Competitivity has been the engine which drove a lot of people forward, which made them push their limits and become a better version of themselves. And where else is this more obvious than in sports competitions where athletes continuously strive to be number one and break world and Olympic records? Although there is undeniably an inner competition within sportspeople, a permanent struggle to improve their performances, the most visible fight from the outside is the one between opponents, either individuals or teams.
The influence and impact of sports role models on children and teenagers is incontestable. The question is: can hypercompetitiveness lead to aggressiveness and, eventually, to bullying in schools? Who would have thought there could be a connection between being the best and being a bully? Unless, of course, there is a sense of insecurity haunting the individual who claims to be the best.
Over the years, I have seen children, preteens and teenagers quarrelling and fighting endlessly over all sorts of things, pausing and starting all over again, exasperating their parents and teachers alike. These three categories are especially prone to everlasting conflicts since their prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for regulating our thoughts, actions and emotions) is underdeveloped, which makes them fall prey easily to a tumult of emotions. So, how can we ever hope to succeed in appeasing their conduct, which seems a repetitive, never ending loop? The answer lies probably in trying to persuade them by appealing to their emotions.
Whenever conflicts are recurrent in communication situations in which children cannot negociate properly or when they have different needs and desires, we can speak of bullying. The elements underlying these repeated conflicts are the intention to harm the other and the existence of power imbalance between the aggressor and the victim (Whitson, 2017:23). I noticed that my students had a preference for the following types of bullying : verbal and emotional bullying, represented by: insults, nicknames, threats, sexually-related comments, teasing, irony and humiliation (Doering (a), 2021), (Higgins (a), 2021) and hidden/ relational bullying, which implies social exclusion, ignoring the victims and spreading malicious and embarrassing rumours about them (Doering (b), 2021).
One of the main causes of the students’ confrontational behaviour, which I will address in this article, is the students’ need to be right, to be seen and acknowledged as valuable by their peers.
With the present generation of the preteens (aged 11-12) I have been teaching, most of my students’ problematic conduct used to take place during the breaks, either in the classroom, or on the school football pitch, but also in the gym, during P.E. classes, and sometimes in the classroom during regular classes, such as Romanian, Math, English and French, etc. The patterns of behavior I have noticed seem to start from apparent innocent teasing, which eventually leads to belittling and slandering their peers (by means of labelling and offending one another, calling names, mocking the others’ physical appearance/ athletic skills/ intellectual abilities), to swearing and, more rarely, to hitting/injuring others. This trial to assert dominance in the eyes of their fellow students is worrying, especially in the context in which two years ago there was an extreme case in which the situation escalated so gravely that the ambulance and the police were summoned to intervene: a 14-year-old boy, a former student of mine, stabbed one of his peers, after a fierce argument in a park close to school on an August day, during summer holiday.
There are several strategies designed to prevent bullying. In what follows, I will talk about the ones I tackled during the past school year and analyse their effect on my preteen students’ behaviour: what worked and what I could have done better.
Among the strategies meant to fight bullying, the first one I chose was introducing them to four extraordinary books on bullying written for children and preteens, which I strongly recommend to all teachers who work with primary and lower-secondary school students ((Doering (a), 2021), (Doering (b), 2021), (Higgins (a), 2021), (Higgins (b), 2021)). I encouraged my students to do some role play based on the characters in these books. This activity seemed to have worked, as the students’ problematical conduct stopped for a while. However, the joy of succeeding was short-lived and this strategy proved effective solely in the short run: peace did not last long and, since bad habits are known to die hard, students’ behaviour ended up deteriorating again. After having taken up other strategies, I finally opted to resume the role play again. It was successful the second time, as well, since the bullying diminished once more. This led me to consider the fact that this strategy was more effective if repeated once in a while.
Time and time again I stressed in class the importance of working together to the detriment of competitiveness and the priority of choosing happiness over solitude, as proven by various studies examining the ratio between happiness and the quality of human relations (see The Harvard Study of Adult Development, as well as the concept of ‘yuimaru’ (the Japanese term form ‘mutual aid’, which is a key element, lying at the core of the longevity in the community in Okinawa)). Nonetheless, a student’s counterargument was that in real life, as a professional footballer, one has two options: either to surpass one’s competitors, or to be out, there is no such thing as collaboration. This assertion made me ponder upon the fact that the present role models are essential for the future generations and that our society is responsible for the values it promotes, since its very destiny depends on them.
