Bullying in UAE Schools: A Guide for Parents

When a child or teen is bullied, parents play a vital role in advocating for them, supporting them emotionally, and ensuring the issue does not repeat itself. What should parents expect from UAE schools and what should they do when the school is not taking appropriate action?
Bullying in UAE Schools: A Guide for Parents
By Susan Roberts
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The UAE’s education authorities promote a zero-tolerance approach to bullying in schools, and school leaders certainly talk the talk, with varying levels of effective action and results. What then, should you expect from your child’s school if you discover a bullying problem? How best can parents support their child and ensure bullying is effectively handled?

The difference between bullying and peer conflict

Although there are many definitions of bullying, the generally accepted elements are that the behaviour is intentional, harmful, repeated and that it is carried out by an individual or group to another, where there is a perceived imbalance of social or physical power

The KHDA defines bullying as “the intentional and deliberate intimidation of another person through emotional, physical, psychological and/or cyber means.”

Bullying generally falls into one of four categories, although may include behaviour from multiple categories: 

  • verbal bullying: insults, intimidation, name calling, derogatory remarks
  • physical bullying: hitting, kicking, tripping, pushing, damage of property
  • psychological/social bullying: spreading of rumours, causing humiliation, encouraging social exclusion, damaging reputation
  • cyber bullying: abusive or hurtful messages or social media posts, intimidation online, deliberate exclusion online, spreading gossip or rumours online

Speaking to WhichSchoolAdvisor.com, Ms Melissa Casale, Pastoral Lead and Deputy Head, Raha International School said:

“Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behaviour that involves a power imbalance which is repeated over time. Bullying may be verbal, physical, or social. Examples of bullying may include making threats, spreading rumours, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.” 

Mr Paul Fisher, Assistant Head at Arcadia School, added:

“Over the last few years, we have observed a very big change. Issues with online safety have become more prevalent. This raises further challenges as many of the students are not fully aware of the person bullying them, there is an element of anonymity with cyberbullying.”

While conflicts will occur between children and teens, should a parent struggle to discern whether their child is experiencing bullying or not, it is advisable to err on the side of caution and not belittle or undermine any claims the child makes.

What are the potential effects of bullying?

The days of bullying being viewed as an inevitable stage of a growing a ‘thick skin’ are, for the most part, in the past. Studies have shown that rather than building resilience, bullying can cause serious problems to children socially and emotionally. 

Dr Amy Bailey, Clinical Psychologist at Kids First Medical Centre explained: 

“Children who are bullied are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, changes in sleep and eating patterns, and loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy. There may also be a decline in their academic achievement and school participation. They are more likely to miss, skip, or drop out of school. Studies have shown that children who are bullied can still experience negative effects on their physical and mental health more than 40 years later.”

Dr Bene Katabua, Educational Psychologist at Intercare Health Center, added:

"In the short-term, this may manifest as children withdrawing from friends and family, less participation in school and social activities, reduced confidence, school avoidance, poorer academic performance, and reduction in happiness overall.

In the long term, they may develop a general negativistic attitude. That attitude may affect how they relate to others, how they create and sustain goals, how they persevere in hardship, etc. They may also have greater difficulty developing resilience or a sense of grit, making them more prone to giving up easily or being more passive/avoidant. Furthermore, it may be more difficult for victims of bullying to set boundaries, or express their needs - further placing them in vulnerable situations." 

Is the school to blame?

To an extent, bullying happens in every country and in every school, however it is a considerably bigger issue in some schools than in others. The prevalence of bullying in a school can speak volumes about quality of leadership and the approach being taken. Where bullying becomes a widespread problem, or is allowed to persist, questions should be raised. 

Mr Mark Atkins, Principal, Durham School Dubai, shared his view:

“Schools cannot always be held responsible for incidents of bullying, it happens in every school, however, a school is always responsible for how it deals with it. If bullying is tolerated or even perceived to be accepted, then it may proliferate. All pupils and staff must therefore be completely clear that there is zero tolerance for bullying in a school.”

