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Scientific VIEW

Bully-Victim Research Explodes School Myths

November 05, 1986|BETTYANN KEVLES

After three young suicides shocked Norway in 1982, the Ministry of Education asked psychologist Dan Olweus to participate in a campaign to stop bullying in the schools. Olweus had been studying the problem of school bullies in Sweden and Norway since 1970 and, having studied more than 150,000 children, had identified the classroom as the key social unit that must be dealt with to ease the tension.

Within each class he identified four kinds of students: the lone victim, the bully, the two or three henchmen who gang up with the bully, and the bystanders, some of whom are indifferent and some of whom want to help but are afraid. With his assistance the Ministry of Education devised strategies, available in videocassettes and booklets, to help teachers and parents intercede in children's social behavior, especially the behavior of the bystanders who are encouraged to befriend victims and condemn bullies.

Olweus, a Fellow at Stanford's Center for Advanced Studies this year, notes that these patterns seem universal. Children in Japan as well as Scandinavia and the United States are taking their own lives at earlier ages, often leaving messages that explain that they could not tolerate any more bullying.

Olweus estimates, on the basis of his large-scale study, that 10% of all children in first through ninth grade are victimized and about 8% are bullies. Contrary to what he calls myths, there are no differences in the way children behaved in large and small schools, or in city and country schools. The unexpected exception he found were rural schools, like our one-room schoolhouses, where bullying incidents were more frequent, probably, Olweus suggests, because older children often torment younger ones.

Perhaps the most important myth that Olweus explodes is what may be called the "Bitburg fallacy,"--equating the bully with the victim. It has become a cliche of pop psychology that the bully, like his victim, is unhappy and feels inadequate. If the bully and his victim are two sides of the same coin, they deserve equal tolerance. Olweus found this wrong.

While the victims have poor self-images and become increasingly desperate, the bullies are not anxious or insecure. They feel positively about violence as the way to get what they want. Most disturbing, bullies do not express any regret. They insist that their victims "asked for it," and grow more comfortable with aggression. But the myth of the "misunderstood" bully has lent the bully free reign as misguided teachers have refrained from interfering in schoolyard dramas.

Olweus has learned that bullies and victims come from different kinds of homes. Victims tend to be slightly overprotected while bullies usually have had poor relationships with parents who were not very interested in them when they were very young. If these parents happened to beat their children, they are even more likely to become bullies. Psychologically healthy children, Olweus believes, live within a set of firm rules that are enforced nonviolently. Aggressive youngsters, he feels, only become more aggressive if raised according to a permissive philosophy of child-rearing in which there are no rules.

In the Norwegian anti-bullying campaign, students draw up rules they can live by. Teachers are encouraged to praise those who help shy and lonely classmates and condemn and punish those who break these rules.

Olweus' work has obvious implications for Americans. If there is the same proportion of victims to school population here as in Norway and Sweden, Olweus estimates that 3 million children face each school day with dread. School boards concerned with the twin devils of young suicides and violence may be able to reduce both evils by training teachers to actively interfere on the playground and at recess to socialize youngsters before they destroy each other.

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