How to Help Children Stand Up to Peer Cruelty and Stop Bullying

By Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of  End Peer Cruelty, Build Empathy: The Proven 6Rs of Bullying Prevention That Create Inclusive, Safe, and Caring Schools

How to Help Children Stand Up to Peer Cruelty and Stop BullyingThat old adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is a false statement that must be curtailed. The emotional scars of bullying can last a lifetime, and any act of peer cruelty is unacceptable. But in all our endeavors to stop peer cruelty, we may be overlooking the most effective solution for reducing bullying: teaching children how to speak up and stand up to bullying. Children can reduce the audience that a child who bullies craves, they can mobilize others to support the target, and they can reduce peer cruelty. Mobilizing the compassion of witnesses may well be our best hope for creating safer schools for our children, and I would know because I’ve spent the last two decades researching the topic and working with hundreds of educators worldwide.

We can teach children specific skills that empower them to stop cruelty, help victims, feel safer, and reduce bullying. But there are things adults must do.

Children tell me three reasons they don’t intervene: they aren’t sure if it’s bullying, they don’t want to make things worse, and they’re uncertain if the target wants help. Adults must teach kids what bullying behavior looks like. So explain: “Bullying is a cruel, aggressive act that is done on purpose, never by accident. The child who is bullying has more power in strength, status, ability, or size than the target, who can’t hold his or her own. That’s why kids need to help.”

And then adults must give kids permission to be upstanders (those who step in and do not stand by) and always support their efforts. After all, the key to reducing bullying is caring adults who create warm, positive learning environments and refuse to allow peer cruelty to breed.

Here are six strategies to teach kids how to safely intervene (from my book The 6Rs of Bullying Prevention). The acronym “BUSTER” helps children remember these six ways they can be upstanders. Each letter represents a proven upstander skill. I’ve taught these skills to hundreds of children around the world—they work, and they were even featured on an NBC Dateline special.

Of course, not every strategy works for every student, so it’s important to provide a range of strategies. Then adults must guide students so they know when and how to step in safely or get adult help. The trick is finding techniques that match each child’s comfort level and fit the particular situation. Practice each BUSTER skill until kids feel confident using it without adult guidance. Some teachers have children role-play the BUSTER skills at assemblies or in classrooms and then display poster reminders in hallways. Above all, children must trust that adults will back them up so they feel safe to step in and speak out.

“Bully BUSTER”: Six Strategies to Help Children Become Upstanders

Befriend the Target. If witnesses know that the target wants support, they are more likely to step in. And if just one child befriends a target, other peers are more likely to join. Here are some ideas for how kids can befriend a student being targeted:

  • Comfort: Stand closer to the target.
  • Ask others for aid: “Come help!”
  • Clarify: “Do you need help?”
  • Describe feelings: “She looks upset.” “He looks sad. Let’s help.”

Use a Distraction. The right diversion can disperse the crowd and make bystanders focus elsewhere. That can give the target a chance to get away and even can stop the bullying. Those who bully usually want an audience, so upstanders can reduce it with a distraction:

  • Ask a question: “What are you all doing here?”
  • Use diversions: “There’s a great volleyball game going on! Come on!”
  • Give an excuse: “A teacher is coming!” “I can’t find my bus.”

Speak Out and Stand Up! Directly confronting someone who bullies is intimidating, and it’s a rare kid who can. But there are ways to stand up to cruelty. Speaking out can encourage others to lend a hand and join you. Do stress: “You must stay cool, and never boo, clap, laugh, or insult, which can egg on the bullying.” Here are some ways kids can speak out and stand up:

  • Show disapproval: Give a cold, silent stare. Say: “This isn’t cool!”
  • Name the behavior: “That’s bullying!” “That’s mean!”
  • Ask for support: “Are you with me?” “Come on, let’s help!”

Tell or Text for Help. First, teach children the difference between reporting (trying to stop someone from being hurt) and tattling (trying to get someone in trouble). Safety must be the primary goal. So stress: “If someone could get hurt, REPORT! It’s always better to be safe than sorry.” Then teach children ways to get help:

  • Tell an adult: Keep telling until you find someone who believes you.
  • Call or text for help: Call 911 if someone could be or is injured.

Exit Alone or with Others. Tell kids that those who bully usually love audiences. Upstanders can drain that power by reducing the group size. Remember the word SEED:

  • Suggest: “Let’s go.”
  • Encourage: “You coming with me?”
  • Exit: If you can’t get others to leave with you, then quietly walk away. Refuse to be part of the cruelty.
  • Direct: “Let’s go!”

Give a Reason or Offer a Remedy. Bystanders are more likely to help if told why the action is wrong or what to do.

  • Review why it’s wrong: “This isn’t right!” “This is mean!” “You’ll get suspended.” “You’ll hurt him.”
  • Offer a remedy: “Go get help!” “Let’s work this out with Coach.”

Children can be taught to step in to reduce bullying. It’s up to us to show children safe ways to do so, help them practice those skills until they can use them without us, and then acknowledge their courage when they do.

michele-borbaMichele Borba, Ed.D., is an internationally renowned educator, award-winning author, and parenting, child, and bullying prevention expert. She appears frequently in national media, including on the Today show, Dr. Phil, Dateline, Anderson Cooper, and Dr. Drew, and in TIME, Washington Post, Newsweek, People, The New York Times, and many others. A sought-after motivational speaker, she has presented workshops and keynote addresses throughout the world and has served as a consultant to hundreds of schools and organizations including the Pentagon, who hired Borba to work on eighteen US Army bases to train educators and counselors on bullying prevention. She offers realistic, research-based advice culled from a career of working with over 1 million parents and educators worldwide.

Her proposal “Ending School Violence and Bullying” (SB1667) was signed into California law in 2002. She was awarded the 2016 National Child Safety Award by the Child Safety Network. She lives in Palm Springs, California.

Follow Michele on Twitter @micheleborba. Or visit her website at

EndPeerCrueltyBuildEmpathyMichele Borba is the author of End Peer Cruelty, Build Empathy: The Proven 6Rs of Bullying Prevention That Create Inclusive, Safe, and Caring Schools


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