Renown Bullying Expert, Michal Kolář, Deals with Epidemic in Schools

Is it possible to stop an epidemic of school bullying?

(An interview with Dr. Michal Kolář)

 Do you think that bullying at schools has become a global problem?

School bullying is a very old phenomenon, certainly as old as school itself. However, its scientific understanding is relatively recent. Origins of its identification can be placed in the seventies. Since then extensive national and international studies have been developed involving millions of school children. There is a large number of empirical data indicating that the problem is global.

In the Czech Republic, located in Central Europe, the situation is best mapped in elementary schools with children between 6 to 15 years old. Using stringent investigative methods, the incidence of bullying has been determined to be around 20 percent. Empirical research also indicates that a similar unfavorable situation exists in high schools with students between ages of 15 to 18 years. This confirms my diagnosis that this moral disease is epidemic. In the Czech Republic, an epidemic is defined by more than two thousand people per 100 thousand inhabitants being impacted. Of course, I am presenting this image to underscore the seriousness and urgency of the situation.

Is it possible to stop the epidemic of bullying in school? If so, how?

My view is skeptical, but I think that the situation can be improved in a particular school and in a particular class. In terms of nationwide solution, I see many problems because I participate in several large projects. However, even here an improvement should not be ruled out. An important basis for effective help is to understand bullying as a relationship breakdown in the group. From this perspective, the best defense and the best prevention is an educational community, which means building open, friendly, and safe relationships. However, empirical experience (as well as my research) at various types of schools, showed that even the best democratic community cannot essentially stop the bullying. Each school needs to have their own special program that can detect bullying in the early stages and can treat it effectively.

I will share the good news that really encouraged me. As part of the Czech Ministry of Education, I worked on a project to design and implement a special program. In the experimental school selected for the project, we succeeded to reduce the incidence of bullying by 42.5% in 4 months which was a record short time. An especially trained team (there were teachers with long-term training) managed to reduce the number of victims of bullying by 50 to 75%. At the same time, there was no change in the control school. Later on, when this program was implemented on a larger scale at 50 schools its effectiveness was confirmed.

I would like to emphasize that the results of our program is one of the most successful in the world. It can be compared only with the program of Dan Olweus from Norway. Olweus is a pioneering figure in this field. During 2-3 years, he succeeded in reducing bullying in Norway by 50%. In the United States, in South Carolina, and in Schleiwig-Holstein in Germany, the attempts to replicate the success of this program have failed. According to some sources, however, the Olweus program achieved excellent results in US. Supposedly, some schools have managed to reduce bullying by more than 40%. But be as it may, other programs considered successful, usually have a maximum efficiency of around 15%. Not to mention that quite a few programs (led by top experts) had no effect. It is really difficult in a particular school and in a particular situation to demonstrably reduce the incidence of bullying.

What is the basis of the effectiveness of this program?

There were a number of factors, but the biggest difference compared to other programs, including the program of Olweus, is a new methodology for solving the existing bullying. The novelty of the methodology lies in the fact that it is not a general guidance in the form of cookbooks. But it is a specific and differentiated treatment – according to stages and forms of bullying, as well as, according to the level of treatment goals (See Appendix 1 – Classification of scenarios for assistance according to treatment goals, stages and forms of bullying).

This type of assistance is least risky and highly effective. I’ll explain its advantage by using the stages of bullying. Based on my long-term practical experience, I have come to the conclusion that the process by which the group relationships become infected by the “bullying virus” has its inevitable evolution. It evolves from the first embryonic form to a perfect fifth so-called ostracism stage – totalitarianism. To respect these stages is very important for the treatment of bullying for at least three reasons:

a) There is a fundamental difference in the investigation and first aid – partial treatment in the initial (i.e. first, second and third stages) and advanced (i.e., fourth and fifth stages) of the impacted group.

b) Overall treatment of the group has its own specifics for each stage.

c) These stages allow to select various experts that can provide qualified assistance (first contact experts, specialists, and unsolvable even for specialists).

