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School bullying demands prevention and control

ZHANG JIE | 2022-06-02 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: “Better Days,” an award-winning Chinese film on the topic of school bullying, draws wide social attention. 

As International Children’s Day falls on June 1, the special festival symbolically serves to evoke the public’s care for the next generation. 

For more than 20 years, Professor Zhang Wenxin and his team from Shandong Normal University have made remarkable achievements in the research of school bullying.
Survey and data 
School bullying is generally divided into four types: physical bullying (e.g. beating), verbal bullying (e.g. taunting), relational bullying (e.g. social exclusion), and cyber bullying (e.g. spreading rumors in online communities). 
Bullying does harm to children and adolescents in many ways, beyond physical harm, psychological fear, or reputational damage in social communication among the bullied. Based on years of research, Zhang’s team found that school bullying can generate a sustained negative effect on those involved including the bully, the bullied, and bystanders. While affecting physical and mental health, school bullying can lead to emotional disorders, academic difficulties, and severe self-injury or suicidal behavior. Meanwhile, it deteriorates the atmosphere in classrooms and schools, worsening each student’s growth environment. 
In China, the answers to questions as to whether there is bullying in primary and secondary schools, how often it occurs, and how serious it is, cannot rely on simple general perceptions, nor can they only rely on unilateral feedback from students, teachers, parents, and principals. To this end, Zhang and his team carried out two large-scale sampling surveys in 2000 and 2020 respectively. Among them, the survey in 2020 covered primary and secondary school students in eight provinces and cities in the eastern, central, and western regions of China, with more than 20,000 students participating in the survey, and the sampling took into account the differences between urban and rural areas as well as regular senior secondary schools and vocational schools.
According to the survey data, about one-fifth of primary and secondary school students in China have been involved in school bullying incidents, acting as the bully, the bullied, or someone who has been both. However, when some teachers see the findings, they tend to show disapproval. The general public’s suspicion about the survey results is exemplified by the words of a fourth-grade teacher in charge of a class: “I spend a lot of time with students, and I do notice a few confrontations occasionally, but it’s never that high.” 
Research teams never blindly believe data, nor do they easily deny the survey results. The following three research findings clearly respond to public doubts. First, conflicts between classmates with bullying attributes usually occur in places or time periods in which teachers or adults do not have adequate supervision, such as: the way to and from school, in restrooms, playgrounds, and hallways. Second, after the occurrence of bullying, about half of primary school students will not tell their experiences of being bullied to teachers; this tendency is more serious in middle school students. Third, teachers usually only pay attention to bullying incidents with obvious harmful consequences, such as serious bodily injuries caused by physical bullying, while they often turn a blind eye to bullying in verbal or relational ways. 
Prevention and control programs 
After years of research, Zhang and his team have unraveled a series of individual and environmental factors related to the occurrence of bullying, as well as the specific mechanism of bullying in the context of Chinese primary and secondary schools. He proposed the overall strategy of “treating both the symptoms and root causes” of school bullying, and summarized it into the “3H” purpose: healthy school climate, healthy relationships, and healthy developmental outcomes. 
Based on the “Countermeasure Research on the Prevention and Governance of Primary and Secondary School Bullying” project approved by the Ministry of Education in 2017, the team summarized research achievements of the past nearly 20 years and formally developed the “3H Evidence-Based Intervention Program for School Bullying in China,” or more succinctly, the “3H Program.” 
The program strictly conforms to the paradigm of “evidence-based practice,” conducting research and development, validity checks, and improvement and optimization based on scientific research evidence. At the practical level, the “3H Program” includes two levels of strategies: general prevention and targeted intervention. The general prevention strategy is designed for general risk factors and protective factors related to school bullying, with the fundamental purpose of reducing the incidence of bullying and being bullied. The targeted intervention strategy includes a series of conversations with the bully and the bullied based on psychological counseling, not only aiming to stop the bully-bullied relationship, but also to reduce and even eliminate the multiple harmful consequences caused by bullying. 
The “3H Program” can effectively reduce the incidence of bullying and being bullied, and the longer the program is implemented, the more significant the effect. The implementation of the general prevention strategy alone, or the targeted intervention strategy, can effectively reduce bullying incidents. The incidence of bullying among students in schools with general prevention was significantly lower than in schools without general prevention. After targeted intervention, 79.33% of bullying cases stopped. Conversation in the targeted intervention also made a real difference to both the bully and the bullied. 
The starting point and foothold of the “3H Program” is to ensure that schools have the means and capability to prevent and control bullying. After receiving training and guidance from the team of researchers, schools can establish prevention and control institutions and regulatory frameworks within a semester. A variety of forms are adopted to achieve mutual coordination among school leaders, faculty and staff, students, and parents and to formulate a stable linkage mechanism, providing an effective guarantee for the decrease of the incidence and level of bullying. Even without guidance from the research group, there is no significant rebound in the indicators of bullying and being bullied when schools independently implement prevention and control programs based on established mechanisms. This shows that the “3H Program” truly “relies on schools” rather than relying on research groups or other external forces. They just need external training and guidance to lower dependence on external powers. This will realize the dual mission of “empowering schools” and “integrating into schools.”