Daring to be interested. How pupils learn to deal with bullying

By Angelika Ludwig-Huber, January 2017

In dealing with a WhatsApp conflict in which an unflattering picture of a fellow pupil had been sent round, the meeting with pupil mediators finally obtained the answer to the question put to the person who posted the photo: “Well, it just somehow became boring in the group – no real excitement.”

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

Violence often does not necessarily have the aim of harming someone else but to set something against corrosive boredome. An unauthorised and not particularly positive picture of a pupil sent to a WhatsApp group in which the person affected is not even present can represent a form of violence or have the effect of violence.

Boredome today mostly has negative connotations which actually express the absence of meaning and challenge. When I ask young people, I get answers such as: “There’s nothing going on here, nothing happens that would entice me away from the computer or smartphone ...”. Boredom, then, is a state which can hardly be endured, which may well lead to emotional overload because elementary needs for meaning, the feeling of development, the experience of contact may remain unsatisfied so that there is a desire to satisfy these needs – if necessary with violence.

Violence does not arise in the healthy person if they have not previously arrived at a threshold. The Freiburg psychiatrist Joachim Bauer calls it the “pain threshold” which a person can experience when an important human need in them cries out. Even if we know that the things which a person uses to counter their boredom by digital means cannot really satisfy them, we have to recognise that they attempt in many instances to use them for that purpose and they may under certain circumstances set off a spiral of violence. The digital world is used as an instrument of violence – and this is done without a shot being fired, a fist being raised or a bad word being openly spoken in an aggressive way.

What can school do to prevent this kind of violence and intervene on a long-term basis? Let me say two things before attempting an answer:

•  Waldorf schools, too, reflect our society. They are also full of smart devices and nothing exists “outside” that doesn’t also exist with us.

•  School includes everything which some teachers would dearly like to keep “outside” and for which they do not feel responsible because they feel they have not been trained for it: digital social behaviour. If 15 years ago acts of violence were indeed still physical in nature – fights or other aggressive behaviours and bullying still took place in hidden corners of the school or on the way there – today they take place on the Internet with the side effect that they are no longer restricted to the physical location of the school but in the worst cases happen deep into the night everywhere where there is a smartphone. There of course continues to be “offline violence” but pupils, both female and male, state very clearly that they find a physical confrontation significantly less bad than a digital one from which the person concerned can at some point no longer withdraw.

A school cannot ignore whether or not pupils have the skill to handle their devices, at least when we are dealing with class chats and similar things. Otherwise we operate in parallel worlds in which the digital one not infrequently has the upper hand and can destroy our Waldorf educational endeavours.

Alongside the familiar ongoing work on the class community, there is meanwhile that other space, for example the class chat, to which not everyone belongs in any case, so that here already there is a division which can destroy everything at a negative meta level which we build on with our educational concerns based on our understanding of the human being.

What can the school do?

There are meanwhile a lot of things on offer: self-empowerment programmes, mindfulness training, bullying and violence prevention programmes, and so on. Everything seems right and proper in its own way.

But the crucial thing is that we not only need “programmes” but above all a lived interest in the other person which can come to expression in the simply attitude: “I want to understand how this has come about.” When I want to understand something it does not mean that I want to judge it but it makes me listen, acknowledge the feelings of the other person and, as appropriate, also be empathetic.

If violence arises as the result of boredom in the destructive sense, then the point at which we can start at an educational level is clear. As a rule it is not explanations which have a long-term effect but rather the experience, the sense of our own efficacy in working on a conflict and also the trust that something can become good and meaningful if we do it in dialogue with all the others involved.

A feeling of coherence, then, as the basis for change. Only then can we begin to work on what we call resilience today: the ability to deal also with lean periods such as boredom, for example. Alongside many other possibilities, it is my experience that the work with pupil mediators is helpful in this field in working on preventing such occurrences. Pupil mediators – not arbitrators as they are still frequently called – are assuming an ever greater number of violence resolving and thus also preventing tasks.

Pupil mediators against WhatsApp bullying

I would like to use the following everyday example to clarify what can arise in this context in terms of meaning, perspective and, above all, sustainability: at the weekly meeting, a pupil mediator tells of a photo she received from a friend of hers in class 8. It appears it was sent around in the WhatsApp class chat with several comments.

Someone in the class must have complained about the way this was done in the chat for which he in turn received nasty comments. Clearly something needed to be done; after all some pupil mediators had themselves experienced similar things. The pupil mediators have learnt what is now required: a non-judgemental approach, guided by concern, to the respective pupils in their various roles. Being there, support, enabling a reciprocal opening up, speaking with one another and discussing what needs to be done to repair the damage and open a forward-looking perspective – dependent on the question what all those involved need to make a fresh start in their daily encounter, also on the Web.

No one should lose out, everyone should be a winner, at least to the extent of having won the understanding that something went completely off the rails here; but also that it can be made right again, that is, influenced. And the class should also be involved to the extent that it is affected. Subsequently agreements are made which need to be examined after a while with regard to their sustainability. This is mediation work with and through pupils supported by adult mediators at the school. Such a process needs time and space and, as its central tool, interest.

Empathy and mindfulness are the best prevention

Everything which we can “go through”, particularly a change of perspective in the real world, can and will help to develop true empathy. If I as the actor have, for example, experienced face-to-face the effect of my actions with the photo of or comment about my peer, and if I have experienced simultaneously what it feels like that I can do something about it and put it in order, then this experience has a long-term effect. Then any threat of punishment or such like is superfluous and something new, a kind of protective shield against violence, can arise out of a crisis or real collision.

Such a procedure has a different effect from just explaining things and understanding them with our head; here it can become a matter of the heart. Violence and its opposite pole, mindfulness, come from the heart; that is, feeling and empathy are necessary. Adults can do this as well, of course, and they must undoubtedly be part of it. But there are some things in which young people have an advantage: field expertise and a pretty direct experience of the situation of their peers. They are active online, they experience what happens and, furthermore, they can act directly where we as adults have no access.

Those involved, including whole classes, can thus have a signifcant experience: conflicts can be resolved! It is the right thing to do to raise difficult subjects because that makes it possible to remove them from the taboo zone and work on them. And every pupil who is not punished for their misconduct but who is given the opportunity to connect themselves with the morality that exists within them through dialogue with the people they have harmed, recognises that violence is “off the mark” and provides no real answer for a need which has not been met.

It happens frequently that pupils who were involved in such processes as participants want to become pupil mediators themselves. The experience of being able to resolve also difficult problems without losers is constructive, gives meaning and, ultimately, provides the basis for moral courage to grow.

Because once I have had the sense that conflicts, including violence, do not need to make me impotent, I can also start developing ideas to handle them constructively.

About the author: Angelika Ludwig-Huber is chairperson of INTEResse e.V., an association which works to support a positive conflict culture in schools and trains pupils and adults to become mediators. www.interesse-ev.de