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One Swedish school’s approach to bullying

No matter what country you live in, school bullying happens. The short and long term effects can range from embarrassing to life-altering. We look at how one international school in Sweden tackles the issue to ensure its students thrive.

One Swedish school's approach to bullying
What do Swedish schools do about bullying? Photo: Getty Images

Taunting, mocking, rejecting and even physical attacks like pushing or worse, are pervasive in schools across the world and they can all occur with varying levels of severity. Bullying’s effects on children’s immediate mental health has long been known and recent research into the long-term consequences of prolonged victimised bullying points to negative social, health and economic effects in victims some four decades later. 

Globally, bullying is on the rise and Sweden is no different, notes Swedish anti-bullying group Friends.

However, school-based anti-bullying programs are proving to have success, with a 2021 Journal of School Psychology paper stating programs effectively reduced school bully perpetration by 19 to 20 percent. 

In Sweden, at coeducational independent boarding school Sigtuna Humanistiska Läroverket (SSHL), the approach to anti-bullying sees the school and students collaborating to tackle the issue from all sides.

In addition to taking action when there is an acute situation, the big focus is on preventative measures. 

Swedish student Axel Geijer is a 19-year-old boarder at SSHL and president of the school’s student anti-bullying organisation Hjärter Ess (Ace of Hearts). The group works to stop bullying before it happens, aiming to ingrain inclusivity and kindness into students. 

“This way bullying won’t become a really big problem. Because if bullying starts, I feel like the problem has already gone overboard. It’s good if you start at the source,” he explains.

As well as being a group for kids to turn to if they’re subjected to bullying or have other issues, Hjärter Ess organises school-wide events and promotes a positive feeling of inclusivity. It has representatives of all ages and touts the motto “be yourself”.

Discover the benefits of a school committed to academic success as well as student wellbeing

SSHL’s student anti-bullying organisation, Hjärter Ess.

Student welfare at its core

Around 600 students attend SSHL, one of Sweden’s oldest schools located in Sigtuna just north of Stockholm. It takes anti-bullying so seriously it is embedded in its ethos

The school’s core commitment is to students’ academic success and positive wellbeing and pledges to “promote understanding of other people and the capacity for empathy. No one at school should be subjected to bullying. The school must actively combat harassment. Xenophobia and intolerance are the products of ignorance and fear, and must be countered with knowledge, open discussion and active measures.”

Anna Kalles is Assistant Principal of SSHL’s upper secondary school and leader of the school’s ‘equal treatment work’. She says she is proud that increasingly more students feel encouraged and empowered to approach staff and report bullying – whether it’s a feeling of loneliness, name-calling or something more serious. 

The school’s equal treatment work may be largely invisible to some, says Anna, but its work is incredibly important. It has worked to put a system in place that encourages transparency and communication between students and school leadership. This ensures a level of trust and security for students, and importantly for the school, the ability to tackle any bullying before issues can fester. 

Find out how your child can thrive at the Swedish boarding school with an international outlook, Sigtuna Humanistiska Läroverket (SSHL)

SSHL student and president of the school’s anti-bullying organisation Hjärter Ess, Axel Geijer.
Helping students be the best versions of themselves
Mazdak Sarvari, Head of Boarding at SSHL, is responsible for the 200 boarding students at the school. 

With 25 to 30 students in each boarding house, how does he ensure students not only get along, but also progress and grow during this important time of their lives? 

Clear structure, routine and rules are important, he says. “We have a few really clear rules and clear consequences. For example we are an alcohol-, drug- and bullying-free school. We teach the students how to be good friends to each other and how to be good people.”

The school’s no-bullying or harassment stance is made clear to new students and parents from day one, with students asked to sign statements to acknowledge they understand. 

“We take a lot of steps to make sure students are fully aware of what kind of school this is, which makes it easier to prevent but also to take action if needed,” says Mazdak.

The staff must also be good role models at all times, he adds. “How we treat each other, how we talk to each other and to students… it all matters.”

This notion of model behaviour and strong support is ongoing, with continuous dialogue between students and staff to coach and mentor them. 

“We have a vision – that all of our students can reach their goals and be the best version of themselves. The years they have here at SSHL should be important in that journey.”

SSHL’s Head of Boarding, Mazdak Sarvari.

Going above and beyond

Much of SSHL’s anti-bullying approach is done in accordance with the robust Swedish school laws, however, the school also has its own systems in place to go above and beyond what is expected, explains Anna.

