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Bullying in Schools: A Psychological perspective

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Bullying in Schools: A Psychological perspective



Bullying refers to a type of aggressive behaviour in which someone else causes physical, psychological, emotional, or psychological harm to another. This behaviour is done intentionally, repeatedly and in most cases it involves power imbalances between the bully and the victim.  Bullying is a pervasive issue in schools world over, and Zimbabwean schools are not an exception. Understanding the psychology and toxicity of bullying can help educators and parents to work towards safer and healthier educational environments for learners.
Types of bullying
There are four main types of bullying in school.
•Physical bullying: include slapping, kicking, and punching
•Verbal bullying: include cursing and name-calling (nicknames)
•Emotional bullying: include crafting or spreading damaging information
•Cyber bullying: include hacking, text messaging and using social media or internet forums to cause harm on others.
N.B. Many cases of bullying go unreported or unnoticed, leaving victims to suffer in silence.
Causes of bullying
There are a myriad of factors leading to bullying behaviour in schools. In most cases, students who engage in bullying behaviour have low self-esteem; however some students with higher self-confidence may lack compassion and empathy leading them to act violently whenever they feel threatened. Bullies often compensate for their insecurities and feelings of inadequacy through demeaning others, giving themselves a sense of elevated self-worthy.
 The absence of standing rules to prevent bullying also significantly contributes towards the high prevalence of bullying in schools. Most bullies take advantage of this gap to engage in aggressive behaviours in order to have control and dominance over their victims. On the other hand, drug and substance abuse by some learners is significantly contributing to increase in bullying cases due to impaired cognitive functioning and reckless behaviours resulting from drug and substance abuse.
The media portrayal of bullies as heroes also significantly contribute to bullying behaviour in schools since young people learn more through seeing (social learning theory). Violent/action movies, video games or other programs, such as wrestling are most children’s favourite. Such programs promote the use of violence, intimidation and hate speech among leaners as they imitate their ‘action heroes’.
Having a home background where parents or siblings take advantage of their strengths against each other, or against the children can result in bullying as a sign of pent up aggression. Frequent conflict, exposure to violence and normalization of aggressive behaviour results in lack of empathy. Bullies often struggle to empathize with the emotions of their victims, as well as observe the distress caused by their actions. Families marked with little cohesion, poor communication skills, absent parents (especially the father,) and authoritarian parents are often breeding grounds for bullying tendencies. In short, bullying has more to do with a bully’s unresolved psychological and social challenges emanating from dysfunctional families.
Most bullies take advantage of their supposed physical strength, age, financial position, social and technical competencies to attack other learners they consider as inferior. On the other hand, those who are bullied will be victimized based on their gender, disability, religion, ethnicity, economic status or physical appearance most of which they have no control over. A child living with albinism, for example can be subjected to derogatory names and attitude from other learners.
Former survivors of bullying can grow into bullies if they did not get necessary psychological and emotional support. The unresolved anger and pain inflicted by a bully will be vented on another learner. In most cases bullying is done on new learners at a school (e,g form 1 and form 5 students) as a way of ‘initiating’ them to the new school. Over time, those who are ‘initiated’ will think that it is their duty to ‘initiate others’. This tendency normally creates a vicious cycle of bullying through displaced aggression. .
Effects of bullying
The effects of bullying live beyond the bullying incident, negatively affecting the bully, the victim as well as the witnesses (other learners). Victims of bullying normally experience severe psychological and emotional effects which include anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, hostility and some may resort to risky sexual behaviour (especially girls), substance abuse and violent or criminal behaviour (especially boys). With low self-esteem, a child loses their self-worthy and motivation for daily activities making them more vulnerable to further bullying and abuse. Victims of bullying can sustain physical injuries as well as frequently have their valuables lost or damaged, e.g pencils, books, satchels and shoes.
Sadly, bullying has also contributed to increased suicidal cases and suicidal ideation among learners in Zimbabwe. Most of these cases are linked either to bullying acts or avoidance of potential bullying. Physical symptoms such as sleep disruptions, chronic pain, and psychosomatic symptoms such as headaches and dizziness may result from bullying. Persistent bullying ultimately results in feeling isolated, rejected and unworthy leading to increased anxiety and depression which can contribute to suicidal tendencies.
Interest and participation in school activities normally decreases for victims of bullying. A learner may end up having impaired concentration, faking illness as well as giving petty excuses for absenteeism. The loss of interest in school will ultimately lead to poor academic performance despite the learners’ potential to excel. A sudden decrease in favourite school activities such as sports or school trips may also be noted as a result of bullying. Most of the victims of bullying are comfortable during the weekend and holidays whilst being tense during school days.
With the advent of cyber bullying, some of the effects of bullying can have long lasting effects on the victim and their loved ones. If a damaging picture or video of a learner is circulated on social media it affects the victim beyond the classroom. The reputation of the victim, their family, as well as the school is tarnished. Most of these pictures and videos can be kept on the internet for many years and it will always haunt the victim and their loved ones.
Prevention and intervention
Creating a safe environment where learners can thrive socially, psychologically and academically without fear is crucial in preventing and responding to bullying in schools. A multifaceted approach involving the wider community, parents and educators is essential in eliminating bullying. Charity begins at home, hence parents and guardians must employ positive parenting skills which encourages good communication skills with their children and positive reinforcement rather than punishment.
The school setting must also be safe for children. Educators must create a bullying-free environment, taking advantage of the updated curriculum (Education 5.0). Learners must be taught empathy and kindness from early grades. Focus on building learner’s self-esteem, and developing respectful relationships through self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationships management must also be prioritized.
Cyber bullying can also be avoided or minimized through monitoring the use of technology devices, (online safety best practices). Learners must be encouraged not to create, forward or respond to threatening or derogatory messages online. This can be done through teaching them about the harmful effects of cyber bullying. Children should be discouraged from sharing content online which can be potentially manipulated by others to harm them and they must block or filter some online sites which can promote bullying.
Child safeguarding policies and practices must be in place in all schools to prevent bullying. This can be achieved through formation of child protection committees and educating learners on the effects of bullying. Anonymous reporting mechanisms must be in place at every school to encourage learners to report bullying as well as express their fears and insecurities in the school environment.
Bullies should be given necessary psychological support without labelling them as bullies. All learners, on the other hand, must be modelled on tolerance and valuing other people’s beliefs, views and values as well as status. Orientation programs must be done for all new learners equipping them with anti-bullying information, skills and policies as well as available support systems. Professional counselling services and therapy must be provided to victims of bullying as well as bullies themselves.
In conclusion, addressing bullying in schools requires a comprehensive conceptualization of its psychological aspects. Through acknowledging the prevalence, understanding the contributing factors, comprehending the psychological impact on victims, and implementing effective intervention and prevention strategies, we can create safer and more nurturing educational environments for learners. Collective effort between parents, educators and the wider communities is the best method to eradicate bullying and promote healthier social relationships within schools.

Alphious is a registered Intern Community Psychologist – AHPCZ (A/PSY0796)
[email protected]
0773 227 688

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