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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How many foreign students are there in Sweden and where are they from?

Almost 40,000 international students started courses in Sweden last year. How does this compare to previous years? What countries are they from, and which universities are most popular?

How many foreign students are there in Sweden and where are they from?

Some 39,806 international students began studying in Sweden during the 2021/22 academic year. Of this figure, 21,754 were female and 18,052 were male.

Of these students, 28,197 were so-called “free movers”, meaning that they have organised their own studies and applied independently, rather than moving to Sweden as part of a student exchange programme, and 11,644 were exchange students.

This is a slight increase in the total number of international students from the 2020/21 academic year, which saw a lull in admissions due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Just 33,298 international students arrived in Sweden that year.

The year before, 2019/20, saw similar figures to 2021/22, when 39,589 international students registered for courses in Sweden.


Where do they come from?

Looking at the breakdown of the 39,806 students by country of origin, we can see that the country at the top of the list is not a country at all; it’s a group of more than 7,000 students where the country of origin is unknown.

Erik Dahl, analyst at the Swedish Higher Education Authority, told The Local that this category includes students who haven’t given any details, “for example it can be those from the rest of the Nordic region or an EU/EEA country".

Some students in this group will also be students studying remotely, or those in Sweden for fewer than three months. EU citizens are allowed to stay in Sweden for three months without registering their details, and non-EU citizens staying fewer than three months do not need to apply for a residence permit (but may need a visa in some cases).

Of the 'unknown' category, all were so-called 'free-mover' students.

Germany and China the biggest 

After students with an unknown country of origin, the next-largest group of students arriving in Sweden in 2021/22 came from Germany, with an all-time high of 4,166 German students arriving in Sweden last year, most of whom (2,346) were exchange students.

The next largest group was China, with 2,302 Chinese students starting courses in Sweden last year. In contrast to the German students, the vast majority (2,003 of 2,302) were 'free-mover' students, rather than exchange students.

China was followed by France in third place (2,276 students, mostly exchange students), India in fifth (2,125, mostly 'free-movers'), and Finland sixth (1,951, also mostly 'free-movers').

Rounding out the rest of the top ten were Spain with 1,463 students, Pakistan with 1,395, Italy with 1,305 and the Netherlands on 1,152.

See the end of this article for a full breakdown of countries.

Pandemic changes

Comparing 2021/22 with 2020/21, it is clear that pandemic-related restrictions caused a drop in the number of exchange students coming to Sweden as part of a university programme in their own country, whereas the number of 'free-movers' was not particularly affected.

The big drop in 'free-movers' occurred instead in 2011/12, where 38,140 students came to Sweden, down from 46,691 the year before. This is likely due to the fact that fees were brought in for 'free-movers' from non-EU countries in 2021.

In fact, statistics show that the ‘free-mover’ student numbers that fell so abruptly after 2010 continued to climb unbroken through the pandemic years, whereas exchange students saw a sharp drop in numbers in academic year 2020/2021. 

Exchange student numbers for 2021/22, however, had almost returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Technical universities most popular for Indians

In terms of students paying course fees, the highest numbers came from India (1,713), China (1,655) and Pakistan (1,135), followed by students with an unknown country of origin.

The most popular universities for international students in general were Lund (5,362), Stockholm (4,426), Uppsala (4,263) and Gothenburg (3,663).

Looking at international students from specific countries, the three top universities for students from India were Chalmers University of Technology (350 students), KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm (320 students), and Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona (266 students).

KTH was the most popular university for Chinese students, with 526 Chinese students arriving there in 2021/22. This was followed by 391 Chinese students at Lund University and 302 at Uppsala.

For Pakistani students, Linnaeus University in Småland was most popular, with 183 students commencing studies there in 2021/22, followed by 182 at Uppsala and 111 at Stockholm University.

You can have a look at the full statistics here.