Blog: Bullying at School and Rewarding Positive Behaviors from Passers-by


Peer bullying is one of the most common experiences of violence in school and a leading cause of teen suicide. Research on harassment began 40 years ago and is defined by 3 characteristics: “aggressive and intentional acts committed by a group or an individual repeatedly and over time against a victim who cannot easily defend himself”.

Thus, three criteria are important to define a behavior as harassment:
1) repetition
2) intentionality
3) an imbalance of powers

Bullying presents a particular risk for vulnerable children, such as children of caste, religion, different race or children with disabilities, children with illnesses, children from lower socio-economic groups in short, any different child of the peer group.

Bullying at school

Bullying is recognized globally as a serious but complex problem. The phenomenon has been widely studied in the West. Harassment has different forms, physical, verbal, social (isolate the victim) and recently harassment on the internet. Research indicates that bullying peaks between ages 12 and 14 and then gradually decreases. In addition, with age, bullying changes from a direct and physical form to an indirect and relational form.

Research indicates bullying peaks between ages 12 and 14, then gradually decreases

Data on the prevalence rates of bullying in school vary widely due to the difference in measurement or how the concept is viewed in a certain context. Research in high-income countries indicates that 9-25% of children are bullied and about 2-9% frequently engage in bullying behavior. Data for low- and middle-income countries are not as comprehensive, but also indicate a fairly high prevalence. An additional challenge in low- and middle-income countries is that some forms of bullying are culturally accepted, which raises the possibility that the experience of bullying is higher than indicated in studies.

Photo: digital SAMAA

Impact of harassment on mental health

Bullying has serious negative consequences on the mental and physical health of victims, leading to absences from school and poor academic performance. Anxiety, depression and low self-esteem have been commonly reported. Some experts argue that it can have a negative impact on passers-by as well.

The effects of bullying are directly proportional to the severity of the experience. A few studies have suggested that the effects last into adulthood. On the other hand, there is a higher risk for those involved in bullying to engage in criminal behavior with a dose-response relationship. In summary, both the victims and the perpetrator are at increased risk of negative mental health consequences.

How to deal with bullying at school

Although there have been many anti-harassment programs in the West, the recognition of harassment and, subsequently, intervention programs have been very limited in low- and middle-income countries. Given the weak governance structures in the education sector in these contexts, the risk of bullying behavior is magnified.

Anti-bullying interventions in schools have focused on reducing the likelihood of the occurrence of negative behaviors through methods of positive discipline, putting in place policies, involving parents and improving the role of spectators, which seems crucial.

9-25% of children are bullied and about 2-9% frequently engage in bullying behavior

In behavioral science terms, this is called negative reinforcement, that is, working to reduce something aversive or painful. The limitation of this approach is that it does not simultaneously encourage the adoption of positive behavior through appropriate reward systems. This rule also applies if not more to the motivation of spectators.

In order for bystanders to take an active role and show compassion in reducing the suffering of the victim by speaking out, positive values ​​must be recognized. In addition, they will need a community of spectators who believe in the same values ​​to overcome their fears; a change of culture is therefore imperative. While this may sound very basic, the reality is that positive unvalued behaviors don’t get adopted.

Two paper clips intertwined to show the harassment

Therefore, an alternative strategy is needed that involves cultural transformation through a systematic challenge to existing norms, complemented by the simultaneous recognition of more recent values, including compassion, courage and support for vulnerable people and to victims. The strategy not only includes training and ongoing mentoring for children and youth for compassionate skills, but also rewarding them for demonstrating compassionate behaviors at the school and district level.

I propose the use of positive reinforcement as a strategy to encourage viewers and potential authors by creating a reward system for being kind and compassionate guided by intrinsic motivation. The proposed innovation is based on operationalizing the science of compassion in a feasible and sustainable way by fitting into existing roles and routines.

The goal would be to create a culture of compassion that involves appreciating children, a platform for them to speak, lead and engage with leadership and the de-stigma of being victimized with an emphasis on the reinforcement of positive behaviors involving a universal strategy for emotional well-being. being.

Intervention plans can be designed by professionals with a relevant understanding of not only bullying, but also the implementation and institutionalization of large-scale reward systems, such as organizational psychologists. Activities can be planned in class and in school assemblies to share examples of demonstrated positive behaviors.

Art showing a sharpened pencil as a symbolic means of showing someone reducing someone

These behaviors should be broken down and described specifically for young students. These behaviors can be noted in assessments and shared with parents on a regular basis. School management should encourage but also model such skill sets.

This culture change should work on a whole school approach and later as a whole district approach for all schools in the district. A similar reward system can be set up for the school principal whereby they can report evidence of the culture change in the district office and be duly recognized for it.

Innovation can potentially be scaled up by both the private and public sectors, as there is a huge need for such intervention models to improve the emotional and psychological well-being of people, especially young people. The adaptation of intervention programs by private and public schools would be the first step towards sustainability. It takes a well-trained cadre to meet the demand. One recommendation is to include school-based internships for psychology interns as a strategy to help them earn their credits as part of their course requirements.

The references

Ahmed, M., Hussain, I., Ahmed, M., Ahmed, S., & Tabassum, R. (2012). Impact of bullying on the performance of primary school students in Sindh. Journal of Education and Practice, 3(3), 17-24.

Al-Ghabban, A. (2018). A Framework of Compassion: The Role of Compassion in Schools in Promoting the Well-Being and Supporting Social and Emotional Development of Children and Youth. Pastoral care in education, 36(3), 176-188.

Ashfaq, U., Waqas, A., & Naveed, S. (2018). Bullying Prevention Programs in the Developing World: The Way Forward for Pakistan. Pakistani Journal of Public Health, 8(4), 174-175.

AvÅŸar, F., & Alkaya, SA (2017). The effectiveness of assertiveness training for school-aged children in terms of bullying and assertiveness. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 36, 186-190.

Jazaieri, H. (2018). Compassionate Education from Preschool to Graduate School: Bringing a Culture of Compassion into the Classroom. Innovative Teaching and Learning Research Journal.

McFarlane, J., Karmaliani, R., Khuwaja, HMA, Gulzar, S., Somani, R., Ali, TS,… & Jewkes, R. (2017). Prevention of peer violence against children: methods and baseline data from a cluster randomized controlled trial in Pakistan. Global health: science and practice, 5(1), 115-137.

Menesini, E., & Salmivalli, C. (2017). Bullying at school: state of knowledge and effective interventions. Psychology, health and medicine, 22(sup1), 240-253.

Naveed, S., Waqas, A., Shah, Z., Ahmad, W., Wasim, M., Rasheed, J., & Afzaal, T. (2020). Trends in bullying and emotional and behavioral difficulties among Pakistani schoolchildren: a cross-sectional survey of seven cities. Frontiers in Psychiatry, ten, 976.

Murshid, NS (2017). Victimization of bullying and adolescent mental health issues in Myanmar, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Child and Youth Services Review, 76, 163-169.

Rasheed, MA, Bharuchi, V., Mughis, W., & Hussain, A. (2021). Development and feasibility testing of a play-based psychosocial intervention to reduce patient stress in a pediatric care setting: experiences from Pakistan. Pilot and feasibility studies, 7(1), 1-13.

Muneera A. Rasheed is a pediatric psychologist by training and former Faculty of Public Health at Aga Khan University. His experience has included the design of complex behavior change interventions for national and international contexts with particular emphasis on the formation of cultural values.


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