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How the phenomenon is co-built in relations


In human sciences, having overcome the linear deterministic model, criminal or deviant behaviour cannot be explained exclusively through cause factors, such as individual hereditary taints (Lombroso, 1876), the multi-problematics of the family of origin or the belonging to deviant sub-cultures (Cloward e Ohlin, 1968).

Oversimplifying then, we could say that all the subjects with these traits are bound to follow criminal routes.  The search for one or more objective causes as explanations for this deviant and criminal behaviour shows, uniquely, the need man has to simplify reality, through predetermined categories, and to keep at a safe distance from evil and negativity.

The linear deterministic model of cause and effect (mono-factorial and multifactorial model) is now considered obsolete as it lacks in the subjective dimension of man and his ability to direct behaviour, choosing, selecting the stimuli, the both internal and external ones, and the eventual behavioural replies. Viceversa, it considers human beings at the mercy of a reality (individual, familiar, and social causes) which determines them.

Having gone beyond this reductive way of reading reality, modern epistemology has given its attention to more articulate models, multifactorial ones of a probabilistic type (Menesini, 2000).Deviant behaviour, according to these new readings, depends then on how risk factors (individual, familiar, social) and protective factors (individual, familiar, social), in a process of reciprocal influence (circularity), contribute to the determining of a phenomenon.

Bullying is considered, from this point of view, behaviour which depends on the combined action of multiple variables (the structure of the personality of the youngster, the family type, the characteristics of the peer group, the relational atmosphere present in the school), which interacting with each other, co-build this deviant behaviour.

The attention, therefore, is given not only to risk or protective factors, but especially to the processes and the 'mechanisms which sustain the non adaptive developmental results' (Menesini, 2000. pp. 11)

It is relevant to remember that in this case the evolutionary result is never predictable or given, as every subject can be open to a multi-finality of routes, through different evolutionary trajectories (Compas, Hinden e Gerhardt, 1995).

For this reason, even when two subjects should meet the same psychological, social, familiar and scholastic conditions, (that is an almost identical quantity and quality of risk and protective factors), what could happen is that one becomes a bully, one a victim, and the other neither of them.

Indicating the multifactorial probabilistic model as the one which is currently able to explain the complexities of these phenomena, with modern epistemology, what has happened is the passage from analysing 'why' certain behaviour happens, to analysing 'what it wants to communicate', through the questioning of how an action (the map) is connected with the individual, familiar, and social history of the subject (the territory), and on how through this, as a 'part', the existential problematic of the person is expressed metaphorically, 'the whole'.

From an hermeneutic point of view, deviant behaviour within a systematic communicative approach is therefore considered 'a part which speaks for the whole', a 'map' (Bateson, 1951) which can tell the 'territory', that is the psychological, social and familiar dimension of the minor, and the meanings, the emotional and affective ones, which he applies to his own reference contacts. Deviant and criminal behaviour, from this point of view, is therefore a 'symptom' through which the subjects express their own unease and suffering.

It is not a 'sign' which classifies the subjects, their personality structure, their being: it is in fact important not to confuse 'what a person does with what a person is' (Merzagora, 1987, pp. 37), making, negatively, match simple behaviour with global personality.

If modern epistemological orientation makes us think that bullism is not simply behaviour which is co-built in circular relations, among young ones, among young ones and parents, among young ones, parents, teaching staff and ATA staff but also as a way of communicating uneasiness which concerns the bully and the whole of his system of belonging, it is understandable why, from a methodological profile, councelling interventions are necessary not only for the single bully or the victim but also for their entire life context.

Keeping always into consideration, in the different circumstances, that any 'repairing' possibility will strictly depend on the quality and quantity of the risk and protective factors which characterize the individuals (students and adults) and the familiar and social fabric, such as, for example, the availability of the bully to put himself into question or the presence of a sensitive familiar and scholastic environment, and ready to confront themselves with the theme of aggressive and violent behaviour.We shall now follow describing the main ways through which students, teaching staff, ATA staff and the families become co-responsible for the structuring of the phenomenon of bullying.


The class group

It is now a matter of fact that the group dynamics which are established among students can contribute to the genesis and the maintenance of bully behaviour.