Another strategy was to play several games aimed at preventing bullying and fostering a sense of friendship and group unity among my students. The students’ feedback was that they enjoyed the activity very much since it was interactive and fun. Here is a list of the games I used that teachers may find useful:
The next strategy was to seek assistance from my colleague, the school counselor. Once I told her about the problems I faced with some of my students, she agreed to support me by teaching a class together. We chose the topics of friendship and tolerance. First, the students watched a short video related to a fight among peers, which led to the exclusion of one of the characters whose conduct was disliked by the group. Several suggestions were provided at the end of the video that enabled the stray peer to be reintegrated: apologizing for one’s mistakes and forgiving one another whenever it was the case.
Then, by using the brainstorming method, the students were asked to come up with attributes of friendship, which eventually made up the friendship tree that was drawn on a flipchart sheet. This material was put aside so that students could be reminded of it and have access to it later on, whenever further conflicts might appear. Everything seemed to have worked according to plan, at least from a theoretical viewpoint. Nevertheless, applying concepts proved to be, once again, not as easy as the knowledge they acquired, and conflicts reoccurred shortly.
In the meanwhile, the students’ parents took sides, as well. The battleground moved on the parents’ WhatsApp group and arguments began pouring, reaching their one hundred messages peak on a Sunday. Since exclusion was too impolite, a new, parallel group was created by one of the parents in order to avoid dealing with two difficultly manageable parents.
At some point afterwards, a student reacted to a conflict by excluding the classmates he disagreed with from the WhatsApp group. Since that boy had created the group and was the only administrator, a new group had to be set up to ensure that the flow of information concerning school events could reach everyone in due time.
By April, the situation had rocketed and a parent-teacher meeting was imminent. To calm the spirits down and to make the parents come to terms with one another I also summoned the school principal and the school counselor. The parents were advised not to get so personally involved in their offsprings’ childish quarrels, to accept the fact that their own children’s conduct was not flawless and to stop pushing them to be so competitive, since hypercompetitiveness was identified to be the main source of the preteens’ unrest and aggressive behaviour. This could be inferred from the preteens’ continuous strife to prove one another wrong and proclaim their own supremacy in various school subjects and especially on the football pitch. This meeting proved to be fruitful, as hostilities ceased, which entails the fact that educating the educators, i.e. the parents, is consequential.
A strategy which I have come across recently and I intend to put into practice during the following school year is to ask my students to keep a record of their own progress in a table, as suggested by Mendler (2023:47). The benefit of this approach is that all students can acknowledge their own evolution, instead of comparing themselves with their peers. Moreover, a prize for recurrent success could be awarded in order to celebrate the students’ improvement in a particular field.
To sum up, I think we should encourage children to cooperate and help one another to improve their skills, to be fair and honest, as well as to acknowledge one anothers’ qualities and talents. In line with Mendler (2023:51), students should be informed that people learn in different ways and at their own pace, which makes competition with others superfluous. That is why students should understand that focusing on their own progress is the key to true success.
DOERING Amanda F. (a), Insultele nu sunt deloc amuzante: bullyingul verbal, editura Bookzone, București, 2021
DOERING Amanda F.(b), Glumele nu sunt mereu amuzante: bullyingul ascuns, editura Bookzone, București, 2021
HIGGINS Melissa (a), Tachinarea nu e mereu amuzantă: bullyingul emoțional, editura Bookzone, București, 2021
HIGGINS Melissa (b), Îmbrâncitul nu e deloc amuzant: bullyingul fizic, editura Bookzone, București, 2021
MENDLER, Allen N., Motivarea elevilor nepăsători: strategii dovedite pentru a captiva elevii, trad. de Maria Cristina Mocanu, editura Provocările Profesorului, București, 2023
WHITSON Signe, Fenomenul Bullying: 8 strategii pentru a-i pune capăt, editura Herald, București, 2017