When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.


How Educators Are Failing Bullies

It's normal for children to argue and fight. But those identified as bullies are often suspended or expelled far too quickly. Why don't schools intervene earlier?

Four victims in this photo?
Four victims in this photo?
Christina Berndt


BERLIN — Classmates told Oskar* they were going to drug and kill him, then leave his body in the woods.

These were 11-year-olds talking during a class trip last June, all sitting on their beds in the dorm of the hostel at the time. Oskar was among them and even thought the fantastical scenario was funny at the beginning. But it soon became more concrete, with his peers describing how wild animals would eat him or that they would burn him in the adjacent forest.

Oskar told his parents, who thought the school wasn't doing enough and decided to press charges against their son's tormentors. The school responded by suspending the two suspected leaders of this little tour de farce. What were these kids possibly thinking? Were they truly sick children with a violent streak, or were they just engaging in very dark ideas as a group, parroting something they had seen in a scary movie?

We'll never know because school officials never asked them. The teacher responsible for the class sent an email around to the parents saying that Oskar had received serious threats, that his parents had pressed charges against the perpetrators and that the school would whole-heartedly support them. No one asked the 11-year-olds who made the threat to tell their side of the story, and they were swiftly suspended.

Oskar remained an outsider, and his parents were forced to send him to another school the following year.

This case may be an extreme one, but it's not wholly unique.

At play was incompetence, not education. Maybe Oskar's tormenters were dangerous children in early bloom, but perhaps it was all a group-driven fantasy whose context would have mitigated the sense of threat, if the adults had taken the time to investigate. What the case demonstrates is that teachers often capitulate too easily in the face of difficulty.

Their fear of violence in school has become so pronounced that it paralyzes them as soon as they spot the first signs of it. Instead of utilizing their pedagogical skills, devoting themselves to and guiding these children about how to express their feelings appropriately, they default to disciplinary measures such as suspension and/or getting the police and local prosecutor involved. The idea is to rid themselves of the possibly dangerous students before something worse happens.

"Rash decisions are made much too often," says Kristin Werschnitzke, a teacher at a school in Brandenburg. "Everyone should get together and take the time to analyze what exactly happened. As a teacher nowadays, you are not given the opportunity to talk to the student and work out what actually happened."

Criminalizing what's normal

It seems that teachers and parents have lost all sense of what level of violence and nastiness is normal among children, and what needs to be changed. "What was seen as perfectly normal 10 years ago is now often and very quickly criminalized," says Nele McElvany, head of the Institute for School Development Research in Dortmund.

The fact is, children should be allowed to screw up. How else are they going to discover where the boundaries between right and wrong lie? Nils Christie, a Norwegian sociologist who passed away last year, was adamant that children be allowed to have conflict. "Don't take it away," he urged.

Children and adolescents need to learn how to fight, just as they need to make up afterwards to heal whatever psychological damage the conflict caused. Having an outside party settle a conflict is a disservice to both the victim and the aggressor. "The child does not become a stronger person when parents, police officers or teachers take care of a situation," says Berlin-based criminologist and teacher Lydia Seus. "The child remains a victim who always needs help from others."

[rebelmouse-image 27089976 alt="""" original_size="640x640" expand=1]

Photo: Katerha

It also should be said that children and adolescents are actually less violent now than in the past. Most are raised without violence, and children learn to settle conflicts without physical means as early as kindergarten. There are, of course, always a few black sheep at school. But overall, adolescent violence has decreased by 15% in the last 10 years. In the meantime, the willingness to press charges against adolescent perpetrators has risen by 12%, according to researchers of the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony (KFN).

Missing the chance to learn lessons

"There rarely are cases of violence that cannot be solved," says the KFN's Christian Pfeiffer. "And yet you have people from kindergarten on up who completely overreact to very minor scuffles."

To determine the necessary measures that need to be taken in these cases, you need pedagogical competence. A properly trained teacher is invaluable in these situations. But teachers often complain that they lack the necessary training.

In these cases, a clear system of rules and regulations at schools, designed by both teachers and students, could be the solution, says Klaus Hurrelmann from the Hertie School of Governance, a private graduate school offering degrees in governance and political science.

Discussing and deciding on boundaries through consensus also promotes ethical awareness, as the students learn what is important and right, and the punishments are understandable for everyone involved. The victim is enabled by being able to demand punishment. But the perpetrator also benefits: He or she understands the mistake and has a clear means of making amends. This way too the aggressor isn't stigmatized as simply a "bad person," which only leads to isolation, further frustration and more aggression.

Relationships and reliable values are the most important pillars of a child's development for a stable and psychologically healthy personality. The school also must provide a strong value and relationship system. Children need structure and are enabled to study best within such sets of rules and regulations. Consequently, they feel most comfortable and secure at schools that provide these.

Society must do its part by placing more trust in its teachers, by enabling them to use their educative skills with confidence, by providing school psychologists to assist them, by allowing them the time to settle conflicts during school hours, and by training them so that they can better manage the pressures parents put on them.

We also have to become better acquainted with the realities of life for students, and approach these kinds of conflicts with more sensitivity. We need to engage children, ask them questions, try to understand their motives. Most importantly, we need to look at conflict as an opportunity rather than a threat. It takes an effort. But considering what's at stake — nothing less than the value of education — it's worth it.

*Not his real name.

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.


What's Spoiling The Kids: The Big Tech v. Bad Parenting Debate

Without an extended family network, modern parents have sought to raise happy kids in a "hostile" world. It's a tall order, when youngsters absorb the fears (and devices) around them like a sponge.

Image of a kid wearing a blue striped sweater, using an ipad.

Children exposed to technology at a very young age are prominent today.

Julián de Zubiría Samper


BOGOTÁ — A 2021 report from the United States (the Youth Risk Behavior Survey) found that 42% of the country's high-school students persistently felt sad and 22% had thought about suicide. In other words, almost half of the country's young people are living in despair and a fifth of them have thought about killing themselves.

Such chilling figures are unprecedented in history. Many have suggested that this might be the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but sadly, we can see depression has deeper causes, and the pandemic merely illustrated its complexity.

I have written before on possible links between severe depression and the time young people spend on social media. But this is just one aspect of the problem. Today, young people suffer frequent and intense emotional crises, and not just for all the hours spent staring at a screen. Another, possibly more important cause may lie in changes to the family composition and authority patterns at home.

Firstly: Families today have fewer members, who communicate less among themselves.

Young people marry at a later age, have fewer children and many opt for personal projects and pets instead of having children. Families are more diverse and flexible. In many countries, the number of children per woman is close to or less than one (Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong among others).

In Colombia, women have on average 1.9 children, compared to 7.6 in 1970. Worldwide, women aged 15 to 49 years have on average 2.4 children, or half the average figure for 1970. The changes are much more pronounced in cities and among middle and upper-income groups.

Of further concern today is the decline in communication time at home, notably between parents and children. This is difficult to quantify, but reasons may include fewer household members, pervasive use of screens, mothers going to work, microwave ovens that have eliminated family cooking and meals and, thanks to new technologies, an increase in time spent on work, even at home. Our society is addicted to work and devotes little time to minors.

Keep reading...Show less

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.

The latest