Anatomy of Child Bullying in Japan 5: Bullying Prevention (2): Preventing the Escalation of Bullying by Recognizing Children's SOS Signs - Papers & Essays



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Anatomy of Child Bullying in Japan 5: Bullying Prevention (2): Preventing the Escalation of Bullying by Recognizing Children's SOS Signs


To stop bullying from occurring or escalating, it is important for adults to detect bullying at the stage when bullying is about to start or has just started. However, in most cases, bullied children are reluctant to tell adults that “I’m being bullied, please help me.” In order to rescue these children from bullying, we should carefully observe children’s subtle changes in behavior, which may indicate an “SOS sign” of bullying. For this reason, we have created a list of 104 SOS signs. Some of these signs were suggested by teachers, who were the participants in our survey concerned with identifying early indicators of bullying. We also asked 88 teachers of eight primary schools to rank the degree to which each item indicated bullying, using a six-point scale. The average score for each item was calculated based on their answers and is shown on the SOS sign list. The survey also revealed that teachers who carefully observe children in the classroom and those who support children by standing at their side are more likely to recognize the SOS signs of bullying.

bullying, escalation of bullying, preventing bullying, SOS signs

Anatomy of Child Bullying in Japan

Previously, I explained how to prevent "negative conformity," one of the possible causes of bullying. The principal method is to encourage children to understand and respect the differences between one another. In this report, I will discuss the importance of identifying children's SOS signs at the stage when bullying is about to start or has just started. If teachers and adults can notice the signs at these early stages, this could save many children from suffering.

Most bullying occurs out of the sight of adults; therefore, it is not easy for adults to recognize the early signs of bullying. There are also new types of invisible bullying such as cyber bullying. The intervention of adults such as teachers and parents can resolve most bullying problems, but bullied children are often reluctant to tell adults about bullying.

There are various reasons why: they do not want adults to worry; they are afraid to tell adults, as this will escalate bullying; they feel ashamed of being bullied and do not want to show their weak and miserable state; they think this is their own problem to solve; they think adults are helpless against bullying; they have support from friends; they think they can put up with it for a while; they think it is their fault for being bullied; they are afraid of being disliked by bullying children; they believe bullying children are still friends; they think bullying will stop one day, etc.

In today's Japan, there may be many children who suffer at the hands of bullies, being afraid to tell adults but secretly hoping that someone will notice and rescue them from the painful situation. These children must show some signs in their behavior, which, in this report, I will call "SOS" signs.

If adults can notice such SOS signs, many children will be released from the pain of being bullied. For this reason, it is necessary for adults to develop skills to recognize the SOS signs of bullied children. Bullying intervention will be more effective and less burdensome if this is done at the earliest stage possible. Therefore, it is important for teachers, who always have a full schedule, to identify children's SOS signs at the stage when bullying is about to start or has just started, which will provide additional benefits in terms of saving time and effort in solving bullying problems.

Some educational authorities such as the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, the National Web-counseling Association*1, and school counselors have issued their "SOS sign" list (possibly under a different name) based on their theories and approaches.

However, there is uncertainty as to whether such lists accurately reflect the views and experiences of teachers who actually work at school and observe children every day.

Then, you may have some questions like: Do these teachers think the lists helpful? What kinds of SOS signs are recognizable only to teachers who actually observe children at school? What types of teachers are the most sensitive to SOS signs? To answer these questions, I will introduce our research on primary school teachers (both public and private) conducted at my laboratory. You may find this research report a bit difficult, but please bear with me.

This research was planned and implemented together with Nanae Hashimoto, who became a primary school teacher after graduating from university in 2011. Various methods for psychological studies include experiments, interviews, questionnaires, and observation. We chose interview and questionnaire methods for our research, adopting the following procedures.

First, we prepared the SOS sign list consisting of 83 items, and showed it to 41 teachers of three primary schools, asking them if there was any item they wanted to add to the list (preliminary survey). They suggested more than 20 new items such as "avoids putting own desk close to that of classmates" and "stops writing comments in the group notebook or the classroom diary report." After adding these items, we re-classified all the items by merging items of similar meanings and splitting those with multiple meanings. In the end, the list resulted in having 104 items.