This includes a weekly group meeting involving representatives from all corners of the school – vice principals, head of boarding, house parents, teachers from each of the school’s departments and sections. Following an alert that someone isn’t being treated well, an investigation is immediately carried out. “We act on it very quickly. We take this kind of thing seriously,” says Anna.

The hardest kind of bullying to deal with is actually when kids are feeling rejected or alone, says Anna. And often children don’t want teachers to speak to other students about their issues.

“We work with the class and talk about core values, perhaps together with a counsellor. We have different strategies. Sometimes we interview every single person, sometimes we do a survey. Then we make a plan around how to deal with the class so that students feel more comfortable again. And when this is done, we also follow up and do a survey again.” 

Sometimes it’s a case of children offending another child without even realising it. And this can particularly be the case where there are students from different cultures.

“With children and young adults, if you talk about it with them, and explain – not punish them for it – they’re usually very receptive,” says Anna. “Of course, you have to be very clear on what is and is not okay. That’s the baseline.”

Anna Kalles, Assistant Principal of SSHL’s upper secondary school and leader of the school’s ‘equal treatment work’.

Not-so-social media: cyberbullying

A new Swedish law, which came into effect this year, gives teachers the power to remove phones from students. It points to the problem of social media in the prevalence of bullying. When asked about the rise of bullying, both Axel and Anna refer to social media and cyberbullying.

“The biggest problem today is the technology that we have. Social media has made bullying anonymous. And that’s very frightening,” says Axel.

How to help your kids

If parents are concerned their child is being bullied, they should immediately talk to their child’s school, recommends Anna. “Whether it’s your child or another, if you know something, please contact the school so they can work on it.”

She also says it’s a myth that talking to teachers about bullying will make the issue worse. “If a parent or student comes to us, they can be anonymous. We’re going to listen to them and support them, and we’re going to do something about the issue – immediately.”

Axel echoes this sentiment, adding that students can feel comfortable talking to the “great staff” at SSHL.

It’s age-old advice, but Axel also says to encourage your kids to ignore the bully: “They want a reaction. When they don’t get it, often that’s where it all stops.

“Obviously, you always have some troublemakers. But there’s usually a good amount of people that actively try to be inclusive and help people.”

While the long-term trauma that bullying can cause is worrying, the majority of cases are fortunately not severe. Navigating the emotions and new social relationships of childhood and young adulthood are not simple for most people. Try not to worry too much, says Axel, adding that the future always brings something better; it’s just around the corner and the best is yet to come.

Learn more about SSHL, the inclusive boarding school just north of Stockholm

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STUDYING IN SWEDEN

Seven things you need to know before coming to Sweden to study

You’ve been accepted to university in Sweden, accepted your spot, and applied for your residence permit. Now it's time to prepare for your move. Maybe you’re wondering what life in Sweden will be like? Here are some tips based on my first year living in Lund, where I'm currently studying.

Seven things you need to know before coming to Sweden to study

Buying new is so passé

Need a winter jacket? Bedroom furniture? Maybe a new baking sheet for whipping up something from Sweden’s never-ending list of seasonal pastries? Whatever you do, don’t buy it first-hand. Sweden is teeming with second-hand stores, selling everything from wine glasses and patio furniture to boardgames. On my walk into Lund’s city centre, I pass a second-hand shop which frequently has bras hanging in the window – undergarments is where I draw the line, but to each their own.

Some shops are well-curated; others appear to be a dumping ground for anything and everything cleared out of junk drawers and closets after a long cleaning hiatus. But the search for the perfect formal dress for a sittning (one of Lund’s popular formal dinners) or a ball is half the fun – so grab a friend, and get browsing!

Want a drink at home on a Sunday? Plan ahead

Sweden’s Systembolaget shops have the monopoly on alcohol sales in the country – you won’t find anything over 3.5 percent anywhere else. And these shops aren’t open 24 hours. They close early on Saturdays, and don’t open at all on Sunday. If you fancy something other than a warm beer from your local supermarket on a Saturday night, plan ahead and pay a visit to your local Systembolaget. If you’re in a student-filled area, you’ll find plenty of your peers doing the same, walking out with cases of beer, boxes of wine, and whatever liquor they can afford. Be warned: drinking in Sweden is not cheap! Downing a pint at home instead of at a bar will save you a few kronor.