It is not by chance that other than the bully and the victim, it is possible to identify within the group other protagonists of bullying: herds, spectators, externals and defenders. (Salmivalli, 1996).

Each of them, within their roles, voluntarily or sometimes unconsciously, contributes to maintain and reinforce the relations based on bullying and abuse of power.

For this reason, it is not correct to make bullying coincide only with bully behaviour, as the problem concerns the relations among students, but also students and adults (teaching staff, ATA staff, the school director, families).

And a complex reading, a systematic-relational one, allows to recognize the 'bully', not only in the boy who acts violently, but also among those who watch, apparently passively, without taking on the responsibility of stopping who intends to abuse of power.

The spectators and the externals, can in fact be considered 'bullies', not only towards the victim, but also towards the bully himself, when for example, they 'use' him (because of his behaviour) to have fun, make the class have fun, and to 'kill boredom'.

This is why when the consultant is called by the school to contrast this phenomenon, he should work with the whole class group, emphasizing how bullying is born within relations and is favoured and reinforced by silence, by tacit complicity, by the fear of intervening and take a position against who abuses of power.

What certainly gives substance to bully behaviour is the massive use, by the students, of mechanisms of moral discharge, which once activated are capable of inhibiting the systems of self-regulation and self-sanction which, generally, control the moral behaviour of the individual (Bandura, 1996).

In our work with students we have identified the frequent use of the following mechanisms of moral discharge:

  1. advantageous comparisons (deplorable acts compared to cruel acts tend to dimish in terms of reproof. Example: “We didn't do anything wrong if compared to what happens in other classes of this institute");
  2. attribution of fault (deplorable acts are justified attributing the fault to the victim. Example: “He can't defend himself and he's weak. He deserves it");
  3. responsibility shift (one's responsibilities are attributed to the authorities. Example: “It's the teachers' fault who can't control the class" );
  4. diffusion of responsibilities (individual responsibility is dispersed in collective responsibility. Example: “It's not just me it's the whole class”);
  5. indifference and distorsion of harmful consequences (minimizing harmful consequences of individual behaviours. Example: “It isn't harmful to say little lies, since they don't harm anyone").

The presence of the above-mentioned does not necessarily mean they are an obstacle for students who want to fight against the phenomenon of bullying.

In fact, there are many students who would like to change the situation in class and in the institute, even if apparently they seem to be used to abuses of power, and to the confusion which characterizes the whole scholastic system.

Most of all, the absence of answers from adults, the absence of sanctions, of disciplinary measures, the non-existence of a plan which can contrast bullying, which can contribute to activating in certain students a depressive and resignated experience, in others an opposite one of "invincibility and exemption from punishment", so as to urge them to challenge classmates and teachers.Concerning this point, we would like to bring to mind the fact that bully behaviour, also interpretable as attention requests, become an attitude which young ones take even against teachers, through the following ways:

answering back aggressively and in a bad-mannered way

answering back aggressively and in a bad-mannered way

ignoring the behavioural rules (asking for permission to leave the classroom, returning punctually after the break, not smoking ecc.)

intimidating teachers with verbal or physical threats.



The parents

The parents can also contribute, with their personal educational style, to establish and reinforce the problem of bullying at school.

There are very few parents who seem to attribute to 'The nos which help to grow up' by Asha Phillips (1999), a containing and affective function. In fact, fewer and fewer parents in our society provide clear rules for their children, unjustly thought to be able to self-regulate themselves in every aspect of daily life.

And even when minimum guidelines are given, they are more and more confusing, untidy, not shared by the two parents.

Therefore, they are given to children without the necessary conviction and authoritativeness. Many more then are the difficulties in applying punishments (threatened beforehand) for rules which were not respected, or in applying other educational interventions (discussion, debate, ecc.), as for adults it is far easier to justify and forgive the children's behaviour.

Children and teenagers grow, then, having the illusion of omnipotence, without any limits, giving way to strong narcissism; with the feeling, unfortunately often being right, of being stronger than the parents.

The roots of this discomfort can be traced in the huge transformations of society which have an effect on the family.

