x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

School bullies must be quashed

Expert says unfair play must be dealt with urgently and decisively.

DUBAI // LF can remember the time when her six-year-old daughter's love of school soured.

Her little girl's delight and enthusiasm deteriorated to the point that she would become upset every morning.

"That made me upset because it was very unusual," says LF. "One of the girls in her class kept saying horrible things to her and excluding her from playing.

"The matter was made worse by the fact that this bully wanted to come between my daughter and her best friend.

"At first I told my daughter to stand up for herself and to tell the child that she wasn't being nice, but this child persisted."

LF says she spoke to the class teacher about it.

"The teacher spoke to the child involved as well as my daughter," she says. "She told them that being nasty was not acceptable. The teacher spoke to the class about bullying and has since kept an eye on the situation."

The story is all too common. A report last year found almost a quarter of pupils said they had been bullied in the previous month.

The signs displayed by LF's daughter are typical, according to Samineh Shaheem, an assistant professor of cross-cultural psychology at the Human Relations Institute in Dubai.

"They will frequently complain of illness to avoid going to school and their academic performance may decline," Ms Shaheem says, adding that parents should be on the lookout for inexplicable behaviour such as mood swings and depression.

Multicultural schools make it a particular hazard.

"The UAE is a transient society," says Ms Shaheem. "Many are dealing with their own adjustment issues such as culture shock, homesickness, language barriers and an overall sense of alienation.

"These new children can be less emotionally resilient, therefore becoming easy targets to the bully who preys on weaker children.

"Bullying, in some shape or form, is present in most schools throughout the UAE and around the world."

Young children are more susceptible to playground harm, while older children use words or social-networking sites to bully.

"We have had instances of cyber-bullying," says Wayne MacInnis, the principal of the Raha International School. "When that happens we ask the bullied child to bring a printout and evidence to follow up with the parents and pupil in question.

"We have different programmes to tackle the problem, with peer mediators and ambassadors who are responsible for the orientation of new children.

"The senior school pupils are trained in conflict resolution … and help younger children avoid violence."

And the message has to be constantly reinforced.

"It is something that, though we may not deal with regularly, has to be always monitored," says Annette Wilson, the principal of the Australian International School in Sharjah.

"And as the world evolves and different forms of communication emerge, we have to teach the children how to use the medium ethically."

Dan Young, the principal of the Gems World Academy, stresses the need to act quickly.

"We have to intervene when we know people have done harmful things that make the other pupils not want to come to school or do disastrous things," Mr Young says. "Moreover, we try to talk to children about what is right, about being caring and kind."

Sara, a Grade 10 pupil in Dubai, says sometimes children will push or not talk to someone but it is often ignored. "It's generally a joke," she says.

But Sara says she has seen a pupil hurt by comments on Facebook.

"He was being teased on the site for a photograph, which upset him," she says. "It led to a fight in school but it was sorted out by the teachers."

aahmed@thenational.ae