Thursday, 21 June 2012

Roles: Bullying

I have done a lot of thinking about the nature of bullying over the years, mainly because I was bullied as a child.  Bullying is the sort of abuse that can affect you your entire life, and I'm not sure I ever fully recovered from my childhood experiences.
Bullying in schools is a complex problem, one that has many factors contributing to it, however I believe one of the most important and most overlooked factors is the organization of the school environment.  I believe that as humans we are much more sensitive to our environment and the structures we are a part of than we realize, and our behaviour is influenced largely by the roles we are in. It may be that the very structure of the school system itself fosters bullying, and that changing this structure would reduce bullying significantly.

Tribes and anarchy

Everyone needs to fit in.  Knowing your role in society and the groups you are part of is of paramount importance to people.  Roles help us know what is expected of us and the way we should act in order to be approved of by our peers and superiors. People need a role to play to feel important, and as Dale Carnegie illustrated, the need to feel important is a universal need.  

Most public schools have a very loose organizational structure when it comes to the students. Children are grouped by age category, however, that is about it when it comes to structure.  In high school in particular teachers have very little control over structuring the students into any sort of hierarchy because the students are moved to different teachers to learn different subjects. High school, therefore, is often a very tribal environment.  The lack of imposed structure, compounded with the fact that students' lives revolve around the school leaves students to form their own, rather crude, hierarchical structures.  Often bullying dissipates in university as school then becomes part of their lives instead of the focus.

The students, without a clear idea of  who is first in the pecking order, are vulnerable to having the most influential students rally a small clique. The clique then sticks together using an us-vs-them competitive approach.  Certain students who stand out to the group are easily seen as "them" and bullying these students bonds the bullies together, with each incident feeling like a win for their team.

This dynamic has the added effect of pushing the bullied student into a victim role.  They will stand out more, and will be unlikely to receive help or friendship from others who do not want to be associated with the role of the bullied.

Having a king

Bullying is much less common in organizations that have a clear pecking order and established channels for individuals to gain influence and power.  This is because everyone in the organization is considered to be part of the organization, and it is hard for one lone student to get a following and assert dominance if the formula for dominance already exists in the society.  

A simple solution for establishing hierarchy is a mentorship program. Every new student to a school would be placed with a student one grade higher than him.  That student will already have a mentor who also has a mentor, which effectively groups students into 4s with one student at each level.  Each group is given a name and small responsibilities.  The most senior person is responsible for passing on the values of the group, which should include values common to all groups including mutual support and camaraderie.  Students then progress into responsibility and authority gradually.

Taking the model a step further, these mentor/mentee relationships can be grouped into larger groups or houses.  These tribes can have counsels, each with a representative that would make up the overall student council representing the needs of student to the faculty.

Potential problems

This type of structure is not without its problems, including the fact that it gives the students much more power and autonomy.  To ensure that the structure doesn't degenerate into a mob rule, the values transmitted through this structure to the groups would need to be reinforced with appropriate incentives.  Rewards and recognition for living out the values, for example.  

There is also the possibility that the administration would be seen as an enemy in this scenario rather than part of the structure.  Effort would be required to ensure the teachers were seen as a helpful and integral part of this structure rather than an opposing force.

This division of students can also lead to unwanted competition between groups or houses.  This can result in escalating pranks, or in the worst case, gang warfare.

Sound Familiar?
In spite of these potential pitfalls, this structure is much easier to control than the unstructured model.  Even in the worst case, enmity between houses in a school is infinitely less damaging to people than individual bullying, because there are always people to back you up.  I recommend any school that is serious about ending bullying adopt a similar model.


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