Many in fact are the changes which affect children's lives: the development of alternative family typologies (mononuclear families, reconstituted ...) to the 'traditional' family, the support of the families themselves, whereupon it was possible to count on in the past, is more and more rare, the women who are more and more engaged in work outside the home, men who are searching for a new role, in the house and with their children, a role different from the one they had from their fathers.

It is particularly on this last element that we think it is interesting, concerning bullying, to focus our attention.

Men from the last generations, who have grown up with strict, dictatorial father figures, not prone to communication and who only intervened to reaffirm their authority often using violence, nowadays have to take care of children co-operating, with firmness and authority but at the same time sweetness, to invent a new role and act in a new way with their children not having and not having had a model to follow.

Far too often, this lack of points of reference produces weak, fragile, delegating father figures, with respect to their educative role, that cannot become valid models of identification for children: wherever the search for a new role fails, it runs the risk of becoming chronic physical and psychological absence.What can also happen is that even if they are present in the family, they end up competing with the mother figure, in a sort of 'race' to see who gives the children more, showing great difficulties in transmitting a necessary sense of limit, and often, unconsciously, obtaining the negative effect of reinforcing the fusional bond between mother and child.

Many 'modern' fathers seem then uncapable of supporting their wives in the process of separating from their children and they find themselves in great difficulty when introducing the principle of reality and rules, regulations.Entangled and controlling relations do not ease the normal processes of growth and autonomy; on the contrary, they stimulate tyrannical behaviour in children, characterized by wanting everything immediately and without giving anything in return, or conversely they rouse passivity, inertia, indifference.

In fact, if the children, also because of the undefinedness of the father figure, do not have the possibility of experimenting the sense of limit, they risk to live with the illusion that they can fulfil any wish, not thinking about the consequences of their actions, without having any remorse for wrong deeds, and experimenting an intolerable feeling of frustration when their expectations do not come to an immediate fulfilment.

Another crytical element in this process of child education is the lack of time dedicated to the family.In fact, what is happening more and more often is that parents are not able to dedicate enough time to their children; not only because of objective engagements (work ecc.), but also for the subjective incapability of putting a career (and therefore earnings) secondly, in a society where parental competence is confused and often measured through how much money each parent can afford to spend to satisfy children's needs and requests.

And when a parent refuses time, space, attention to children, passing on few rules and even less affection, it is possible for some forms of discomfort to develop in the relationship. It is important, in fact, to observe that to obtain good results in the relation parents-children, not only is the quality of time important, but also the quantity. This is particularly true for the very early stages of development.

As regards this, Freud (1905; 1912-1913), says that personality is structured within the first five years of life, M. Klein (1928, 1952) actually retains that the first twelve months appear to be decisive for the future development of the child.

We feel, maybe a bit drastically, to claim that when considering that one is not prepared for this parental role, if one is not sure about one's abilities or simply other situations in life are prior, then the most mature choice would be not to face such an important role, which requires a serious commitment, of great responsibility, especially for its irreversible nature.

As Bollea (1995) claims, once parents, always parents, as you are for the rest of your life: meaning that father and mother have to be a steady base for their children, even once they have become adults.

Relational difficulties between parents and children which can fuel bully behaviour, also infect the relations with the school system. Here below is a list of elements which are frequently found in the relations between parents and teachers, and the whole school system, and which contribute to the establishment of bullying at school.

1) Bully attitudes of parents towards certain teachers.Some parents can take a polemical, conflictual attitude towards teachers, based essentially on contending and defending rigid and self-centred positions.

A typical attitude consists in defending one's children at any cost, even when it is obvious that they have adopted aggressive behaviour towards their peers or the teachers themselves.

2) Disqualifying attitudes of parents towards the School Institution.Some parents can disqualify the concept of cultural education, giving children an impoverished image of the scholastic context. For example:

a. neglecting the scholastic dimension of their children, taking on an attitude of complete educational proxy;

b. connoting study activities negatively;

c. displaying a contradictory attitude: reproving the child who does not study but not activating themselves to stimulate or follow him more;

d. attributing the scholastic failure entirely to the teacher, portrayed as incapable of explaining and communicating with young ones;

e. disqualifying the teachers, describing them as adults who are not interested in young ones and their well-being;

f. underestimating and belittling the child's abilities, with the effect of not stimulating into thinking about long cultural routes and setting challenging goals (for example, a degree);

g. threatening the teachers to withdraw their children from school, playing on the fact that the behaviour can have violent repercussions on the working safeness of teachers.

