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AEPEA Spain: Teaching kids to stand up to bullies

Twenty years ago, martial arts instructor Enrique Pérez-Carrillo de la Cueva noticed children in his classes were the victims of bullying, and few had the tools to deal with their problems. He realized the discipline of his sport had much to teach them not only physically, but mentally as well. Together with two friends, Cueva founded the Spanish Association for the Prevention of School Bullying (AEPAE Spain), which aims to provide students, parents and teachers with support tools to prevent and alleviate the impact of bullying and harassment amongst children and teenagers. Today, the organization works in 17 cities, helping to shape and implement a national action plan. In this interview, Cueva discusses how the organization works, its objectives, and the impact of social media on teenagers.

picture of Enrique Pérez-Carrillo de la Cueva
picture of Enrique Pérez-Carrillo de la Cueva

Tell us about the AEPAE’s National Plan for the prevention of bullying?

19 years ago, we began to receive many requests to provide training for families, and teachers about how to deal with bullying, which led to the creation of the National Plan. It is a comprehensive plan in which we work with the victims, but also do prevention and training for students, teachers and families. We measure bullying with a very precise psychometric test. We also have a specific course for bullies. This part is something very new; it is like the “hot potato” that nobody wants to take.

It is very complicated to deal with how to re-educate children who are still under the age of criminal responsibility; whatever they do, they cannot be prosecuted. There are 11, 12 or 13-year-olds who already have very violent profiles. As nobody puts a stop to it, they mistreat one or two people, then the teacher as well, and at home, too. It was an area that was quite unexplored and that we have addressed in the National Plan.

How is the National Plan applied?

We receive a request from the educational institution. In the average school, we give about 50 hours of training. The objective is to raise awareness, train observers, and also families and teachers. We also work with the victims, with the bullies and a series of tools for use in the classroom are provided so that the teacher can implement them as reinforcement.

What kinds of profiles work on AEPAE teams which provide the training?

In the beginning there were three of us, but we have always welcomed many people from other places and disciplines. We work with psychologists, psycho-pedagogues, psychiatrists, drama teachers, who are all interested in being trained in our methodology. Our teams are usually made up of a clinical psychologist with experience with adolescent children, a drama teacher, and a self-defense teacher. The message a child is given is not to “hit back” but to defend themselves in an assertive way. Each one of us is an expert in our field so we filter the profiles to form the teams.

From your perspective, what impact has social media had on bullying amongst children?

I would make the distinction between cyberbullying and school cyberbullying, which is sometimes used in a very generic way. Cyberbullying can be by an adult to a child, adult to another adult, and so on. Cyberbullying at school has a different component, because that child will be faced with the bully inside school for seven hours a day. Our experience tells us that there is almost no case in which cyberbullying is unrelated to bullying. Cyberbullying is either the beginning of bullying because there has either been a photo or a comment that has put the child in the spotlight; or it can be the opposite, that a child is bullied in person and from there it goes to the digital environment. Bullying should never be addressed in a separate way from harassment.

You talk of the early stages; do you think that since the use of social networks it has become more widespread and has gone much further?

Without a doubt, because it is easier. You don’t need the kid you are teasing to be in front of you.

There are three things that influence the damage that is done. One is the frequency, another is the intensity and another is the resilience of the child. In other words, when we talk about cyberbullying, there is more frequency and there is more intensity, which multiplies the damage exponentially. And then, of course, the child himself influences this. There are children who manage it quite well for a while, but as the glass fills up and reaches the limit, it overflows and breaks. There is a turning point at which the intensity caused by cyberbullying multiplies the damage.

Do you think the harassment of public figures has normalized similar behavior in adolescents?

I think more about impunity. If someone can be a hater and tell someone else whatever they want in a fake profile… It is true that this leaves a digital footprint and that can be investigated, right? But there are people who do that and somehow get off scot-free. They see that there are no consequences. The fact that someone can send you a message without having you in front of them makes things much easier.

What kind of impact do you think influencers make on those who are being bullied right now?

At the last summer camp there was a teenage girl who was being bullied pretty severely. The girl was more concerned about her hair or her image than actually learning the tools to defend herself. She had that “influence” that what was important was the external, without realizing that it was herself who felt that helplessness, that fear, that panic. Let’s not say that social networks are hell, because when there were no social networks, it also happened on television.

What are the first steps parents or educators can take if they suspect a child is being bullied?

Step one is listening. If a child tells something, don’t minimize it. Don’t say “that’s bullshit”, “that’s not important” or “I’m sure you’ve insulted him too”. Secondly, they need to understand that they are not to blame for the problem. They do not have to stop being the way they are for a group to accept them or stop the mistreatment. The third point is to give very complete information so that this can be brought to the attention of the school. Fourthly, it is important to give the child the tools to get out, or at least to face those feelings of vulnerability that arise because of the things others are making them believe they are. Give them a series of tools to empower them.

Our mascot is the hedgehog because we say that you can be brave, you can seek justice without being aggressive. Sometimes, when you have to say no, it is a no. That a child understands that they have the right to defend themselves and to let their character shine assertively, is necessary. Do not allow anyone to attack you.

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