Next, we asked the teachers about the relationship between each item and the degree to which the items indicated the level of bullying*2. They were also asked whether the bullying indicators were taken into account while they were teaching.

We also asked the teachers to assess themselves on their personal attributes, such as the degree of observing others, and their type of leadership (as a "performance function (instructional behavior)" or a "maintenance function (relationship-building behavior)"; please see my third report Bullying and the Relation to Teacher Leadership.


In the end, we obtained interesting answers from 88 teachers in eight primary schools about these 104 SOS sign items. These results suggest that teachers who are good at observing others and those who demonstrate "maintenance function" are more likely to recognize children's SOS signs than those of other types.

We also classified all 104 items into four categories, according to their relatedness in terms of the "degree of indicators of bullying," using a factor analysis method. This analysis result is shown in Table "SOS signs of bullying and the degree of indicators of bullying." The SOS sign items are aligned in descending order of the degree to which they indicate bullying. The "minor bullying impact factors" represent SOS signs at the stage of bullying where damage caused by bullying is relatively minor, while the "medium bullying impact factors" and the "interpersonal avoidance/isolated behavior factors" represent SOS signs at the developing stage of bullying. The "negative interpersonal impact factors" indicate direct damage to interpersonal relationships occurring at the advanced stage of bullying.

On this list, as you may notice, there are some items indicating rather positive behavior such as "The child more often plays the role of group leader during group-based study sessions." However, we should question whether the child is forced to take the role of group leader by other children, or the child is willing to take the role thinking he/she can avoid being the target of bullying by doing so. Of course, the list is not complete, but I hope it will be of some help to all those who are trying to prevent bullying. Some of the items may be confusing. You may wonder, "Why can this be a sign of bullying?" I did not ask the teachers this question while conducting the survey or why they suggested such items. Please seek your own answer to this question, as I believe that it will help to gradually improve the skills of observing the signs of bullying among the children you teach.

In this report, I have explained the importance of children's SOS signs which may indicate that they are affected by bullying. Identifying SOS signs does not guarantee an immediate solution to bullying; nevertheless, parents and teachers who notice a subtle change in the behavior of bullied children may prevent bullying from escalating at an early stage. We need to remember that some bullied children are afraid of being noticed. In this case, we should avoid responding emotionally, for example, by putting pressure on them for an explanation for their change in behavior. It is important to respect their thoughts and support them in thinking carefully about how the bullying problem can be resolved with the support of the teacher.

Besides the SOS signs on our list, you may think of more SOS signs. We always welcome any additional information teachers can bring to our attention as well as comments on this article or on the blog.

*1: The organization has had substantial success in dealing with cyber-bullying, etc. Their counseling staff nationwide offers support and advice by means of e-mail and door-to-door visits.
*2: Teachers are asked to assess the degree to which each item indicates bullying. More precisely, they are asked to assess the possibility of bullying when children start to show a certain kind of behavior. The assessment was conducted using a six-point scale, ranging from 1 "None" to 6 "Very high." Items with a score 3 or lower are considered to be insufficient for detecting bullying.
report_sugimori_shinkichi.jpg Dr. Sugimori is Professor of Social Psychology at Tokyo Gakugei University, conducting research on group psychology (evaluation of team working, psychology in the citizen judge system, and effects of experiential activities) as well as risk psychology, from the standpoint of cultural social psychology focusing on social relations between individuals and groups. He also serves as Board Member of the Japanese Society for Law and Psychology; Executive Board Member of the Society for Field-Culture Education; Board Member of the Youth Friendship Association; Councilor of the Outward Bound Japan; Researcher of the Center for Research on Educational Testing; Board Member of the Children Institute for the Future, Tokyo Gakugei University; Chairman of the Accreditation Committee, Japan Association for Certifying and Training Educational Specialists.