ABU DHABI // Prevention is more effective than punishment when it comes to tackling the growing problem of bullying, educators and experts say.
“Research has shown that approach works much better because when you focus on the negative, the negative happens,” said Micheline Foss, a counsellor at American Community School Abu Dhabi.
“Zero tolerance, I think, would set us up for focusing on catching versus preventing. I haven’t seen that work, I really haven’t.”
Dubai’s private school regulator, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, began enforcing a zero-tolerance policy last year through contracts between parents and schools.
Although 80 per cent of students have said in a KHDA survey that schools are doing a better job of managing bullying, it is unclear if the policy has reduced the number of incidents.
“We support our schools with information sessions to ensure they understand each component of the parent-school contract,” the KHDA said. “Our priority is students’ well-being and happiness, and we will never accept anything but zero tolerance to bullying.”
Samineh Shaheem, psychology consultant and founder of the Bolt Down on Bullying Campaign, says prevention is better.
“I’m not sure how realistic a zero-tolerance approach is,” said Ms Shaheem. “What I prefer is to try and prevent, try and confront and try and understand the root causes behind individual cases.”
She said it was important to have policies and procedures so mothers would know what to do if they thought their children were being bullied, a teacher knew what had to be done and schools knew what steps they had to take under their regulators’ rules.
At ACS, the system is embedded in the school culture. Staff receive training, parents are encouraged to meet each month and pupils are given work focused on promoting positive behaviour.
The school works hard to establish a sense of community and belonging among pupils, parents and staff, said principal Mike Emborsky.
“I’ve found that kids who are connected within their school community are less likely to display bullying behaviours or be bullied,” Mr Emborsky said.
“When the whole class is connected, everyone is watching everyone and supporting everyone all the time in a positive way.
“In the first week of school I tell the teachers we’re not worried about academics yet. We’re making sure every kid feels safe in their classroom.”
Dr Victor Guthrie, the school’s director of technology, and his IT team developed a series of monthly lesson plans for teachers aimed at giving students modern communication skills.
The idea is to provide the pupils with appropriate responses before bullying occurs.
“We give them those strategies and it stops it. Bullying needs an audience to have the power and if we can start removing the audience, if we can get the audience to stand up and be upstanders instead of bystanders, it really helps to squish it before it turns into something that is repeated or detrimental and harmful long-term.”
Beth Rupp, mother of a Grade 8 pupil, was “blown away” by the school’s success.
“They also give us skills. They empower parents to be parents,” said Mrs Rupp, an education consultant.
“I truly believe they advocate for my child, so I could not be happier as a middle school parent.”