Creating a Culture of Respect: Preventing and Addressing Bias-Based Bullying

By Christa M. Tinari, coauthor of Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle School (available March 2017)

Creating a Culture of Respect: Preventing and Addressing Bias-Based BullyingRace. Class. Gender identity. Sexual orientation. Immigration status. Religion. Ability.

Differences! Let’s talk about them during National Bullying Prevention Month.
The most recent surveys indicate that approximately 20 percent of students are targets of bullying.1 During October—National Bullying Prevention Month—schools will focus on decreasing bullying and increasing kindness and respect. Helping students discuss diversity can go a long way toward achieving these goals.

Diversity refers to many different kinds of differences, such as race, immigration status, language ability, religion, gender, gender expression, sexual orientation, mental or physical ability, appearance, and more. In bias-based bullying, the bullying student’s behaviors—such as name-calling, social isolation, and threats—may be motivated by biased beliefs. The bullying student focuses on differences in order to ostracize a target from his or her peers. As with other kinds of bullying, bias-based bullying creates a power imbalance between the bullying student and the target. Targets have difficulty defending themselves.

It’s important to talk about bias-based bullying.
The educators I work with are becoming increasingly concerned about bias-based bullying, yet most don’t feel prepared to facilitate discussions about diversity and prejudice. Some are concerned that discussions might cause some students to feel singled out. However, students who experience bias-based bullying report feeling invisible and unsupported when teachers avoid addressing the issue in the classroom. Research suggests that students who are bullied due to biases have worse psychological and mental health outcomes than students who suffer from non-bias-based bullying.2 And we know that certain populations, such as students who identify as LBGT or who are perceived as gender variant, have an increased risk of being bullied, dropping out, and suicide.3

What can educators do to prevent bias-based bullying?

1. Declare your positive attitude about diversity. You might say something like: “All students in our school deserve to be treated fairly and with respect. Each of you belongs here! You have different abilities, perspectives, and experiences. This diversity provides us with many exciting opportunities to learn new things.”

To show your positive attitude about diversity, you can:

  • Provide instructional materials from diverse sources and perspectives.
  • Admit when you don’t know something about a student’s identity, and commit to learning about it.
  • Show a respectful interest in your students’ experiences beyond the classroom.
  • Encourage students to recognize others’ differences as strengths that contribute to the classroom community.

2. Facilitate sharing among students. Sharing activities help students get to know one another as individuals rather than relying on stereotypes. Teach students about the pitfalls of stereotyping others. Stereotypes are based on false assumptions, which cause us to judge others before we get to know them personally. For a list of sharing topics and guidelines, visit my website.

Frequently mix up partners. Even five minutes here and there can break down barriers and foster understanding.

3. Use scenarios. Students will gain a deeper understanding of bias-based bullying through the discussion of realistic, age-appropriate scenarios. The scenarios should present a typical social interaction that includes someone’s difference as a key part of the story. If students are old enough to write, I sometimes ask them to submit anonymous scenarios on index cards, which I then read to the class. Be sure to remove any identifying features of students if you go this route. You can also observe student interactions in the hallways, cafeteria, and elsewhere, and share these interactions with the class. Or, get scenarios from the news.

First, discuss bias-based bullying. Then present a scenario and ask students the following questions:

  • Is this an example of bias-based bullying? Why or why not?
  • What is motivating the bullying student’s actions?
  • What impact might these actions have?
  • If you witnessed this scenario, what action could you take to support the targeted person?

Students should identify at least three possible ways to support the targeted individual. The Youth Voice Research Project concluded that bullied students who received emotional support from their peers (a listening ear, encouragement, time spent together) felt less traumatized than students who did not receive such peer support.4 Supporting students who are targets of bullying is one of the most effective and powerful actions we—and our students—can take.

What can educators do to address bias-based bullying when it occurs?

1. Speak up every time. Intervene when you see or hear bias-based bullying among students. Many students report feeling angry and helpless when adults at school ignore bias-based bullying. On the other hand, students are more likely to speak up for their peers when they see adults intervening as well.5 A quick intervention could be: “Woah, hold up. That kind of language is hurtful, biased, and not okay at our school.” Follow up with the targeted student as well as with the bullying student. You’ll want to find out if the incident you witnessed was part of a pattern of abusive behavior. If so, report and address the incident according to your school’s bullying prevention policies. Connect the targeted student with supports and let her or him know that you will advocate for her or his right to be treated with equality and respect.

2. Explore student motivations. Walk through a typical school and you will hear students using bias-based words. Many students do not know the history of such words, why the words are so offensive, or how much damage the words have done—and still do. Students may not be intending to harm someone with the name-calling, teasing, or asking of questions that reveal cultural or social stereotypes. In these cases, you can respond by asking, “What do you mean by that? Tell me more.” Students need to be educated about their language and questioned about their stereotypical beliefs. We may need to redouble our efforts to teach equal rights, empathy, and respect.

3. Hold students accountable. Students intentionally engaging in bias-based bullying need to know that their behavior is unacceptable. Consequences for bias-based bullying might include the following:

  • Disciplinary meeting with parent, teachers, counselor, and principal
  • Community service project
  • Research project (related to the offense)
  • Temporary suspension of student’s eligibility to participate in extracurricular activities
  • Written or verbal apology, which should include the steps that the bullying student is taking to make amends and change his or her behavior

4. Become more self-aware. Most of us have some kind of bias, even if we value equality and do not intentionally treat people unfairly. We learn biases through social modeling at a very early age. Bias that unconsciously impacts our behaviors is called “implicit bias.” Developing self-awareness about our implicit biases can help us check the influence of these biases on our behavior. Visit Project Implicit to take a self-assessment and learn more.

You are not alone!
Educators and students across the country are working every day to address bias-based bullying and to create a climate of safety and respect in schools. (See what one school did here.) National Bullying Prevention Month provides an opportunity for you to reach out to your administrators, colleagues, and parents for support. Bias-based bullying is a sobering issue, but joining together with others to prevent it can be an eye-opening, satisfying, and joyful journey. Diversity enriches our lives and communities. Let’s celebrate it rather than avoid it during Bullying Prevention Month and beyond!

For additional activity ideas, lesson plans, and more, visit these recommended resources:

Christa M. Tinari is a bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, and school climate specialist. She speaks at educational conferences and provides training and consulting to schools across the country. Visit to learn more about her work.

Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle SchoolChrista is coauthor of Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle School: 48 Character-Building Lessons to Foster Respect and Prevent Bullying.

1 Susan P. Limber, Dan Olweus, and Harlan Luxenberg. Bullying in U.S. Schools: A 2012 Status Report, Hazelden Publishing, 2013.
2 Stephen T. Russell, Katerina Sinclair, Paul Poteat, and Brian Koenig. “Adolescent Health and Harassment Based on Discriminatory Bias.” American Journal of Public Health, March 2012, vol. 102, no. 3.
3 Joseph G. Kosciw, Emily A. Greytak, Mark J. Bartkiewicz, Madelyn J. Boesen, and Neal A. Palmer. The 2011 National School Climate Survey: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools.
4 Stan Davis and Charisse Nixon. Youth Voice Project: Student Insights Into Bullying and Peer Mistreatment. Research Press, 2014.
5 Jenny Isaacs and Rona Milch Novick. “Factors Influencing Bystander Behavior in Bullying Situations,” poster session 3, no. 155. Society for the Research in Child Development Conference, 2011.

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