Kinderen in de klas
Kinderen in de klas

The classroom as a tool against bullying

Not daring to go to school, shame, a feeling of powerlessness and great sadness: if you're bullied in the past, you know how terrible it is. In 2015, the "social safety" law was introduced in the Netherlands, requiring schools to monitor social safety at elementary schools and make agreements about it. Do students feel comfortable? Can students be themselves? Is there bullying going on?

It is hard to imagine that there were no formal national agreements on this, but this was the case. Nathalie Hoekstra, a behavioural scientist at Radboud University, researches what elementary school teachers can do to create a safer classroom. She says, 'Children are people in the making who have feelings. Hoekstra's research focuses specifically on classroom safety and is part of the 'Veilig Op School' (VOS) project, in which eighty elementary schools have participated. 

'Children are people in the making who have feelings'

The teacher as a co-parent

Hoekstra is fascinated by teachers. 'Thirty children all look at you, and by what you do, say and how you act you have a huge effect on their lives'. She continues: 'We increasingly see the teacher as a co-parent rather than someone who imparts knowledge. If a child is uncomfortable because they are bullied, you can let them do assignments all you want, but it's just not going to work out'. With her research, Hoekstra shows that the classroom arrangement gives teachers practical tools to work on a safer classroom experience. 

The influence of a classroom arrangement

Hoekstra points out that teachers now deal with the classroom arrangement mainly based on their gut feeling. This does not necessarily mean teachers make the right choices,' Hoekstra says. 

'If we can scientifically confirm teacher solutions, it is possible to make an impact on safe school policy'

She wants to analyse things that teachers experience as logical and self-evident. 'If we can scientifically substantiate teachers' solutions, it is possible to impact a safe school policy.' Previous research by Project VOS researchers, for example, showed that children start to like each other more as soon as they sit closer together. But also, children are more quickly found to be widespread by classmates once they sit in the middle of the class.' She continues: 'That sounds logical, of course; you are much more visible in the middle. However, it's also fascinating because popularity can be a blind spot for teachers. A teacher may be less concerned with a popular child regarding social safety, but that child could just as easily be bullied. These insights help us move forward!'.

Bully and victim closer together, or further apart?

'Although we know that children like each other more once they are closer together, in this study, we looked at the effect of separating bully and victim,' Hoekstra says. We then place the victim next to a best friend, far away from the bully. The expectation was that the best friend would help stop the bullying or stand up for the person. In addition, the victim sits further out of sight of the bully, which also makes the bullied child feel less of a victim. 'This is a solution that teachers often opt for but which had not been scientifically researched', Hoekstra said.

Hoekstra did not choose to place the victim closer to the bully in her research. She points out, 'We need more knowledge of the bully and the victim for that, and we would have to make clear agreements with the teacher and the parents about that. That's not feasible in a study involving eighty elementary school classes, and as a researcher, I don't want to create unsafe situations.'

How do you conduct research in a primary school classroom?

'When you do research in elementary school classrooms, you must be extra vigilant that you don't disrupt social dynamics,' Hoekstra says. 'I don't want to worsen the relationship between victims and bullies.' Hoekstra and colleagues administered questionnaires twice in each participating class: at the beginning of the study and again eight to 10 weeks later. These questionnaires included such questions as, "How do you feel in class?" "How are you doing?" "How involved are you in class?" "Are you being bullied?" "If so, by whom are you being bullied?" and "Who is your best friend? 'That way, we knew precisely what pairs of bullies and victims there were and who were best friends.

'When you do research in elementary school classrooms, you must be extra vigilant that you don't disrupt social dynamics' 

Based on that, we made class divisions. In some classes, we chose a form where the victim sat right next to the best friend and far away from the bully(s); in other classes, we chose a random class division, ensuring that the victim did not sit too close to the bully. 

A difficult puzzle

'In practice, a victim often has several bullies, and some bullies may also have friends who are the victim's best friend. In the process, a victim may also bully someone else again. This makes classroom arrangements a puzzle and an almost impossible task for teachers. But that is exactly why we are researching this!' Hoekstra concludes.   


As it turns out, 'separating victims and bullies doesn't work at all as well as we thought,' says Hoekstra. She continues, 'perhaps we should start looking at ways in which victim and bully can be brought closer together responsibly, under supervision, in the classroom setting.'

What else did the research reveal?

We mapped the complexity of social relationships in the classroom in 80 primary school classes. Teachers now know precisely who is bullying, who the victims are and how these children are doing in the classroom.

'Bullying is still a huge problem'

Teachers were not always aware of this; during interviews with teachers, it was sometimes said that bullying did not take place in their class, while later, the results report showed that it did. This also shows that bullying is often done out of the teacher's sight. Hoekstra concludes: 'Bullying is still a huge problem.'  

The classroom arrangement is never permanent

Hoekstra hopes that teachers will even more actively begin to see class scheduling as a means of achieving classroom goals. If the class needs connection, you can sit children who don't yet know each other very well closer together. It may also be that the connection is fine, but the class needs to focus on results. Then, the teacher can temporarily divide the room into rows facing the board. So, a classroom arrangement is never permanent; it moves with the needs of the children and the class over time. In combating bullying behaviour, it is an indispensable tool. 

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