Mr John Bell, Principal at Bloom World Academy, added:

“Bullying is not simply an issue of the bully and the victim, it’s much broader, it’s about a school culture, about modelling behaviour. There has to be a standard and an expectation among students, staff and parents, that we look out for one another. We never just walk by.” 

Indeed, research shows that bystander behaviour is a major factor in bullying prevention in schools. Building a school culture, within which bullying and aggression are not tolerated, and students are engaged in prevention efforts, can have a significant impact in reducing the prevalence and impact of bullying behaviour. It is not enough for a school to approach bullying reactively, acting only when problems arise.  

Why do children bully?

While schools may take a zero-tolerance approach to bullying, it is often the case that the child bullying needs considerable support and guidance to stop harming others. If you are the parent of a child accused of bullying, or if you feel frustrated or aggrieved by the action taken after your own child has been bullied, it may help to understand what is often behind these behaviours. 

Dr Amy Bailey, Clinical Psychologist at Kids First Medical Centre, explained:

“Children bully for a variety of different reasons however, these reasons most commonly stem from the experiences that the child has had. Most children who bully have witnessed this behaviour within some area of their life – this may be aggressive or dominating behaviour from a parent or other adult, or they have been the victim of a bully themselves. As such, they perceive their bullying behaviour as a perfectly acceptable way to communicate and interact with others. 

Sometimes children bully to hide their own feelings of inadequacy. They do not want other children to become more popular, or to do better than them. By devaluating others, they hope to increase their own self-worth in the eyes of their peers. Children may also bully others who are different to themselves. This stems from a lack of understanding and fear about someone that is different.”

Dr Bene Katabua, Educational Psychologist at Intercare Health Center, added:

"Generally, children who bully tend to have emotional and mental difficulties themselves, and are using these inappropriate behaviours as a way to somehow remediate their own inner turmoil."

Mr Dara Davey, Assistant Head at Safa British School, shared his school’s approach:

“At SBS, we would not label a child a bully. We would look at all incidents and investigations as a learning point and ensure the child is fully supported whilst also ensuring they take ownership of their actions and the consequences which follow. We are here to educate all children.”

Mr Paul Fisher, Assistant Head Teacher at Arcadia School shared a similar sentiment:

“At Arcadia, we believe that all behaviour is communication and try to understand what is happening to a student who is involved in bullying behaviour. We provide multiple levels of support and use restorative justice to ensure the student fully understands the impact of bullying. Our counsellors work closely with these students to really develop their understanding of empathy and to make them realise that their actions have a direct impact on others. Dealing with the source of the problem is key to limiting any bullying issues from reoccurring.” 

Why are some children repeatedly targeted?

A victim of bullying should never be considered responsible or be blamed in any way for the bullying. It can, however, be the case that some children find themselves repeatedly the victim of bullying, even when moving schools and around different groups of children.

We asked Dr Amy Bailey, Clinical Psychologist at Kids First Medical Centre, why this might occur:

"There is no single factor that means one child is more likely to be bullied by another however, there are several risk factors that have been identified. The more of these risk factors present in a child's life, the more likely they may find themselves to become the target of bullying. Risk factors include: the child is perceived as different from peers (e.g. looking different), the child is perceived as weak or unable to defend themselves, has fewer friends in school, finds it difficult to get on with others, and may already be experiencing mental health issues such as anxiety, depression or low self-esteem.”

What should parents do?

When a parent discovers or suspects that their child may be the victim of bullying, the first priority should be supporting their child. Talking to an adult about what is happening can be difficult; a child may feel embarrassed, frightened, or fear they will be blamed or not believed. 

Dr Amy Bailey, Clinical Psychologist at Kids First Medical Centre, advised:

“Ensure you listen carefully and respectfully, explain why children bully so your child does not blame themselves, try to problem solve how they can respond and create a safety plan in case it happens again. Work to restore the child’s confidence and remember that bullying is often a repeated behaviour so follow discussion up with your child. It is important not to advise a child to fight back as this can escalate the situation.”

The ideal resolution will involve parents working in partnership with school staff. A strategy for resolving a bullying problem in school should be created and agreed on together, with the child’s best interests at the centre.

