Giving Bystanders Permission to Act

ripple, anon, wikimedia commonsWhen you drop a pebble in the water, ripples spread out around it. They expand to the ends of the pool unless obstacles deflect them—or other ripples intersect with them.

Similarly, the effects of bullying ripple through a classroom. Kids who bully, kids who are bullied, and kids who observe bullying—the bystanders—all have a role in allowing bullying to continue or stopping it. Bystanders, especially, can help create new ripples that dissipate the pain, fear, and shame that bullying causes.

Parenting expert Dr. Michele Borba says, “You must give students permission to step in . . . you must also teach specific strategies so they can step in.” The idea of having “permission to step in” may feel like a bold move to students. Bystanders might choose not to act against bullying out of fear—fear of becoming a target, or fear that no one else will join them in acting. By middle school, the desire to be cool and fit in can override the willingness to get involved. After all, showing empathy and celebrating fairness is not something that most kids want to be caught tweeting about.

My neighbor Jim has been coaching peewee and youth hockey for fifteen years. He retired from teaching middle school science in Colorado and moved to Minnesota, where there is “even more interest in youth hockey.” Coach J. has an idea for helping kids understand that being involved and speaking out is important. He tells kids that his teams are only for players with good sportsmanship, and that includes no bullying. At the first practice, Coach J. assigns each player a partner. “You might not be friends, but you are accountable to each other,” he tells them. “Hold each other to a high standard, not just on the ice, but all the time. If your partner acts mean toward another kid, you have to tell him that’s not cool. If you see someone being put down, you speak up, and then get your partner to speak up, too. If it seems hard to do what is right, talk it over with your partner. He will back you up.”

Hockey Art by Ice Skating Clip Art GaloreAs the season goes on, many kids become braver about standing up to the mistreatment of others. While most have seen bullying, they have been quiet about it. Having a partner to talk to—and to stand up with you—can make it easier to speak up about bullying, both on and off the ice. Accountability can help empower bystanders to act.

Stories come back to the coach from teachers at the suburban middle school where he taught. Once, seeing a friend being bullied, two of the young hockey players stepped in and steered that classmate away from the confrontation and back to the classroom. They told their teacher, “Coach J. says to speak up together.” It seems that this coach has helped to spread many positive ripples.

How can teachers work to shift peer pressure toward taking appropriate action? What is working to help kids overcome their hesitancy about getting involved?

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About Mary Stennes Wilbourn

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