Round Table “School Bullying and Adults’ Behavior: Two Sides of the Same Coin?”

Each year, more than 246 million children and adolescents worldwide experience violence, bullying, and cyberbullying in and out of school, often with far-reaching negative consequences for their physical and mental health. 

Low self-esteem, poor academic performance, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, high-risk behaviors, and PDSD are just a few potential consequences of violence and bullying. The targets are often children and adolescents with special needs or disabilities and those who do not fit the common perceptions of binary gender identity and conventional sexual orientation. In many cases, violence, bullying, and cyberbullying are rooted in gender stereotypes and reinforced by harmful social norms. 

According to VTsIOM’s 2021 poll, nearly one in five (18%) Russians has been targeted by bullying during their lifetime, while 16% have witnessed their friends or relatives being bullied. In addition, 38% of affected respondents were bullied in secondary school, and another 13% were bullied in vocational school, college or university. 

The round table “School bullying and adults’ behavior: two sides of the same coin” held on 25 January 2022 discussed what schools can do to prevent violence and bullying and how adults and children should act to defuse conflict in high-stress situations.

The round table was co-organized by the Rybakov Foundation,Shalash” and “Zhuravlik” charity foundations, UNESCO IITE, and VK. The event moderator was journalist Alexander Murashev, the author of the book Drugaya Shkola [A different kind of school], and the YouTube channel Normal’nye Lyudi [Normal People]. He presented scenes from his film “I met with those who bullied me” and brought to discussion the problems of violence and bullying with leading Russian experts, psychologists, teachers, social media professionals, and members of non-governmental organizations. 

The round table was attended by Alexander Asmolov, Academician of the Russian Academy of Education and Honored Professor of the Moscow State University; Alexandra Babkina, Head of Social Projects at Mail.Ru Group; Ekaterina Rybakova, President of the Rybakov Foundation; Lilia Brainis and Olga Zhuravskaya, directors of the “Shalash” and “Zhuravlik” Foundations; Tigran Yepoyan, UNESCO Advisor; Nadia Papudoglo, Editor-in-Chief of MEL; Dima Zitser, Founder of the Institute of Informal Education and Director a Private School (“Orange”); Alexandra Bochaver, Research Fellow of the HSE Institute of Education; Saniya Bikkina, School of Support Project Director and Teacher for Russia Program participant, and many others.

Bullying implies bringing different groups under the rules of the totalitarian game where triumphant triviality is considered a social value. When society seeks to destroy diversity, we are likely to face the phenomenon of abuse, bullying, whatever you call it. Therefore, school bullying at different times and in different historical periods reflects bullying, which is upheld as a value by broader society. Any society that destroys diversity will practice various forms of bullying.

I have always said that nothing else will work unless we change our value orientation, address conflict as a key mechanism whereby systems develop and support diversity as the norm. Hence, when analyzing the phenomenon of bullying, one should understand that no meaningful change is possible unless tolerant attitudes are established first.

Alexander Asmolov

Bullying is based on a crazy oversimplification of [interpersonal] relations. In a black and white world, where there are the good guys and the bad guys and things can be either right or wrong, one has no choice but to behave in a certain way in certain situations. Therefore, solution number one is to accept that life is far more complicated than that. Solution number two is for a teacher to talk to children about how we are all different, rather than emphasize similarities. Stories about people being all united and acting in a single impulse lay the ground for bullying.

We are all beautiful in our diversity, our unique features. The more diverse we are, the cooler we are. Therefore, at training sessions, rather than discuss how each of us can contribute to the team, we should focus on the fact that we are all living human beings and on what I can do, e.g., if something about Sasha turns me off or offends me. Then we can develop tools and options for dealing with such situations. This approach works 100% every time. 

Dima Zitser

Bullying and cyberbullying are the problems of adults in the first place. It all starts with children seeing how adults relate to one another. And there is no reason why children will relate to one another differently than adults do. The experience of abuse does not make anyone stronger or better. 

Alexandra Babkina, VK

 When society and family accept violence as a normal method of affirming oneself, the school will find it very difficult to address the problem. However, three steps could be taken. The first step is acknowledging the problem and adopting a zero-tolerance policy on violence and bullying. The second step is communicating this policy to school staff, students and parents. Every teacher should be aware of their responsibility to prevent and intervene immediately to stop violence and bullying and help those involved in the conflict. Schools should appoint trusted teachers and provide reporting mechanisms for students to communicate incidents of violence and bullying. The third step is to make sure that students themselves accept the rules of non-violent behavior. And finally, when bullies are left without supporters or spectators, they usually stop bullying. Everyone can offer emotional support to the victim, intervene or stay around, so the victim is not left alone with the bully, and report the incident to an adult. 

Tigran Yepoyan, UNESCO IITE

There is no reason for a child or any person to be bullied. Bullying is a problem for adults, not only for groups of children. Bullying arises from poor communication and relationship-building skills. It is up to adults to teach children how they can behave differently. Children do not learn from things adults say but from copying adults’ actions. People are not born with communication skills. A child raised by an authoritarian family, living in an authoritarian environment, or attending an authoritarian school needs to learn how to communicate on an equal footing. 

Lilia Brainis, “Shalash” Charity Foundation

A key aspect of school bullying is fear – our primal fear of being excluded from the group. This, by the way, is one of the reasons why witnesses of bullying do not intervene. Teachers are afraid to address such situations because they would have to “unpack” them and admit that bullying exists in their school. And someone may say it’s because they are bad teachers. It is important to change the focus and praise those teachers who notice and acknowledge bullying and help the children affected. We need to learn how to deal with bullying in ways other than public chastisement, as is often the case today. We need to stop being afraid and accept that bullying does happen, that we all – children and adults – can make mistakes. Let us learn to notice bullying and think calmly about how we can help both the victim and the bully.

Saniya Bikkina, “Teacher for Russia”

We do not leave this story [of bullying] behind when we are out of school. Instead, it follows us throughout life, leaving a trail of pain, guilt, shame, sadness, fear, and other feelings. Unless a bullying situation is addressed and stopped by adults, the roles adopted by children – those of the victim, bully, and witness – can become internalized and follow them after school to college and workplace, where they are more likely to reproduce these roles once again. This applies not only to the victim, but to all participants of bullying. 

Alexandra Bochaver, HSE

A live recording of the round table is available at the Rybakov Foundation’s YouTube channel.

To learn more about UNESCO’s activities and resources on countering violence, bullying, and cyberbullying, see School violence and bullying and UNESCO IITE’s page on the topic Addressing school violence, bullying, and cyberbullying.