The following are comments that Beth Margolis Rupp, my co-author on The Last Boys Picked: Helping Boys Who Don’t Like Sports Survive Bullies and Boyhood, and I gave to Jennifer Bell, Senior National Reporter for The National, an English-language newspaper published in Abu Dhabi (UAE). Beth resides in Abu Dhabi and was contacted by Bell, who was writing an article about violence in schools in the United Arab Emirates. Bell’s questions refer to a recent study which found that four in ten Dubai elementary and secondary students kick, punch, slap or use other physical force against their classmates. The study also found that nearly half of the students polled had witnessed some form of student-on-student violence. Beth and I would like to preface our comments by saying we find it commendable of Dubai to conduct this research, publish the results, and actively address the challenges facing youth and our communities. Here is a link to the published article.

picture of boy who was bullied

How surprising were the results? Almost four in ten (39.4 per cent) of students were found to have kicked, punched, slap or used other physical force against their classmates. Did you find this figure high?

Disturbing, but not surprising. Global and local trends show children and teenagers who have become increasingly inured to acts of violence against one another in school, on the school bus, and in the locker rooms. These behaviors can serve as possible mirrors of a prevailing culture; where are kids learning to act in this way, and from whom are they hearing that it is acceptable?

Most of the violence happened on school grounds. Does this suggest the need to have better anti-violence measures in place at educational establishments?

Anti-violence measures, if successful, would stop only the behavior. However, bullying is not only a behavior problem; we can look at it as a moral problem too. In the microcosm of a bully’s assault on another child, we can see almost the entire set of principles upon which his interactions with others rest, as well as his handicaps—a lack of empathy, a belief in the primacy of might, what may be a desperate need for control, and an unwillingness to yield to anyone seen as inferior. This is so much bigger than just behavior, and because of that, the solution requires a different plan and different remedial strategies.

It’s important to note that kids who bully others often do not have the interpersonal skills, emotional regulation, effective use of language, or empathic sensibility to constructively navigate social relationships. Deficits in these interpersonal skills compromise more than just the bully’s ability to get along with others. They are the foundation skills for romantic relationships, work relationships, relationships between family members and so on.

We can help by inserting into the academic curriculum various modules of interpersonal skill building (self-awareness, perspective-taking, empathy) that will raise kids’ social and emotional IQ in addition to their scholastic IQ. We can also incentivize pro-social behavior by adding a line item on report cards for good behavior—good “citizenship” we can call it. In many countries, good grades lead to good jobs; assessing students’ behavior toward others hints at the importance of valuing human interactions as much as conventional (content) knowledge. It also underscores the relationship between behavior and occupational or career success.

Should tough rules should be put in place to target school bullies?

It’s less about rules than it is about modifying the school culture. That takes time and an extraordinary commitment from everyone who works there—principals, teachers, counselors, cafeteria workers, transportation providers, housekeeping staff. It also takes a buy-in from students, parents, and the home caregivers.

But what if schools consider resources already in place, for example all those witnesses. Fifty percent of students in Dubai are witnessing violence at school. It’s an outrageous figure. If half of a school body is seeing student-on-student violence on a regular basis, you can’t help but think that they have habituated to it; it has become acceptable. If a community—for example, a school—works hard to make this kind of violence unacceptable, it will have gone a long way in reducing the need for punitive measures.

Making that kind of behavior unacceptable then is another approach to addressing the problem of bullying without resorting to punitive measures. Part of that includes helping kids to name the behavior: It’s not kidding around, it’s bullying. It’s not funny, it’s mean. Another part involves breaking the association of violence with power and strength and naming it for what it is: a dishonorable act of tyranny.

What should the punishment be for bullying, especially repetitive bullying? Detention? Suspension, or even expulsion?

The behavior does have to stop, or be stopped. Allowing it to continue especially in places where it can be controlled will result in a great loss of confidence among student that the school can or will take care of them, that they are safe. Here is an idea for forcefully pushing back against bullying behavior that doesn’t rely on harsh measures of punishment. Schools can consider coming up with novel sets of consequences for mean behavior that are reframed as “consequences of restitution.” For example, a fourth grade student who teases a reading disabled student in his class is asked to be a classroom reader for one of the kindergarten classes. Similarly, a kid who bullies a handicapped kid on the bus is asked to stay after school in order to build a bench next to the playground so that the handicapped kids can be outside during recess with the rest of the class.

Should schools also target bullying outside their gates?

Schools should try to address the problem of bullying anywhere they have influence. Parents may inadvertently be serving as obstacles to change in kids’ behaviors at school; they need guidance from school and community leaders.

Is a tough stance needed to send a powerful message to students, parents and teachers?

Fighting tough with tough makes everyone tougher. You do however need a strong stance and strong, consistent, frequent, and credible message that has some teeth to it in the form of being able to hold individuals accountable for the choices they make in their behavior. Defining bad behavior as a function of choice rather than something he or she “couldn’t help” is a big step in the right direction.

What can the mental health fallout be from somebody who is bullied? Especially someone who is persistently bullied?

It’s pretty bad. Too many people look at bullying as “something all kids do” or even as a rite of passage. It’s neither of those things. In its worst form, it is an exploitive expression of power with the intent to hurt, shame, or otherwise diminish another human being. The short term mental health effects include depression, anxiety that can become debilitating, school phobia, low self-esteem, withdrawal, social isolation, and plummeting academic performance. Long term effects include all of the above plus substance abuse, self-mutilation, and, the most heart-breaking of all, suicide.


Dr. Janet Sasson Edgette, child and adolescent psychologist and author based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Beth Ann Margolis Rupp, teacher, educational consultant living in Abu dhabi and working in UAE for EduEval.