Mr Mark Atkins, Principal, Durham School Dubai, expressed the importance of this:

"Parents have a very important role to play. As in all things, schools do not act alone, and they rely on parent support in order to educate children both academically and socially. Key to this is communication between home and school and willingness to listen to each other carefully – parents must support the school when the school takes action against bullying and schools must listen carefully to parents when claims of bullying are made."

In a minority of cases, parents may feel that their child’s school is not taking sufficient action to resolve the issue. Parents can contact the appropriate education authority to support them in a resolution. 

What should parents expect from their child’s school?

Quite simply, every child should feel safe and included at school. Unfortunately, resolving a case of bullying is far from straight forward and requires an individual approach for each situation. Because of this, it can be difficult for a parent to see clearly whether a school is taking the best action or not unless they engage fully with the school staff allocated to handle the issue.

Mr Mark Atkins, Principal, Durham School Dubai, explained what expectations parents should have:

“When prevention of bullying fails, it is essential that the school has a transparent, firm and consistent policy in place to effectively manage incidents of bullying. Teachers must have explicit guidance on reporting and investigating instances of bullying, the disciplinary procedures that follow and how the matter is communicated to parents."

Carefully planned and structured support should be given to those pupils who have suffered at the hands of bullies. As part of bullying prevention, those pupils who have bullied others must also be helped to understand the consequences of their actions and the importance of correcting their behaviour for the benefit of themselves and everyone in the school.”

Every Dubai private school has a parent contract, registered with the KHDA, in which the rights and responsibilities of students and parents are outlined. This document, although individual to each school, follows a KHDA format, including a section on student behaviour, which should link to the school’s behaviour policy. Schools in other emirates should similarly have a behaviour policy in place. 

Parents should gain a clear understanding of the action that will be taken by the school from these documents, in cases of bullying. The school is obligated to follow the policies they have put in place. 

Mr Paul Fisher, Assistant Head Teacher at Arcadia School, described some of his school’s preventative initiatives:

“At Arcadia, we have regular age-appropriate lessons on the topic of bullying prevention from FS all the way through to our secondary school, as well as bullying awareness events school-wide assemblies on how to spot bullying and how to be an 'upstander'. Additionally, we host parent webinars related to online safety and anti-bullying, bringing in external expert speakers. 

We have a specialist behaviour team in place at the school. This team includes members of staff from SLT, inclusion, safeguarding and counselling departments. This unified approach allows us to tackle any bullying issues very quickly before they escalate. 

When dealing with issues like bullying, a one-size-fits-all approach does not work. We develop individual plans for any students of concern. Along with our class teachers, we have an in-house counselling department that works regularly with students to ensure a high level of pastoral support.”

Dara Davey, Assistant Head, Safa British School, described his school’s approach:

“At SBS, we have zero tolerance for bullying. The successful embedment of our ‘DiversCity’ curriculum is a nod to the multicultural and inclusive city of Dubai where different faiths and beliefs are celebrated. Our main objective of the initiative is to enhance and improve inclusive practice within the school community. Building positive identities and a respect for differences means weaving diversity into the fabric of children's everyday lives here at SBS.

Any allegations of bullying are investigated with immediate effect and all children involved take part in a 1:1 meeting with a member of our pastoral leadership team. Due to the culture and ethos of our school, even a friendship concern will be fully investigated. Parents will be aware at all stages via telephone or a meeting."

Children who are affected are further supported with pastoral check ins. On occasions they may need additional support with their self-esteem, in which case a member of the LINK team completes social and emotional interventions with the child.”

Ms Melissa Casale, Pastoral Lead and Deputy Head, added that listening before acting is key at  Raha International School:

“We encourage students to talk about what they have experienced. The best way for us to be able to help and support in this situation is to understand what is happening. We have a student support team in place, including our school counsellors and pastoral leads, to support students and to remind them that they are not on their own. Daily or frequent check-ins with the student allows for the team to keep a close eye on the situation and to give the necessary support to build their confidence and wellbeing.”

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