School bullying: the weak points of current control strategies



Since 2011, bullying has become a major political and social concern. And for good reason, about one in ten children is a victim of this scourge. To combat this phenomenon, institutions use two types of strategies.

The first is to take preventive action to make students aware of the consequences of this type of behavior (dropping out of school, school phobia, psychosomatic disorders, depression, suicide). According to a meta-analysis , this approach would reduce acts of harassment by 20%.

To cope with the remaining 80%, the institutions have chosen the interventionist strategy as a second approach. Our purpose is to show that the intervention of a third party in the harassment relationship to put an end to it, although initially logical, can be counterproductive when we adopt a systemic perspective.

“Opportunity behaviors”

The interventionist strategy takes four main forms  :

  • The sanction of the harasser remains the most practiced in most countries even if we know that it generates only surface adhesion and that the harassment continues in forms more difficult to detect.
  • The Pikas method or method of shared concerns seeks to mobilize the empathy of the harasser (s) in order to get them to change their behavior.
  • In the same vein, restorative practices seek to repair the harm that has been done and to resolve the conflict by encouraging the stalker (s) to recognize the consequences of their actions on the victim (s).
  • Finally, the mobilization of a group of support students, formed on the initiative of an adult, to come to the aid of the victim in various forms (help with homework, presence by his side during recess, etc.).

Several observations lead us to put into perspective the value of using these methods. The first is due to the fact that by intervening in the harassment situation – which is quite understandable – we send the signal to the harasser and to his victim that the latter is not able to defend himself alone and therefore the aggressor. can continue without risk.

Even if the harassment stops after the intervention of a third party, the victim will not have realized that she is capable of mobilizing internal resources herself to face the aggression. When a new situation like this arises, it will be just as helpless as the last time. This partly explains the fact that harassed children who change school often are harassed again.

It is important to understand that there is no harassed profile unlike harassers. All children are relationship “tested” when they arrive at school, and those who are vulnerable at this time are more likely to be bullied. Harassing behaviors are behaviors of opportunity .

Manipulator profiles

The second finding is on the side of stalkers, research distinguishing two profiles. On the one hand, we have the “reactive stalker” who exhibits deficits in social skills, which leads him to ascribe hostile intentions on the part of his peers and to react to them with excessive aggressiveness. In contrast, we find the “strategic stalker” who has high socio-cognitive skills that he uses for purposes of manipulation and domination of others.

Some researchers support the thesis that the purpose of harassment is to acquire a dominant social position in the peer group. Also qualified as ”  popular  “, this type of profile has no interest in stopping its behavior since it is at the origin of its popularity. This is corroborated by a study which shows that strategic harassers are more difficult to respond to interventions.

Finally, beyond the social status acquired through harassment, the low receptivity to this type of approach – in particular those which recommend mobilizing the empathy of the harasser like the Pikas method – can also be explained by the causes the perpetrators (reactive or strategic) of this type of behavior to have deficiencies in emotional empathy (the ability to experience another person’s emotion) and to demonstrate a form of moral disengagement that allows them to relegate to the second plan their principles in favor of other imperatives.

All of these facts lead us to favor another approach which consists in working with the student victim of bullying so that he develops the resources that will allow him to put an end to the situation of aggression himself.

This approach makes it possible to avoid the negative consequences of a confrontation with the stalker, it also allows to develop the self-confidence of the victim and above all, it potentially has a greater chance of success because the harassed person is often the actor. most motivated to change in the system.

“Corrective emotional experience”

For this work with the student victim, we mobilize the tools of the brief and strategic system developed by the School of Palo Alto . This approach leads us to consider the situation of harassment as an interactional pathology which is embodied in a vicious relational circle in which each actor plays a role in maintaining the status quo.

It may seem paradoxical, even unfair, to consider that the victim has some responsibility in the situation. However, what the victim does to try to solve his problem only feeds him, “the problem is the solution” to use the words of Paul Watzlawick, a great figure of the Palo Alto School. That is to say that when the victim tries to be forgotten by his stalker (by hugging the walls, lowering his head, hiding …), she implicitly sends him a message that he can come and attack him because he doesn’t risk anything.

This systemic approach recommends identifying everything that the bullied student puts in place to put an end to the situation. This list then allows us to find the general theme, namely what is the message common to all its attempts at solution. In the case of harassment, it is often: “Stop but if you continue, there will be no consequences on my part for you”. From there it is a question of identifying the exact opposite theme, 180 degrees , which could be in the case that concerns us: “Go on and contemplate the negative consequences on my part”.

This 180-degree theme allows us to create a task, a concrete action, that the bullied student will implement when he finds himself confronted with his bully. This task is co-constructed with the child or adolescent and takes into account the context as well as the latter’s own resources.

The implementation of this concrete behavior will give the child or adolescent a corrective emotional experience, that is to say an experience whose emotion and sensations will change their perception of reality (“I can defend alone ”) and therefore his reaction. The founders of the School of Palo Alto consider that this experience constitutes the only lever that human nature has to construct and deconstruct a representation.

Author Bio: Raphael Hoch is Associate Researcher Teacher – Head of Education for the Management and Transformation of Organizations at IAE Metz at the University of Lorraine