27 July 2023

Abusers of school shootings have usually been victims of peer violence themselves. Meanwhile, a teacher can prevent it

Interview with Prof. Jacek Pyżalski, pedagogue, academic teacher (from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań), trainer in the area of communication and school violence prevention, and author of numerous publications - both scientific and popularizing - in the field of pedagogy. Prof. Pyżalski is also a Holistic Think Tank's Scientific Board member.

Author: Maria Mazurek,


Photo: Jose Alonso/Unsplash

When we think of peer violence, shootings in American schools come to mind. Where access to guns is more common, is violence in schools more common?

No. Guns are not the cause of violence, but when violence does occur – it can result in more victims, including fatalities. School shootings can be catastrophic in their consequences, and thus – they receive media attention. The everyday reality of peer violence does not look so spectacular. Violence is not always physical. Sometimes, a child is not beaten at school; he is “only” excluded. This is enough, research shows, to leave permanent and painful scars on his psyche.

What exactly is peer violence?

Simply put, it is a type of violence whose author and the person experiencing it (since the word “victim” is being avoided) are young people. Its acts usually occur within permanently functioning groups of young people – usually in the classroom, but it can also be, for example, a sports club or a scout troop. Peer violence can take many forms: from physical (which involves the perpetrator attacking someone’s body, hitting, roughing up, kicking, spitting, but also destroying things), through verbal (involving ridicule, abuse, name-calling, spreading rumors) or cyberbullying, to the one that is, unfortunately, least talked about: relational violence. The latter consists of the abuser or abusers excluding someone from their peer group; they don’t greet them, don’t talk to them, and don’t invite them to participate in various activities. We are social beings, so a situation in which peers treat us like air is very painful.

Especially if it is repeated in childhood or adolescence. Why are such situations more difficult for children?

Violence is an experience that is difficult at any age. Still, children or adolescents are not yet able to defend themselves, nor do they have sufficiently developed mechanisms and emotional-social competencies that would allow them to rationalize or distance themselves from this situation. Second, human beings have particular developmental needs, and during the school period, the need to belong to a peer group is particularly strong. If we need to have a network of people around us who like and respect us, among whom we feel safe and comfortable, but instead, we find ourselves in the complete opposite situation – peers insult us, ridicule us, abuse us, reject us, and violently treat us – then very strong aversive emotional factors emerge that will stay with us for a long time. The Australian Temperament Project, a longitudinal study – that is, performed on the same group of subjects over decades – shows that the imprints of peer violence we experience at school don’t disappear with the slamming of the school door behind us. They stay with us much longer and become a powerful problem.

You mentioned school shootings. An interesting thing: cases where the abuser was a school student were scientifically analyzed. Do you know what was found?

That usually, the abusers are those who have previously been victims of peer violence themselves?

Yes. This, of course, in no way justifies the violence, but it shows a specific mechanism of revenge and what a desperate victim of violence, humiliated for a very long time, can do.
What percentage of children are victims of peer violence?


Lots and little.

Lots. I must emphasize that single acts of violence are not yet counted in these estimates. To be considered violence, they must meet three criteria: the victim must experience them regularly, there must be an imbalance of power in the relationship with the abuser, and the violence must be intentional. Only then do we speak of bullying. 10-15 percent of students experience it regularly at school. This is an average rate for the world, and it varies from country to country. Poland is somewhere in the middle of the scale – violence is neither particularly high nor particularly low in our country.

Does this number change over the years?

From the data we have – because, unfortunately, we don’t have research conducted over the years using the same methodology – it appears that the scale of violence is not increasing. However, researchers have observed other differences, such as the fact that girls are more often the abusers of violence today.

Why does a child become a violent abuser? What is going on in his head?
There is a correlation between whether a child becomes a peer violence abuser and his family relationships. In short, if children at home observe violence, such as verbal violence, they are more likely to become abusers. However, I emphasize that we are only talking about a certain tendency because other factors also play a role in the mechanisms of peer violence. Its abusers sometimes turn out to be children from peaceful, supportive families, excellent students, involved in volunteer work, and highly cultured. No one would expect that exactly they would be able to bully someone. And yet, sometimes ethical norms and upbringing fall aside, and social factors become stronger. The abuser commits acts of violence not necessarily because he wants to hurt someone.

So why?

Violence can be used to get many things done: to shine in a group, show yourself as someone important, and gain respect. Please remember that the classroom is a stage. Ninety percent of acts of peer violence occur in front of witnesses, who play a crucial role in the situation: they often laugh, applaud, and encourage the abuser to continue, and the abuser – gains socially. He plays a central role on this classroom stage. He is admired. This is a matter of social dynamics, and researchers of violence look for the causes of problems here.

How should teachers respond to violence?

Everyone asks about responding to violence, and I wouldn’t wait until it occurs. Of course, there are a number of elaborate methodological solutions that teachers can and should use once violence has occurred. However, it is best to prevent it.

How to?

By nurturing relations between students. Studies show that where group members know each other well, where a community of experience unites them – violence rarely occurs. Even if there is a conflict within such a close-knit group, it does not escalate or lead to acts of violence. Prevention, then, is not really a workshop on violence or integration activities, but all sorts of experiences that create a relationship between people.

What exactly can a teacher do?

Give kids the space to experience something together. Good ideas include events like a “night at school” or an expedition where students make an encampment together. There is also a lot to do during the lessons themselves. More and more teachers are offering students to work in twos and groups. That’s great, except that if the students themselves get into these groups, they will choose to work with a colleague they already know well. So it’s a good idea for the teacher to match students into duos or teams, for instance, at random, by drawing cards, counting down, and so on. It’s also a good idea to rotate students around the class area. Peer group dynamics usually involve forming several groups in classrooms and having students function within them, never talking to the rest of their classmates. The more of these conversations, “social lines,” the lower the risk of violence.

Nothing protects against violence like bonds. It’s good for the school to nurture them. To teach young people cooperation, respect, and empathy before aggression occurs.