For more details see Appendix 2: Stages of bullying and their significance in practice).

How important is for the success of your program the teacher training and peer programs?

These are two essential components that belong to 13 major components of our program. Peer programs are run at the level of classroom and school-wide community programs.

Training of teachers and other professionals is an essential step that must be started immediately at the beginning. The point is that all schools teachers must be trained using the modular course in the management of 6 scenarios (see Annex 1). They should handle the first and the second group by themselves. For others – third to sixth group of scenarios they need to recognize their suitability and to handle the most urgent and critical steps, including cooperation with experts.

Regarding the first two groups of scenarios, here are particularly important class teachers and the school counselor. They should be able to provide the first aid up to the third stage and overall treatment for the first two stages of common initial bullying. These cases of bullying are by far the most frequent and the school must fight them by itself.

The training must be provided not only for teachers, but also for experts from special services facilities who take care of the school issues. They must be able to work with the 3rd to the 6th group of scenarios. This requires in most cases, that some of them have received training and supervision in diagnosing and solving unusual and advanced bullying cases.

Do you work with schools that have no apparent interest in protecting their students from bullying?

Sometimes a serious case of bullying is uncovered and the schools where the bullying took place are forced to collaborate with me. But it is only dealing with a problem at a superficial level. To establish an effective school-wide program requires much more. The best preventive conditions are provided by a full-fledged educational community. This means a school that operates as a democratic community and relies on the morality of love.

School-wide meetings, school parliament, school board, etc. open up the chances for an effective defense against bullying. But be aware of the fact that this by itself will not be effective against already existing bullying. Also, it is important to note that schools that don’t yet have an educational community and want to implement the program must meet the minimum requirements. They need to have a good team and teachers as individuals must be willing to work on themselves professionally, personally and morally.

How do you protect children from cyberbullying?

The program includes the protection of children from cyberbullying. The assistance will take place on two levels.

If the cyberbullying affects students and happens during teaching or during a school program, then the school is responsible to provide a direct treatment for cyberbullying. Trained staff determines on the basis of stages and forms of bullying whether the school alone is capable to solve the problem or whether they need to see a specialist. (See Appendix 1. Classification scenarios for assistance according to treatment goals, stages and forms of bullying). It is a procedure that applies to all types of bullying; cyberbullying is no exception.

For practical help, it is very useful to know that most cases of cyberbullying are connected with the traditional school bullying. Cyberbullying is not investigated in isolation, but as part of bullying in the whole school. Using this approach, we can provide effective diagnosis and safe treatment.

As the main battlefield against cyberbullying I see the school itself. My experience shows me that the role of aggressors and victims in school bullying are usually carried over into cyberspace. Besides, most victims know their aggressor. Czech research in 2009 showed that 80% of the attackers came from the class or the school of the victims.

And now I come to the second level of assistance. If the cyberbullying does not happen during teaching and does not take place at school, then the teacher is not the one who will directly address the problem. When considering punishing the attacker, a lawyer needs to be consulted. Bullied students should be provided with an advice on how to protect themselves immediately, how to secure the evidence, and to whom to turn. It is always necessary to map the relationships in the classroom, where the victims of cyberbullying are. The goal is to determine whether there is already on-going school bullying. As I said – most of cyberbullying is just part of school bullying. It is also useful to find ways how to make relationships healthier in a particular classroom.

What can we do to encourage the young adults to confide their troubles in adults?

The basic principle of gaining the trust of children is a real interest of the school to address bullying. Children must also be able to verify that the school really knows how to deal with this problem professionally. This means that a child who seeks help will find it without being bullied for it even more.