Failing a class…isn’t as bad as it sounds

So you’ve failed a class. Now what? Well, not much. You can take the exam again and again until you pass, so long as the material on which the test is based is not changed. If that happens, you may have some new topics to learn. In my media and communication studies MSc programme at Lund University, professors provide three deadlines for submitting the essays that we must write in place of exams. If I don’t submit my paper by the first deadline, I know I’ll have two more penalty-free opportunities to get it done. And if I receive a failing grade, that grade will not go on my academic record – instead, my record will not be updated until I submit a passing paper. While I’ve yet to take advantage of this system, knowing that missing a submission or failing a class is not a disaster is a welcome change from the strict, deadline-driven American environment in which I completed my bachelor’s degree.

Getting a bank account is a long process

Don’t bring cash with you. You’ll never spend it. I’ve still got some cash sitting in a drawer, because I keep forgetting which ATM near me will let me deposit cash into my account – my bank branch is cashless, and won’t help me there. Make sure to let your bank at home know you’ll be using your card in Sweden.

I moved to Sweden at the end of September. I didn’t open my bank account until mid-January. Opening an account entails a lengthy journey through Swedish bureaucracy, beginning with an application for a personal number, or personnummer. You can apply for a personal number at your local Skatteverket, or tax agency, office, provided that you can document you will be in Sweden for more than one year. I’m lucky enough to attend one of the universities piloting a two-year student resident permit, so proving the length of my stay was easy. While I got my personal number within 10 days, the process can take up to 18 weeks.

So you’ve got a personal number. The next step is to get an ID card, also from Skatteverket. There are three offices that issue ID cards: in Malmö, Gothenburg, and Stockholm. And appointments book up fast. I waited six weeks for mine. I got my ID card quickly, within two weeks – a friend waited months for hers to be issued.

Finally, with what I thought was sufficient documentation in hand, I walked into a Nordea bank to open my account. I was sent home account-less that day though, with the bank requesting statements from my Pakistani accounts. Armed with even more paperwork a few days later, I finally completed my application for a bank account. About a week later, my account was open. And finally, I had BankID – the magical Swedish eID that opens all sorts of doors, including, finally, digital access to my Covid-19 vaccination records. Swedish bureaucracy is a multi-layered beast, each layer tightly entwined with the others, and it took me months to unlock all the layers, starting with my personal number and ending with my digital ID.

Stock up on candles

The winters are dark. And long. And depending on where in Sweden you are, either delightfully snowy, or constantly slushy. In Skåne, there’s slush. So when you get home and peel off your jacket and scarf and hats, and it’s 3 pm and dark and dreary, you light a candle. Or two, or three. Preferably scented. Candles have gotten me through dark Scandinavian winters before when I lived in Copenhagen, and they continue to do the trick. I brought a favourite coffee-scented offering from a small Pakistani company with me, that I’m still rationing. If you don’t have a favourite to bring with you, you can browse through the selections at IKEA and Lagerhaus. Some friends of mine opt for fairy lights to brighten up their apartments, but I prefer the warm glow of a candle’s flame. Perhaps I just like fire.

Don’t worry if your Swedish is stuck at a basic “hej”

Almost everyone can communicate in basic English. That said, learning the local language is never a bad thing. After all, if your hope is to stay on in Sweden, you might soon need to prove a basic level of Swedish proficiency before getting permanent residence.

But ditch the Duolingo – or at least, don’t rely on it exclusively. One of the benefits unlocked by a personal number is the opportunity to enroll in SFI, or Swedish for Immigrant, language classes, offered by your municipality free of charge. You can choose to study in person or online, morning or evening. Do it! It’s a great way of understanding the language – wait until you hear about all the different ways in which adjectives can end – and as a bonus, you can also expand your social circle with the other students in your class.

Holidays and traditions are a serious business

If you’re currently waiting for your student visa, you may have already experienced how tough it is to get hold of office workers in July. Annual leave is taken seriously here, with workers taking several weeks off during the summers. No checking email, no answering work calls – pure vacation mode.

This commitment to time off for enjoyment also applies to holidays throughout the year. On Valborg, on April 30, I saw my largest Swedish crowds: about 50,000 people crammed into Lund’s city park, well on their way to total inebriation by 11am. The celebration, to welcome the coming spring, brings Swedes out of their homes after the winter, with massive bonfires burning bright in the evenings. Midsommar, the summer solstice, is also celebrated hard, with families and groups of friends bringing picnics into parks around maypoles, where they sing about small frogs and dance around, gripping onto their partners’ earlobes.

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