"The guy who offended me became my best friend"
How UNICEF Belarus helps to create a friendly and supportive environment at schools
We are walking along unusually wide paths in the forest. On the left there is a gazebo, 10 people are inside: "We will have a bonfire at 9, and then immediately we will go to sleep," we can hear a fragment of what they are saying. We continue walking and finally see some colored houses with signs "Forest" and "Lake" on them. That means we have reached our destination: here we will talk to the adolescents who agreed to tell us about bullying and their ideas on how to create a friendly environment at school.
Today we are visiting the School Free from Bullying festival at the National Children's Educational and Health Center Zubrenok. The 2-day field event was organized by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Belarus and Belarusian State Pedagogical University to sum up the preliminary results of the joint program called 'Bullying? Not at my school'.
Girls and boys from 26 schools from all over Belarus are attending the festival. Those are the schools that have introduced a Croatian experimental model of combating bullying (adapted to Belarusian conditions). The model has shown good results in Europe. In schools in Croatia, where it was introduced first, the number of bullying cases was halved.
"The first time I faced bullying was two years ago when I started being called fat," Lera says after we have introduced ourselves. We move away from the noisy crowd and sit down on a bench.
"Okay, I was not actually called fat, but some of my classmates were saying: 'Lera jumps heavily in the gym.' I came home and started thinking: 'Why am I jumping heavily?' Such comments lead to me losing a lot of weight. I was training a lot and hard, eating only 1000 kcal per day. As a result I got health problems. I realized that something needed to be done. I turned to a psychologist. She said that we had a project against bullying at our school. And we started working together."
"When I myself encountered the problem of bullying, I wanted to study it in more detail. I conducted research at my school. And I realized that a huge number of children experienced bullying: about 70 percent of those we interviewed. These are children from 12 to 14 years old."
In 2018, UNICEF Belarus conducted a study on school violence. It turned out that every second student was subjected to psychological violence from peers. Teenagers face harassment and bullying online as well. According to the results of a joint survey conducted by UNICEF Belarus and MTS, more than 30% of children have experienced intimidation and bullying on the Internet.
As part of the Bullying? Not in My School project, violence and bullying levels in schools are tested, parents and school employees are informed about the problem, and clear rules for behavior and communication are established. At all stages, there is a mentor working – usually it is an external participant of the educational process. This person becomes a link between school employees, children and parents, because he/she offers a fresh perspective to the things everybody is used to within this group.
Children are active participants in the project. They decide what methods help to create a friendly environment at schools. Adults only offer solutions and advice.
Some schools hold anti-bullying training and show thematic films, others have volunteer teams. At school No. 2 in Borovliany, children came up with a YouTube talk show called "Don't Be Ashamed to Talk About Problems", while at school No. 2 in Soligorsk, they created the Anti-Bullying Organization (more details here).
"At our school we created a psychological theater," says Vladislav. "I had the main part in the "The Ugly Duckling" play. It was autobiographical for me. My family moved a lot and that's why I often changed schools, and at each new school I faced bullying from my classmates and high school students. The ugly duckling was not bad, but it was bullied. I was not bad either, I always tried to be friends with the others, but I was still mocked and laughed at. I tried to fight it, but it either stopped by itself, or I learned to adapt. The bullying both in the story about the duckling and in my life disappeared. We showed the play to the whole school. Children were impressed. No one was laughing, everyone was sitting there with serious, even sad eyes."
Teenagers at the festival are a pleasant surprise. They describe bullying and its types very precisely. They know that it is not a "one-time conflict" and that they don't have to endure and hide the problem inside.
"Each class has its own rules," Anya says enthusiastically. "Everyone should write their own rule. In our class, the rule is not to humiliate, but to support each other. If you don't do it, you get a fine. For example, an extra day of duty, or we can come up with something else together. There is also a rule to let the others copy off your work and help each other," laughs Anya. "But it is not cheating. The main point is to explain something to a friend if they don't understand it. We have reminder stickers on every door, on every wall at our school. You can see these reminders all the time, even when you just climb the stairs on your way to class. It is cool."
We go to the gazebos – the children there will soon discuss what rules should be in place in schools to make it comfortable to study – without teasing, hidden aggression and offensive statements. These rules will become a kind of a "Constitution" for schools.
