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2020.06.20 10:00

Denmark fixed bullying: what Lithuania could learn

Giedrė Peseckytė, Amelie Klitgaard, euobserver2020.06.20 10:00

Denmark went from having more bullying-cases than Lithuania today to almost none. What could the Baltic country learn from the Danish model? Giedrė Peseckytė and Amelie Klitgaard report for EUobserver, partners of LRT English.

"Teacher, are you as old as that wardrobe behind you? Lived through two wars?" a student says followed by laughter. The video showed a bullying-situation in a virtual geography class in Lithuania under the Covid-19-school lockdowns.

Not long after Lithuanian classrooms moved to the virtual space on March 30, the local media started sharing images and videos of bullying happening during the classes.

Online classes didn't create but rather highlighted Lithuania's existing, ongoing issue with bullying.

Since 1994 Lithuania has been listed as one of the countries with the highest bullying rates among other European countries in a report from World Health Organization (WHO).

Read more: Lithuanian adolescents among most bullied in Europe – WHO survey

That's still the case in this year's report; every third boy and fourth girl is experiencing bullying several times per week.

Bullying can for both the victim, perpetrator and bystanders lead to low well-being, bad academic performances and even suicide, multiple studies shows.

Newer studies uncover the long-term impact, like a higher risk of poor physical and mental health. It also affects adulthood including difficulties forming lasting relations, integrating into work and being economically independent.

Lithuanian experts working with youths agree that the bullying issue in Lithuania is complex. Low salaries don't attract young teachers, psychologists or social pedagogues.

Also, bullying behaviour seen in the public and political spheres rubs off on teachers' and children's behaviour in schools.

But a slight decrease in bullying cases is seen in the most recent WHO-report. A decrease that could be even bigger since the awareness towards bullying behaviour is growing, says social health specialist Kastytis Šmigelskas, responsible for the WHO report in Lithuania. More awareness of what bullying behaviour is can result in more cases since students better recognise it.

Robertas Povilaitis, a psychologist, children call line creator and campaign initiator of the yearly Without Bullying initiative, also notes that a legal requirement for schools to have a programme focusing on developing social-emotional skills only came into force in 2017.

That's the same school year as the WHO-reports data was collected so the programmes' effect was too early to be seen.

"These were the first steps in tackling the problem on a national level. It is a deep-rooted problem. Now we have laws, programmes and this is just the beginning of a systemic work," Povilaitis says.

"Many understand that we should not expect significant changes fast," adds Šmigelskas.

Societal efforts are fundamental

Fast and significant change was exactly what happened in Denmark. In a matter of 25 years, the country went from having more bullying cases than Lithuania today – half of the students in 1998 – to only five per cent reporting being bullied in the newest WHO-report.

The numbers were cut in half over only six years.

The drop essentially comes down to two reasons: societal teamwork and a new Danish theory on bullying.

Firstly, the change was sparked by the WHO-numbers being published in a medical journal in 1999, health scientist Bjørn Holstein explains. He's been a part of the research group since the beginning and still takes part as a retired professor:

"It created a great deal of commotion in the teachers' and school leaders' unions. Immediately they responded: We can't let this happen."

A school movement formed, eventually catching the politicians' attention, who decided to form a science group. And this group created a paradigm shift starting with a new theory on bullying. A theory that would pave the way for Denmark's success.

The community-feeling fix

Before an individualistic bullying theory stemming from psychology dominated, where the focus was on the individual bully and bully victim's behaviour, personality and upbringing.

The new theory had a sociological focus on the community, where bullying is seen as a negative way to create a community between humans based on including some and excluding others.

Therefore, the solution according to the new theory is not to punish the individual bullies but to create a positive community-felling without any anxiety to be socially excluded.

The community-theory reverberates in the teacher Debbie Gelineck Holms words when explaining how she prevents bullying in her third grade at Kirkebjerg School in a Copenhagen suburb.

"Fixed routines and a secure framework are important. Without them, the kids use their mental energy in fitting into the class dynamic. With them, they focus on the learning and it's nicer for everybody," she says.

To build a positive class community, setting clear rules tinted by respect and empathy is important.

Another point is to lead the class with encouragement instead of fear. And lastly, the teacher must work to create a feeling of class cohesion - a "we" - where none is excluded, and everyone is welcome.

That's exactly what Debbie Gelineck Holm did when her students returned in mid-April after the Covid-19 lockdowns.

To create a safe environment, she stuck to the old routines. And when splitting the class of 27 students into two groups due to infection risks, the split was based on social dynamics – not on the academic level.

Lastly, she retained a sense of 'we' by setting up penpals between the two groups.

Translating across cultures

Every Danish school autonomously decides the sound and implementation of its anti-bullying strategy.

Actually, two-thirds of Danish teachers haven't dealt with school bullying as a topic under their education, a new report uncovers. Nonetheless, the community-theory is the predominant bullying-theory since scientists, NGO's and authorities support it – and it echoes the school culture.

"The way we look at children and education is unique. Our main philosophy in Denmark is to respect each other and the community, to respect differences and the individual", health scientist Bjørn Holstein elaborates.

Even though the community-approach originates from Denmark, it can be used in different cultural contexts, the Danish-Norwegian bullying expert Marianne Laflor from the independent, state-owned knowledge centre DCUM points out.

"I believe that the same dynamic is happening in all countries. That bullying stems from group dynamics, not individual problematic kids. But the method might differ", Laflor explains.

She emphasises that no matter the method, the most important part is taking a holistic approach with children, parents, teachers and school leaders on board.

The same applies to society.

What caused the drastic drop in bullying cases in Denmark was not only the community-building theory but a societal movement. This is also what Lithuania needs, Kastytis Šmigelskas, social health specialist, says:

"The next step should be macro-social changes."

He mentions that in research done together with international partners findings have shown that bullying highly correlates with how much social support adolescents are feeling from friends, teachers and families.

Examples of social support could be acceptance, help and trust. Though to create a sense of security and inclusion might be hard.

"It is very hard to create an education system based on the community. It is not enough that the ministry or headmasters would want that. The community itself has to want empowerment," says Šmigelskas.

This story originally appeared on EUobserver.

Giedre Peseckyte is a multimedia journalist from Vilnius covering social issues and environmental topics. Amalie Klitgaard is a Danish journalist who visualises human interest and environmental stories in Europe and China.