Bullying among school-age children is on the decline. This is a promising trend; however, 28 percent of all young people in the U.S. experience online bullying, and almost one in four experience bullying in person.
Bullying often takes place where there are no adults around, in transitional spaces like hallways and stairwells. It also occurs during recess, in the cafeteria, on the way home from school, or online when a child is alone in their room. Despite these conditions, less than 40 percent of young targets of bullying notify an adult—a percentage that decreases as kids get older.
Obviously, schools and school staff need to do their part to prevent and address bullying, including establishing policies that reflect district/state guidelines, assessing bullying at their school, monitoring hot spots, encouraging reporting, and educating the school community.
But another approach is to empower students to prevent and interrupt bullying by teaching them how to act as allies.
What It Means to Be an Ally
When we think of the word ally, we often picture someone who directly challenges the person doing the bullying. But most young people find confrontation difficult because it takes a lot of self-confidence and assertiveness. Many kids—like many adults—are not going to speak out against aggressors.
Young people need to learn specific actions they feel they can realistically take when faced with bullying. These are effective and less risky than confrontation, and can be used by those students who want to do something but feel unsure in the moment.
- Support the target. This can be as simple as encouraging the targeted person to report the incident, and/or accompanying them to tell an adult. It can also include reaching out to the targeted person face-to-face or via text and saying something like, “Hey, I’m sorry that’s happening,” or “What they did wasn’t cool.” Research demonstrates that support strategies like these are more likely to lead to positive outcomes for the targeted student.
- Don’t participate. This may sound like passive bystanding, but is actually an effective form of active nonparticipation. For example, if a group of kids in the cafeteria are laughing at someone, a nearby student can make a point not to laugh, or say something like “Let’s not go there,” and change the subject. In doing this, the nonparticipating student sends a powerful message to counter the bullying behavior while sending a message of support to the targeted student. Further, if one child takes the initiative to voice support, it can give others the courage to follow suit. This creates a groundswell of nonparticipation, which can stop bullying in its tracks.
- Tell a trusted adult. Many students don’t notify adults because they don’t think it will do any good or they think it could even make things worse. A key to creating an environment where students feel safe to report bullying is to make adults more approachable by taking the issue seriously, letting students know you are available to talk, really listening when they come to you, and remaining discreet. Confidentiality can go a long way toward preventing retaliation. Encourage students to tell a trusted adult in their lives about bullying or harassing behavior they experience or witness. Make sure your school has safe and confidential procedures in place for reporting bullying incidents, and communicate these to all students.
- Get to know people instead of judging them. This is an important one. Especially during the tween and teen years, many bullying episodes are identity-based, which means students are targeted based on aspects of their identity (e.g., appearance or body size, race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, etc.). To create a safe classroom climate, it is critical to explicitly teach about identity, diversity, and bias.
- Be an ally online. When young people see bullying happen to someone online, they can explicitly not contribute and leave the group—it will be noticed. Students can support the target by reaching out with a message of support. Students can also take a screenshot of a bullying conversation and report it to an adult. Finally, young people can spread their own inclusive, nonbiased, and respectful messages, either by responding to bullying comments or by creating original ones.
Educators can teach these strategies in a few ways:
- Turn a bullying or name-calling incident into a teachable moment by discussing what happened and how one can act as an ally.
- Use children’s and young adult literature that provides examples of ally behaviors and how they made a difference.
- Teach explicit lessons that explore identity-based bullying, prevention strategies, empathy-building, and activities that help students practice the skills of being an ally with role-plays and scenarios.
The Anti-Defamation League has some helpful real-life examples in a 20-minute online course for educators.
In 100 years, we may not be remembered by the subject matter we taught, but those generations of young people will remember whether they felt like they belonged, whether they felt safe and included, and whether all aspects of their identity could be shown in school and elsewhere. We can stop bullying once and for all by creating a compassionate cadre of allies among our students.