Reinforcers, Assistants, and Outsiders: How to Help Bystanders Use Their Power to Stop Bullying

By Phyllis Kaufman Goodstein, LMSW, coauthor of Stand Up to Bullying!

Reinforcers, Assistants, and Outsiders: How to Help Bystanders Use Their Power to Stop BullyingIn spite of years of research that irrefutably proves bullying has harmful physical, psychological, academic, and social consequences, we’ve yet to figure out how to successfully prevent or end the abuse. Many interventions have been tried and have failed: zero tolerance, conflict resolution, group therapy for those who bully, to name a few. What could work?

Many bullying experts believe that bystander intervention can play a major role in stopping school bullying. Why? Students are present during 85 percent of bullying episodes.1 They influence their peers and determine the norms of social behavior. When bystanders intervene, bullying stops in 10 seconds or less more than half the time.2 The longer bystanders remain silent, the longer bullying continues.

Bystanders have tremendous power, but they won’t use that power unless they understand the roles they play in bullying incidents. These roles are clearly depicted in the following illustration from page 37 of Stand Up to Bullying!

Roles in Bullying

Let’s take a closer look. Clearly, one person is bullying and one person is being bullied (the “target”), but everyone present is part of the aggression. The “assistant” can contribute by being the lookout but can also help by holding or hitting the person being bullied, spreading rumors, or refusing to cooperate with adults who investigate the bullying. The “reinforcer” supports the person who bullies by cheering, laughing, commenting, or using other means that promote bullying. The “outsiders”—the largest group—silently watch the bullying happen.

Many people falsely believe that if they do nothing, then they are not a part of the bullying. But that’s wrong. Those who bully think everyone in the audience supports their actions. Why wouldn’t they? No one objects. The phrase “If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” relates to outsiders. Though they don’t initiate the bullying, their silent presence perpetuates it. Passivity is interpreted by children who bully as permission to hurt others. In essence, outsiders are as guilty of bullying as the bully, the assistants, and the reinforcers are, because outsiders allow the harm to continue.

Not pictured is what we’d like everyone in a bullying scenario to be: Upstanders. Upstanders stand up, speak out, or counter the abuse in some way. It could be as direct attempts to end the bullying: telling someone to stop bullying, calling for help, or refusing to go along with the bullying. Aid could come in the form of distracting the person bullying, removing the bullied person, or not passing along rumors. It does take courage to act, but there are also indirect ways to combat bullying. Quietly walking away, privately reporting the bullying, and comforting the bullied person after the incident are some behind-the-scenes methods.

Kids have come up with creative ways to help end bullying. Sixteen-year-old Natalie Hampton developed the “Sit With Us” app. Bullied or friendless kids who don’t have anyone to sit with at lunch can log onto the app and find a table of welcoming “ambassadors.”

Isabella Griffin started “Be a Buddy Not a Bully!” where participants sign an anti-bullying pledge and wear bracelets that say, “Stand Up—Step In.” Jaylen Arnold began Jaylen’s Challenge Foundation, a nonprofit organization. He speaks to children across the country, broadcasting his message “Bullying No Way!” Acacia Woodley came up with the idea of the Friendship Bench, where anyone involved in bullying can go when they’re not having a good day.

At Glen Este Middle and High School in Ohio, students put on skits demonstrating how to be upstanders. Five boys from Franklin Elementary School in Minnesota befriended a student after one of them saw him being bullied. The child’s learning disability didn’t stop the boys from eating lunch with him, playing touch football with him, or helping him. Now, they’re all good friends.

“Whenever one person stands up and says, ‘Wait a minute, this is wrong,’ it helps other people do the same,” Gloria Steinem said. This sentiment is demonstrated in the anti-bullying PSA “The Price of Silence” by ShakeState.

Understandably, it can be scary to stand up alone, but anxiety would lessen if kids said “Stop Bullying” as an organized group. It’s easier than one may think because 90 percent of students don’t like to watch bullying happen, and the same number wants to prevent and end aggression.3 The “power in numbers” strategy is one of the most effective and safest ways to let those who bully know that bullying is not wanted.

Fear of becoming the next target can handcuff potential upstanders. However, inaction can actually increase the risk of being bullied. Survey results show that most students are bullied sometime during their school careers.4 Someone passed over for bullying today could be on tomorrow’s hit list. Those already bullied might be in store for seconds. Stopping bullying not only helps the bullied person, but can also serve as insurance for the defender as well.

Bullying is a monumental problem, but even monuments can be chipped away at, piece by piece. Encouraging youngsters to take on the upstander role is akin to putting chisels in their hands. Let’s remember Paul Shane Spear’s words, “As one person I cannot change the world, but I can change the world of one person.” A little help can go a long way.

phyllis-goodsteinPhyllis Kaufman Goodstein, LMSW, is an anti-bullying advocate, social worker, writer, and magician. She lives in Long Island, New York, with her husband Arnie, sons Eric and Steven, and dogs Bandit and Chewy. Phyllis is the author of How to Stop Bullying in Classrooms and Schools and 200+ Ready-to-Use Reproducible Activity Sheets That Help Educators Take a Bite Out of Bullying, and the coauthor of Stand Up to Bullying! Upstanders to the Rescue!

1 Atlas, Rona S., and Debra J. Pepler, “Observations of Bullying in the Classroom,” The Journal of Educational Research 92, no. 2 (1998): 86–99.
2 Craig, Wendy M., and Debra J. Pepler. “Observations of Bullying and Victimization in the School Yard,” Canadian Journal of School Psychology 13, no. 2 (1998): 41–59.
3 Storey, Kim, and Ron Slaby, Eyes on Bullying: What Can You Do? Newton, MA: Education Development Center, 2008.
4 Hoover, John H., Ronald Oliver, and Richard J. Hazler, “Bullying: Perceptions of Adolescent Victims in the Midwestern USA,” School Psychology International 13, no. 1 (1992): 5-16.

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