No blame approach

By Muriel Singer, April 2021

Dealing with bullying without apportioning blame.

Photo: © Addictive Stock / photocase.de

The statement that conflict can be found where people meet naturally also applies to Waldorf schools, where children and young people are known to be grouped together in particularly large class communities.

School social work is a new achievement at Waldorf schools. Until recently, there was little or no space for pupils to deal with social problems in the context of school.

It is only in the last ten years or so that Waldorf school social work (see Fridtjof Meyer-Radkau’s article) has been increasingly integrated into everyday school life. The special approach to social work in Waldorf schools results from Rudolf Steiner’s understanding of the human being which is very compatible with the basic approaches and methods of social work, such as lifeworld orientation and the resource-oriented view of people and their issues, as well as the various systemic methods.

Whether a class develops into a sustainable community in which all participants feel accepted and seen depends on many factors. Becoming and remaining a community requires a great deal of attention and time from teachers and everyone involved in the school.

Everyday life in a school is characterised by permanent progression from one block of time to another, everyone is constantly on the move. Conflicts in the classroom, unpleasant class dynamics or even bullying mean an additional burden for the teachers. This is exactly where school social work comes in. Its task is to relieve the burden on the school organism by offering teachers solutions to problems in their class.

The school social workers also offer class interventions and projects to work with the class to improve the class community. They create a protective space for the pupil body. Confidentiality plays an important role here. Everything that is said is treated in confidence and so the growing young people have the opportunity to work on their issues with the school social worker at their own pace.

The concerns can vary a great deal. The spectrum of counselling topics can range from conflicts in class; stress; counselling about the future as the end of school draws near; eating disorders or other addictions or dependencies; mental illnesses such as depression; disputes in the family context; separation and divorce of parents; support in the event of a death and much else.

But parents and legal guardians also often seek the counselling services of school social workers, for example in the event of problems in bringing up their children or because they are simply worried about them. As a rule, the partnership-based cooperation with the school social work service is very much appreciated by many teachers in their daily work.

Integration not punishment

A common phenomenon in social groups is bullying. It occurs at all types of schools. Bullying means that a person is excluded, harassed, threatened, ignored or even physically assaulted over a longer period of time. Today this takes place in the physical school, but it is also growing in the virtual space. This phenomenon is called cyberbullying. The big difference to bullying in real life is that the Net is disinhibiting and things are written and posted that normally would not be said. In addition, there is the anonymity and the fact that bullying can go on 24 hours a day.

A case from my work as a school social worker illustrates what is at stake when dealing with bullying. At the beginning of my work at the Waldorf school, a group of girls from lower school came to see me and reported that a pupil from their class was often teased, insulted or excluded. The girls wanted to help their classmate but did not know how. They reported that the classmate had been harassed since they were in kindergarten together.

First of all, the counselling focused on gathering together ways of helping. What specifically can be done for the pupil. I brought up the “no blame approach”. This “no blame approach” is a solution-oriented approach to bullying that was developed by Barbara Maines and George Robinson in England in the 1990s and has since been steadily gaining in importance in German-speaking countries.

Often, when bullying occurs, those who are the main perpetrators of the bullying are punished or reprimanded. This usually leads to an increase in bullying afterwards and the victims are threatened if they seek further help. It can happen that the bullying structures become entrenched, that the child concerned no longer seeks help and is even more at the mercy of the group. If, in addition, teachers, out of ignorance about the bullying, reprimand the child who is under inner pressure and being bullied, e.g. because they are distracted, they encourage this situation. In the case described, many of the points mentioned above came together.

All this had happened in Karmen’s (name changed) case in the past. I explained this to the girls who had approached me. We discussed the way forward and I announced that I would invite Karmen and explain the procedure to her. Afterwards, we would then form a support group consisting of three groups in the class: the children who drove the bullying – the perpetrators; those who just went along and laughed – the followers; and finally the group of bystanders. The girls wanted to join the support group right away and we agreed that I would tell Karmen about it during the first conversation.

Karmen was a bit surprised when I approached her in the playground and invited her to talk to me. When she heard that a group of girls had come to me for counselling, she seemed relieved. I explained to her that the discussion would not be about punishment but only about how to improve the situation from now on. We discussed who should be included in the group. She immediately named the three girls who had come to me and who had never really been involved in the bullying. She told me that two boys were particularly mean to her and that a few girls excluded her. Some turned away when she tried to stand next to them, looked at her like she was disgusting, or laughed when she was picked on again.

She cried and said she was afraid it would get worse. I assured her that I had already had good experiences with this. She was relieved that she did not have to be present at the meeting with the support group. We immediately made an appointment for the following week to see if anything had improved. She agreed to that.

I invited the children – without Karmen – saying that I urgently needed their help. When I explained what it was about over a cup of tea in my counselling room, those who had particularly hurt Karmen immediately tried to justify themselves. I made it clear that the main thing was to change the situation from now on and make Karmen feel better. I highlighted the strengths of each child and each one thought concretely about what they could do for Karmen: one boy resolved to greet her in the morning quite normally just like everyone else. One girl decided to sit next to her in after-school care.

After a week, I invited Karmen. She was so happy: the mood in the class had turned around and she was happy to go to school again. The support group was also relieved that the bullying situation in the class had come to an end. By involving the children in the solution process, they had the opportunity to change their behaviour without losing face.

Keeping an eye on everything

In order to consolidate the new situation, further measures were necessary. For example, it is important to have debriefings with the support group. It is helpful to agree that two pupils will take responsibility and get in touch if the situation gets worse again. This gives the children the security that an eye is being kept on the situation.

Especially if bullying structures have existed for a long time, it is important to work through them with the child concerned. Sometimes children confuse the sudden niceness with thinking they are offers of friendship. Especially if they have no friends in class, it is important to empower them and develop strategies with them on how to make friends. This process can only begin when the acute bullying has ended.

I accompanied Karmen for a long time, she needed a lot of patience until she found a good friend in the class, but we were able to get the acute bullying under control quickly. The class teacher was also able to stay attentive to the situation in her lessons.

The “no blame approach” has been academically evaluated and can also be learned by teachers in further training. It is recommended to make this method known in the school context so that it can become part of the school culture. Class projects on bullying prevention in real life and on the Net also help to identify and stop bullying structures earlier.

It is helpful if school social workers and teachers counter such problems with a common approach.

About the author: Muriel Singer is former Waldorf pupil and works as a social worker at the Schwabing Waldorf School in collaboration with the sponsor Condrobs e.V. and the project Inside@School.

www.no-blame-approach.de/ 

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