November 9th, 2018

UNICEF report: Peer-to-peer violence in schools is pervasive around the world

kids fighting bullyingSchool is a safe place — but only for half of the world’s students.

A new UNICEF analysis finds that half of students aged 13 to 15 globally report experiencing peer-to-peer violence in and around school. That’s about 150 million teens, according to the report “An Everyday Lesson: #ENDviolence in Schools,” which outlines a variety of ways students face violence in and around the classroom.

The report measures peer-to-peer violence as the number of children who report having been bullied in the previous month or having been involved in a physical fight. And, the report’s data shows the prevalence of violence in the U.S. is the same overall as in the other 121 countries examined.

Among the findings:

  • Slightly more than one in three students aged 13-15 experience bullying, and roughly the same proportion are involved in physical fights.
  • Three in 10 students in 39 industrialized countries admit to bullying peers.
  • While girls and boys are equally at risk of bullying, girls are more likely to become victims of psychological forms of bullying and boys are more at risk of physical violence and threats.
  • Between November 1991 and May 2018, 70 school shootings were documented in 14 countries. By definition, these shootings involved two or more victims and at least one fatality.

Violence interferes with the necessary ingredients for learning, said Steven Marans, MSW, Ph.D., director of the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence/Childhood Violent Trauma Center at Yale University’s Child Study Center.

Those ingredients include adequate frustration tolerance, the ability to experience pleasure with mastering new knowledge and skills and having one’s basic biological and nutritional needs met.

But there also needs to be a level of structure externally to support the unfolding developmental process taking place as kids learn, added Marans, who was not involved in the study.

“Like in the rest of society, in schools, having rules and structures and predictability are part of the essential ingredients to capitalizing on unfolding capacities of healthy, developing children.” he said.

As the report notes, evidence suggests toxic stress associated with extreme exposure to violence in childhood can interfere with healthy brain development and lead to aggressive and antisocial behaviors, substance abuse, risky sexual behavior and criminal activity.

When children don’t feel safe at school, they can end up deprived of an education and that has lifelong consequences. Lack of education has been recognized as a root cause of poverty.

“The schools have not focused on social-emotional learning, so that’s my big beef, and it’s not just the U.S., it’s everywhere,” said Maryland psychologist Mary K. Alvord, Ph.D.

She is the founder of the non-profit Resilience Across Borders, which runs group programs that teach assertiveness, problem solving and conflict resolution skills for 5th- through 7th- graders attending low-income schools in the District of Columbia and Montgomery County, Maryland.

Students who participated in the group Resilience Builder Program reported a significant increase in their emotional control and a significant decrease in negative emotion in a study Alvord co-authored that was published online last July in the International Journal of Group Psychotherapy.

“It could be considered a violence prevention program,” added Alvord, who serves as the American Psychological Association’s public education coordinator for Maryland.

She also has a private practice in Rockville and Chevy Chase and wrote a popular workbook for counselors and parents published in 2011. Titled “Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens,” the book offers a curriculum on how to overcome the common thinking habits that feed anger.

Alvord says free time and transition time are when children are at the most vulnerable for bullying and fighting because there’s less structure and there’s less supervision. And if children haven’t learned problem solving skills at home, they are at risk of being the victim or the aggressor in bullying at school.

She called the UNICEF report “very impressive” and agreed with its broad definition of violence to include emotional abuse and bullying in addition to actions causing physical harm.

A United Nations agency headquartered in New York City, UNICEF provides humanitarian and developmental assistance to children and women in developing countries.

UNICEF has worked with government policymakers, teachers, administrators, parents, students and others in more than 70 countries across the world to end violence in schools.

Its work has ranged from student-led bullying-prevention programs in Indonesia, which has seen an almost 30 percent reduction in bullying in schools, to mediation centers in El Salvador schools where children are trained in how to settle disputes peacefully and teachers are trained in the use of art therapy to create peaceful environments.

Cornelius Williams, MA, associate director and global chief of child protection for UNICEF’s Program Division, said societies bear the high costs related to health care and social assistance for victims of violence, as well as the loss of economic productivity because of violence.

He cited one estimate that put the annual global cost of the consequences of violence against children are as high as $7 trillion.

“To end violence in schools, we’re working with partners to call for urgent action in key areas,” Williams said via an email.

The areas include strengthening prevention and response measures in schools, supporting students as they speak up about violence and work to change the culture of classrooms and communities, and making targeted investments in proven solutions that help students and schools stay safe.

Williams said UNICEF is organizing a number of #ENDviolence Youth Talks around the world to hear from young people about their experiences of violence and what they need to feel safe in and around school. The talks will inform a set of recommendations to global leaders.

By Janine Weisman

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