying incidents may also come from the children themselves in the form of self- or peer-reports, or from adults such as teachers or parents. These may not agree, since children may not report candidly, and parents or teachers may not be fully aware of bullying, or its extent, for a particular child.
Some research studies do not define what bullying means, and instead leave it to the children or adults to interpret the term in their own ways.
Overall, the myriad ways in which school bullying is measured make any data on prevalence less meaningful and less comparable, even within the same country.
As a result, researchers and practitioners have now largely moved from a descriptive approach of reporting the prevalence of school bullying in their respective countries, to directing research effort into finding effective ways to minimise bullying behaviour and to help victims cope, regardless of prevalence figures.
They assume, reasonably, that bullying occurs in every school in every country. No matter what percentage of children experience bullying in any given school, the fact that bullying can bring about serious negative consequences for children should be reason enough for adults to intervene.
THE ROLE OF SCHOOLS AND FAMILIES IN INTERVENTION AND PREVENTION
Interventions against bullying typically take place in schools, focusing on individual students affected by bullying, such as assertiveness training for the victims and counselling involving both bullies and victims.
Schools also adopt a “whole-school policy” where the focus is on establishing clear rules and disciplinary plans against bullying, building a strong peer network to protect and support victims, as well as education programmes to raise awareness of the need to create a bully-free school environment.
Such school-based interventions have had some success, with up to a 50 per cent reduction of bullying and victimisation in countries where large-scale interventions and evaluations were conducted, such as Finland, Norway and the UK.
Increasingly, educators and practitioners are including the family as part of the solution to school bullying, recognising that adult behaviour at home is easily observed and modelled at school. This is particularly relevant for younger children, where the family remains as an important sphere of influence.
Looking at the experiences children have had before school, and understanding how these may affect their conduct in school may be the key to preventing bullying from happening in the first place.
A large body of research has shown that children can learn aggression through observing aggressive behaviour by parents or caregivers.
Much as it is largely assumed that bullies are deterred by harsh discipline, studies have found that punitive practices such as physical punishment is linked to an increase in bullying behaviour.
On the other hand, parental warmth seems to be a protective factor. When parents maintain a strong affectional bond with their children, it promotes the development of empathy and greater emotion control in children, which are in turn linked to lower likelihood of aggression. Moreover, parental warmth and support also serve to protect victims from the negative outcomes of being bullied.
A high level of parental involvement is also important, with parents needing to be mindful of the possibility that their children may be involved as either a bully or a victim.
Open communication between parents and their child can be a good foundation for a strong parent-child relationship. Much as parents may want to actively monitor their child, a lot also depends on how much a child is willing to share his or her daily experiences in school.
So a supportive environment in the home where children feel at ease with confiding in their parents, as well as involved parents who maintain a good liaison with the school are critical ingredients to addressing bullying.
MULTI-PRONGED APPROACH LIKELY TO BE MOST EFFECTIVE
Taken together, it seems that a multi-pronged approach involving the individual child, the school and the family is likely to be the most effective in working towards a bully-free environment in schools.
This approach has been adopted by practitioners in Singapore who work closely with schools and the community to tackle the problem of school bullying.
For example, the Singapore Children’s Society has been involved in bully-free work since 2004, and have implemented programmes that target children. They have an email consultation service that provides emotional support for victims for instance.
There are also school- and community-level programmes including campaigns to promote a bully-free environment and public education programmes, in addition to interventions targeting the family, such as through talks to equip parents with skills to support children who may be involved in bullying.
However, much remains to be done, as the nature of bullying becomes increasingly complicated with the advancement of technology, such that a child no longer needs to be physically present in school to be the subject of bullying.
They can be bullied online, where taunts and other acts are documented, widely circulated and live on, making it hard for victims to forgive because they can’t forget.
Given the detrimental effects of being in a bullying relationship, anti-bullying work should remain a top priority issue, and actualised through a concerted effort involving students, parents, educators and educational authorities, researchers as well as the community at large.
Cheung Hoi Shan is assistant professor of psychology at Yale-NUS College.