Specifically, we need to weaken the reasons that prevent the victims to come forward. There are few and I will discuss some of them:

It is hard for victims to talk about how they were abused, because it threatens the loss of the last remnants of their self-esteem and break-up of personal integrity. It’s a similar situation and pain as with the victims of rape. Neither one can accurately describe what happened and how, which is important for the investigation. Often the victim submits to the pressure of the group, who commands him/her to be silent. Sometimes the victim may have internalized the prohibition of “ratting out” or the group has indoctrinated its “pseudo consciousness “, and if the victim reveals the aggressor, s/he is experiencing feelings of guilt, remorse and strong anxiety. In some cases, the victim does not want to testify because s/he has a great fear of retribution and sometimes even of being killed. The situation is complicated by the fact that sometimes the victim takes on the aggressors’ distorted view of the situation and themselves. And sometimes, the victim suppresses the painful experiences and forgets them.

Appendix 1: Classification of scenarios for assistance according to the goals of treatment, stages and forms of bullying (M.Kolář)

Scenarios that the school can handle itself  

1. First aid for initial stages of bullying with the standard form.

2. Overall treatment for dealing with bullying in the embryonic stage, Framework Class Program

Scenarios when the school needs help from outside

3. First aid for initial stages of a nonstandard form of bullying.

4. First Aid (crisis scenario) for common forms of advanced bullying.

5. First Aid (crisis scenario) for advanced bullying with an unusual form that includes, for example, an explosion of group violence, the school lynching etc.

6. Overall treatment up to the 3rd stage of bullying, ZIP – The basic intervention program (for advanced bullying it is always in combination with first aid)

Key to the level of treatment goals:

1. First Aid – partial and symptomatic treatment, quickly and safely stops bullying.

2. Overall treatment – works with relationships in the whole classroom, causal therapy at the level of school causes, requires a longer time.

As the table shows, the first area covers two types of scenarios that the school itself can handle. The second area includes four groups of scenarios where the school needs help from outside. The qualified work with these scenarios enabled teachers to effectively and safely deal with different types of bullying.

Appendix 2: 5 stages of bullying developed by Dr. Michal Kolář

First stage: The birth of ostracism

This stage includes mild, mostly psychological forms of violence, when the marginal member of the group does not feel well. She/he is unpopular and ignored. The others more or less reject him/her and don’t talk to him/her, slander him/her, concoct intrigues against him/her, and making “little” horseplay at his/her account, etc. This situation is already an embryonic form of bullying and includes the risk of further negative development.

Second stage: Physical aggression and escalating of manipulation

In stressful situations, when the tensions within the group are rising, the ostracized students will serve as a lightning rod. Their classmates unwind on them their unpleasant feelings from, for example, an expected hard written exam or from a conflict with a teacher or simply from the fact that going to school is bothersome. Manipulation is increasing and at first, mostly subtle physical aggression appears.

The third stage (pivotal moment): Creating a nucleus

A group of aggressors is created, so-called striking core. These “virus” multipliers (disseminators of virus) begin to collaborate and systematically, no longer at random, to bully most convenient victims. In the beginning, the victims become those who are already proven objects of ostracism. These are students who are lowest in the hierarchy, i.e. the “weak”.

Fourth stage: The majority accepts norms

Norms of aggressors are adopted by the majority and they become an unwritten law. At this time, an informal pressure to conform is gaining new dynamics and only very few could stand up to it. The members of the group overwhelmed by the “virus” are beginning to create an alternative sort of identity that is entirely indebted to the leaders. Even tame and disciplined students begin to behave brutally. They get actively involved in bullying of a classmate and find it satisfying.

Fifth stage: Totalitarianism or perfect bullying 

Violence is accepted as a norm by all members of the class. Bullying has become a group program. Figuratively speaking, here comes an era of “exploitation”. Students are divided into two groups of people, “slave masters” and “slaves.” Those in the first group have all the rights; the ones in the second one have none.

Dr. Michal Kolář is a psychotherapist who has been treating bullying for more than 30 years. He has created a special theory and methodology for the diagnosis and treatment of bullying at schools. He also works with the International and European Observatories on School Violence



Feb 2 2012 in Whats New admin Comments Off on Renown Bullying Expert, Michal Kolář, Deals with Epidemic in Schools

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