It is evident that the diminishing number of enrolments can lead to a reduction in the number of chairs available and therefore of teachers. In these cases the parent thinks he is only damaging the teacher when he does not realize he is mistreating his child too.



The teaching staff

The teachers also play an important role in the building of the phenomenon of bullying.

We have already shown how the absence of rules is particularly relevant in the genesis and the maintenance of bullying, speaking about the role families play in it.In the scholastic context, in a mirror-like manner, as at home parents do, teachers end up not applying the rules that should be.

What is happening is that more and more frequently the regulations of the institute are not being applied homogeneously: for example, the same behaviour-a student insults a professor who denied permission to go out of the class- is sanctioned strictly by a teacher whereas another one ignores him; the result is that a contradictory message is sent to the student, a confusing one and therefore a non educational message.

As if in a family a mother prohibited her child from going out because of his misbehaviour, and instead the father allowed him too.As regards this, we could define the school as lacking not just in rules, but in meta-rules, when teachers find it difficult to find an agreement on behaviour to notice and how to sanction it.It is not a rare case then to find opposite positions.

Many professors have in fact a negative thought, a strict almost 'dictatorial' one concerning rules and their application, maybe influenced by the meaning that the regulations themselves have had on their own childhood and family background, others instead are more tolerant.

In certain cases extremes are reached: from laxity to anarchy.It is not rare to see heated discussions among teachers that become at times proper fights, because of the conflicting views ascribed to the children's behaviour, depending on personal readings, or subjective interpretations.

When, for example, a student insulted a teacher by yelling a swearword ('Fucker!' is the word in question), some teachers had 'euphemistically' redefined the exclamation as a new way young ones had to relate, not an offense but a typical slang of the area, others were asking out loud for a disciplinary measure.

Even when teachers are stimulated so as to find agreements, concerning rules to propose students, many carry on having the presumption of being able to work in class without having to come to an agreement concerning the application of the regulations and the decoding of students' behaviour.

The idea at times claimed by certain teachers that it is possible to educate students with personal parametres seems to us, frankly, anti-pedagogical and not very functional.

During the consultancy then, it is necessary to make the teachers think carefully about the importance of educating young ones with coherent and homogeneous models, which allow them to perceive the teachers as trustworthy, as a 'solid base' (Bowlby, 1998) from which to leave to explore the world.

Heterogeneity (personal strategies each teacher can use to send educational messages to students) is then added value only if it is born within an educational plan, where adults recognise themselves and where rules and meta-rules are shared.Those 'monadic' interventions based instead on the rigidity of positions assumed autonomously without any prior agreement with the other teachers, constitute risky behaviour, as it disconcerts the students, as it returns a negative image of the adult, inconclusive, confused and chaotic.

The principle of Protagora, 'man is the metre and measure of all things, of those which are because they are and of those which are not because they are not', finds in some teachers the maximum expression, in the name of constitutional freedom to teach which pushes them, erroneously, not to establish a common strategy with their colleagues, more than a teaching, one a behavioural one.

The precarious or absent sharing of how to apply rules and related sanctions, the absence of solidity, agreement and alliance among adults, and the consequent passage of incoherent messages to students, often contradictory ones, have the effect, revealing the weakness of the adult subsystem, of making the situation even worse.

The students take advantage of this, as a matter of fact during the course of the school year there is an escalation of bullist behaviours which become worse and worse, though they tend to diminish, towards the end of the year (May-June), for the fear of negative repercussions on the final results.

At this point it is interesting to notice how bullying has become a 'contagious' phenomenon, which propagates in relations. Some teachers can therefore show attitudes and behaviour which lead to conflicts with their colleagues and with the school director.

