International schools fight bullying

By Hannah Leung Source:Global Times Published: 2013-4-21 21:48:01


Students gather on the field of the Canadian International School on April 2 dressed in pink to commemorate Pink Shirt Day. Pink is the international anti-bullying color. Photo: Li Hao/GT
Students gather on the field of the Canadian International School on April 2 dressed in pink to commemorate Pink Shirt Day. Pink is the international anti-bullying color. Photo: Li Hao/GT


Children hold hands at the Canadian International School of Beijing's Pink Shirt Day. The anti-bullying event started in Canada in 2009. Photos: Li Hao/GT
Children hold hands at the Canadian International School of Beijing's Pink Shirt Day. The anti-bullying event started in Canada in 2009. Photos: Li Hao/GT

When Celita Epalanga, 12 years old, first moved with her family from Angola to Beijing, two things stood out about her to her new classmates at the Canadian International School of Beijing: her skin color and non-fluent English.

"In fourth grade, I went up to someone to say, 'Hi,' and he told me that he didn't like African people," she said.

As bullying often stems from perceived differences, international schools with a host of different cultures and backgrounds may seem like the perfect storm for rampant bullying.

Celita talked about the issue with her mother, who said that not everyone needs to like everyone else - but that respect is a crucial element. 

Luckily, Celita's enthusiastic personality won others over easily, and by the end, the teasing boy became a friend. Despite marked differences, she escaped being taunted. Others who don't or can't stand up to bullies may be less fortunate.

In any case, distinguishing between kids being kids, bullying and cultural nuances remains a murky matter at international schools.

Who is bullying?, an anti-bullying website based in the US, defines bullying as "unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance." This type of behavior may be repeated over time. Bullying includes "making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose."

Bullying sometimes defies the definitions, though, as it doesn't just include physical violence and intimidation. Often in high school, bullying turns more psychological. Bullying at international schools may be harder to pinpoint, as it can be more about cultural divides, a touchy subject.

"International schools in Beijing stand as unique for their many different nationalities, whether it's kids from a Chinese, Korean or Canadian background," said Adam Wilson, a guidance counselor at the Canadian International School of Beijing. This mix of nationalities can sometimes contribute to cultural miscommunications. Cliques can emerge. 

A 10-year-old boy of Korean nationality (who requested anonymity) describes a typical recess break at the playground of his international school: "Usually, the Koreans hang out with the Koreans and the Chinese with the Chinese. … Then there are the kids from France, the UK and (Europe), and they tend to hang out with each other. It's not that they don't talk to you or anything, but they might not let you play ball with them."

"Often, bullies tend to want power. It's just an imbalance of power in their life that they are trying to make up for. They don't know how to express themselves, so they act physically," Wilson said. "There might be cases where they don't understand the impact of their actions. We try to help them with that problem in their life, or just give them solutions." 

As bullying and its damages are on the rise everywhere, international schools in Beijing are gearing up on preventative measures.

Dulwich College Beijing, which offers classes for kids ages 1 to 18, held a parent seminar recently called "Why Children Bully" at its main campus at Legend Garden, Shunyi district. Dulwich invited Robert Pereira from Australia, an educational consultant in the area of school bullying and author of a resource called "Why We Bully."

This seminar strove to assist parents understand the causes of bullying, providing parents with the bigger picture behind this social problem and enabling them to engage in conversation with their sons and daughters to minimize this growing problem.


Wilson worked as a guidance counselor for a year in Canada before starting at the Canadian International School in Beijing. One marked difference, Wilson said, is that in smaller cities and towns in Canada, the student body tends to live close together. But at most international schools in Beijing, students' homes sprawl all over the city. This means that to keep in touch when they go home, they head online, Wilson said.

Though bullying may have once happened largely in the classroom and the playground, the Internet is a free-for-all space, without restrictions or supervision from parents, principles and teachers.