"In our gymnasium No.146 in Minsk the main event held is the Living Library," shares Valeria eagerly. "Schools all over Belarus practice it. The movement originated in Sweden. That's how we do it in Belarus: a student can become either a living book or a reader. Living books are those people who want to share their emotional experiences, hobbies, interests. You can choose a living book you want to communicate with. We gather 15 readers in the assembly hall and begin to communicate. The goal is to open a living book, to help if necessary. As well as to develop informal life communication, because the more technologies are developed, the more we communicate on social media."
inside – soon it's time to sleep. The noisy crowd wanders off to their houses, but one girl remains. "I want to tell my story too. It is important."
"When I was in the 6th grade, we had a group of 6 friends," Olya begins her story timidly (the name has been changed). "Once we all went to a shop and the others didn't wait for me. I went in myself, found the guys, but they said: 'That's it, you are no longer in our company.' Just for no reason, out of the blue.
"I said: 'Well, okay.' But it made me cry because I am an emotional person. The next day, everyone abruptly stopped talking to me. It went on for about six months. At the same time, they tried to offend me: they came up with some insulting nicknames, made some offensive comments about my body and appearance. And in general my behavior. They said I wasn't like the others. On social networks, my pictures were photoshopped to the bodies of different animals. 'This is Olya.' I came home and was getting hysterical because of that."
It is still hard to talk about it for Olya, even though a year has passed already. The voice trembles and there are tears in her eyes.
"At some point I couldn't stand it anymore and I told everything to my mother," Olya calms down a little and continues. "I couldn't take it anymore. Neither physically nor mentally. In the end the homeroom teacher talked to the boy who was the main driving force of it all. When they started the conversation, he began to cry because he was scared. Only then the bullying ended. Now we just don't talk."
"Now I would have done things differently. I would not react that much to comments, just as my mom told me. And I would share everything with her much earlier. It seems to me that the support of loved ones works best in such situations."
The philosophy of the "Friendly Environment" project is that it is impossible to achieve any results without close interaction between children, teachers, and parents. At the same time, a systematic approach is needed in order to prevent bullying, including work with both the aggressor and the victim and even witnesses.
For two days, children and teenagers discussed what rules they would like to see at schools, what rights and obligations, in their opinion, should be respected. The participants came to the conclusion that mutual respect and assistance are among the most important values.
"There shouldn’t be harsh punishment," the senior students say. "Anyone who has violated our rules needs help – they can be taken to a psychologist and have a talk." The children suggested that teachers watch the children during a week, and on Friday they would gather and discuss the problems. Another suggestion was for the pupils on duty not to be afraid and hide if they become eyewitnesses of a bullying case. Another idea was to regularly hold polls and questionnaires in order to find out in time if someone is suffering from bullying.
"The boy who offended me in the 5th grade is my best friend now," Egor says laughing. "We were able to reach an agreement and resolve the conflict. There was a group of children who were picking on me. Lyosha was also in that group."
Lyosha is standing nearby and smiling: "Yes, it's true, we didn’t behave nicely to him. But Yegor wasn't behaving well either."
"I was small, I didn’t understand how to behave properly," says Egor. "Now we have no problems with bullying in our class. If there is a conflict, then everything is quickly resolved. You can contact a psychologist. Children themselves often find a common solution or a compromise. I try to intervene if I see bullying. Because it is not cool when a bunch of children call names, push or kick some boy or girl. The problem needs to be resolved as quickly as possible. Sometimes it is enough to explain that one should not do such things. We are trying our best."
The main result of the festival is that the project will grow and develop. So that children like Olya or Vlad do not encounter bullying, but learn and develop in a friendly environment, where insulting and offending is simply "not cool".
"The experiment will live on. I believe that there are important steps ahead," comments Elena Vasilievna Golovneva, Deputy Head of the Department of Social, Educational and Ideological Work of the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Belarus. "That we will be able to include the model in the regulations and put it into practice in all educational institutions in our country. Now there are 26 schools participating in the project, and we will continue working with UNICEF, with the Institute of Psychology of the Belarusian State Pedagogical University to increase the number of schools next year."