If it is frequent to find episodes of indirect bullying, (gossip and slander) and verbal bullying (insults), there are, in Italian schools, cases where teachers fight physically, and that are lastly separated by the students: this has happened between a vice-director and a teacher.

There also are cases of teachers who shout, insult, and beat up the students: as when a teacher poured a coke over one of his students' head. Here below we shall list, because of the seriousness of the consequences, some aggressive behaviour, which is rigid and disqualifying, that some teachers can have towards students and their families, contributing to wastage or evening school insertions:

a. to label students with negative and humiliating connotations, also in front of other classmates;

b. tracing the students' relatives on the phone, just to report negative behaviour and negative assessments;

c. invite some students explicitly to withdraw from school or to apply for compulsory schooling, pressing the parents in that direction too.



The ATA staff

The non-teaching staff can also contribute to the co-building of the phenomenon of bullism within the school. Especially the professional figure of school operators, who spend a lot of time working closely with the students, because of the frequent educational lack, is a figure at risk.

Some of them, making topical the need of becoming friends with the young ones, can actually gang up against the teachers, to the point of spreading lies and gossiping, with the effect of creating a crisis in the normal relationship between adults and colleagues, at times degenarating in serious unrest.

Others can be physically or verbally bossy: there are cases of operators kicking and slapping students.

Others ignore the students who insult or commit violent acts one against the other: in this respect, a recurrent phrase among the ATA staff is <<That's not up to me! I'm not paid for this!>>

In any case, it is evidently a matter of harmful procedures, where the adult tends not to take on an authoritative and containing role.

Actually, a cognitive, emotional and behavioural 'regression' is observed, pressing the ATA staff to behave like the students.



The School Director

Lastly, the role of the school director has to be underlined in the genesis and the reinforcement of the phenomenon of bullying. Often, he is interested only in safeguarding the good name of the school, covering up and minimizing the seriousness of episodes which happen in the institute, with the final purpose of keeping the number of students enrolled constant.

Frequently, in fact, the fear is that of a negative publicity for the Institute which would direct the parents towards other schools, when the enrolment starts.

This is an understandable concern, as when the number of students enrolled diminishes, this creates a negative chain reaction: the number of classes diminishes, consequently also the number of teachers confirmed diminishes, and therefore the ATA staff is cut too.

Erroneously, many school directors believe that ignoring the phenomenon of bullying, not speaking about it or denying it, constitutes a procedure to avoid worse complications.

Actually, 'active' schools are seen in a positive way by parents and the whole community, qualifying themselves as 'schools which do something against abuse of power behaviour.

The development of an integrated school policy improves the reputation of the school and can be adopted as a reason for pushing parents to enrol their children in those schools' (Smith 1994).It has to be highlighted that, apart from the presence of bullying, the concern of keeping constant the number of classes of an institute, and possibly to increase them, has always existed.

It is still possible to remember cases when the principles 'piloted' the end-of-year results, telling (we could say abusing of their power or bullying) the teachers the maximum number of students who could be failed.

To act this way underlies a phylosophy of intervention which is not always that of giving the students an opportunity (at times an immediate one), but to avoid the risk, because of a high number of students being failed, to lose a class the following year. With the consequences mentioned above: exceeding number of teachers or with a low score which would mean losing the chair, or they would be transferred as the ATA staff members.

Some school directors, describing the difficulties of their task, the need to keep a balance within the school (balancing the interests of both the teachers and the students), define this policy as the 'minor damage'. We do not intend to claim that the problem of bullying can be solved by failing the bullies, but we retain that an attitude of extreme indulgence towards who has not studied for a full school year, who has not made any effort in curricular or extra-curricular activities (for example the anti-bullying project), is not of any help in contrasting the phenomenon of abuse of power.

Another problem, of a different nature but always connected with the role, which often appears in the school directors work, is that even if they are formally available to accept the project, they do not take part substantially, cooperating and participating actively, in the various stages of the intervention.

In fact, they declare they are busy in more important administrative and burocratic affairs.Provocatively, at this point we could ask ourselves which are the priorities of a Principle in the managing of such a complex system as the school is.

And, furthermore, which instruments is he able to use to understand and decode an uneasiness which he himself contributes to co-build.


mag 21, 2020

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