Cyberbullying, as the Western Academy of Beijing explains, takes place in the digital sphere and involves both Internet and cell phone communication. Examples of cyberbullying include circulating false rumors about someone on social networking sites, sending threatening or provocative e-mails and texts and publishing mean comments about another person online.

Though the old adage says, "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me," online bullying now poses a bigger threat than physical bullying. Physical bullying can be seen, but something that happens virtually can go unrecognized. China particularly has had a short but intense history with youth taking issues to the Internet.

"I think a lot of the more notable cyberbullying among youth in China revolves around using the Internet to broadcast or otherwise maximize the humiliation of a target. Several years ago, there was a string of reports in the media of youths stripping targets naked or viciously beating them up, filming it, and then posting the videos or images online," wrote Kai Pan, a moderator on the popular online forum ChinaSmack, in an e-mail to Metropolitan.

This dangerous type of bullying can be done anonymously. Cyberbullying can find many mediums such as e-mail, text messaging and social networking forums such as Facebook and Sina Weibo that make it easy for a bullies to post incriminating pictures or texts without identifying themselves.

Anti-bullying campaigns

Pink Shirt Day, or Anti-Bullying Day, originated in Canada in 2009 and has since become an international event. The day - commemorated by participants wearing pink, the international anti-bullying color - is meant to show support for students, and involves activities all revolving around anti-bullying.

The Canadian International School of Beijing held its own Pink Shirt Day this month. In order to show a united front for positive relationships, the school dressed in pink and had pink T-shirts for sale. The day culminated in an event which had students standing in the field, collectively creating a heart.

Ironically, on the playground that day, kids could be heard making jests at each other while walking onto the field. Three young girls, for instance, twirled around in similar pink tutus. Two playfully jested the one girl whose dress was a bit longer. 

"Leading up that day, we have talent shows, diversity culture shows and plays. … We teach them about conflict resolution. The older students generally help the younger students," said Wilson.

But can bullying really be overcome through these kinds of exercises?

For Celita, who stayed around after the heart-shape dismantled and kids shuffled back to class, the bullying stopped as she assimilated. Her English is now perfect. Upbeat and positive, her rise against bullying may be more a testament to her personality than any policy.

Parental prevention

In the end, especially for middle school-aged students, parents often need to be the ones intervening. If it's possible, parents should let kids know they can stand up for themselves, and that what the bully is doing is wrong.

Michelle Chow-Liu, the high school counselor at the Western Academy of Beijing, said that the school has preventative programming for bullying.

She suggests that parents of bullied kids listen and be supportive, getting the facts of what happened and all the parties involved.

Some telltale signs that a child is being bullied include excessive time spent alone, change of appetite, different signs of stress, lack of sleep or always being tired. 

One way for children to feel less isolated is to make more friends. This can be done by getting involved in clubs, sports or drama. It's important to meet different groups of people. Having groups of friends builds a sense of community, and fostering cross-cultural understanding leads to a better school experience.

 "If they are really involved in school, they have a higher tendency to have happier school lives. Parents need to take time to communicate, even if they're in another city or country, checking up on Skype, talking to their kids," said Wilson.

Bullying on a local level

One 17-year-old student, who wishes to remain anonymous, at the prestigious Beijing No.8 High School in the Xicheng District, said that in her experience, younger age groups often deal more directly to issues of bullying. They're not yet under the intense pressure of exams she is now experiencing. For her peer group, bullying occurs less on the actual school grounds.

Local schools place a great deal of emphasis on academic performance, with the results from the nationwide examination, the gaokao, often on public display.

"I think the younger students have a more open environment, and they express their emotions more. It's rare at our school for anyone to really physically bully, but verbal forms of bullying, like rumors and online bullying, are common," she said.

The high school senior said that she thinks international schools in Beijing foster more tolerance.

"My school is really famous for its academics. So often, our (academic standing) and how our teacher views us determines what kind of cliques we are in," she said. "Sometimes it can be very isolating." 

Posted in: Society, Metro Beijing

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