By William T. Mulcahy, LPC, NCC, CEAP, author of the Zach Rules series
Bullying is a repeated pattern of hurtful behavior done by a person who has more power (physically or socially) than the person being targeted. Because of that inequity of power, many children are not equipped to deal with the emotional and social challenges bullying presents. The situation can seem very scary and uncomfortable not only for targets, but also for kids who witness bullying. But it’s these witnesses, or bystanders, who often hold the most important power of all—the power to stop bullying.
Studies show that the most effective thing a bystander can do is support the target of the bullying—by helping or being kind, not by directly confronting the aggressor. Thus, in order to help kids who are bullied and create environments where bullying is not tolerated, it is important to show children how to move beyond being bystanders to being upstanders—people who stand up to bullying when they see it happen.
Perhaps most important in teaching and supporting young students to be upstanders is to first be aware of your own history of experiencing bullying. One of my clients, a teacher, came to see me with symptoms of anxiety, unexplained fear, and paranoia. We discovered that the symptoms had begun over the last month after an episode at school where several students had been bullying a new student. Upon further discussion, it turned out that this teacher had moved several times as a child and had been bullied at one school to a point where she had to be hospitalized. She had buried the incident as she grew older, but had been triggered by the recent incidents in her school. While not every past incident of bullying causes such significant issues in the present, it is certainly something to be aware of as you deal with the tumultuous and complex dynamics of bullying behavior.
As a therapist, it is my job to treat clients and help them resolve trauma from bullying that occurred previously in their lives. It is the job of educators to provide students with both preventative measures and intervention strategies in regards to bullying behavior and how to be an upstander.
Regarding prevention, educators need to provide classroom environments that teach healthy interpersonal habits and social-emotional skills and give clear expectations to students and parents. Specifically, educators can:
- Provide clear visual and behavioral messages that bullying in any shape or form, including cyberbullying, is not tolerated. Posters, reminders, and sayings such as be safe, be kind, be responsible can be very valuable.
- Teach and talk to children at a young age about bullying. Children as young as four can understand the dynamics of bullying behavior. Creating a sense of justice in young children can instill in them compassion for others and a sense of empowerment.
- Be welcoming of new students. Like the teacher from my story did, new students often experience bullying that is particularly cruel and damaging. Not only do these students have to deal with moving, sometimes for painful reasons such as a divorce situation, they also must deal with the burden of being bullied.
- Stop gossip. Teach and reinforce communicating directly with others. Teach students to stop gossip by not passing it on.
- Be on the lookout for students who may be targets of bullying behavior. Many students on the fringe lack self-esteem, seem out of place, or may sit alone in the cafeteria. Teach students to be on the lookout for peers who are eating or playing alone and encourage students to befriend these “alone” peers.
- Teach and practice handling bullying behavior through written scenarios, video rehearsals, and social stories. Don’t be afraid to address all types of encounters.
- Reinforce students’ positive behaviors. Many schools have built-in Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), which provide clear universal expectations and rewards for positive behaviors.
Even when teachers are being proactive, it is also their task to intervene when necessary with effective strategies that teach kids the important and difficult task of standing up to bullying behavior.
One strategy to help kids remember how to be an upstander is the Stand-Up-to-Bullying STAR.
The Stand-Up-to-Bullying STAR is a four-part process that gives kids a specific plan for being upstanders in a way that keeps everyone safe and helps them stay in charge of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
- Speak up—talk to the person being bullied.
- Take off—get the person away from the bullying.
- Actively listen—let the person talk about what happened.
- Report—tell an adult what happened.
Bullying thrives when kids believe they can’t tell an adult about it because they will be labeled a tattletale. This is one way that those who bully maintain their power and control over others. It is much easier to report bullying to an adult when you have an ally on your side.
Upstanders can do a lot for those who are targeted by continuing to support the target after the bullying incident is done and reported. Encourage kids to include children who are targeted in activities, to invite them to sit together at lunch or on the bus, and to continue to listen to them. Being bullied is painful and lonely, and having an ally can go a long way toward alleviating those feelings. It can also help in preventing future bullying, since kids who are perceived as lacking social connections are often targeted. Click here to download the Stand-Up-to-Bullying STAR worksheet to use with your students.
As part of my client’s recovery process, I asked her to reimagine how she would have liked to have responded to the bullying behavior those many years ago. During our work, she discovered that she did have one friend who rescued her on several occasions from the torment of the other students. Unfortunately, that student had moved away during the school year. My client firmly believed she would never have been hospitalized if her friend had remained at the school.
This realization was one of many powerful moments for this client, freeing up years of self- defeating thoughts and behaviors. Moreover, it helped her overcome her fear of dealing with the current bullying behaviors in her classroom. She became a powerful advocate for both preventing bullying and teaching students how to stand up to it.
Remember, it is these early and ongoing prevention measures and intervention strategies that can ultimately spare a young person a life of trauma and intense pain. With your help, instead of going through years of turmoil or struggling in a psychotherapist’s office, students learn how to create healthy relationships, adaptive coping skills, and habits for their health and well-being, including being an upstander.
William Mulcahy is a licensed professional counselor and psychotherapist. He has served as a supervisor at Family Service of Waukesha and as a counselor at Stillwaters Cancer Support Center in Wisconsin, specializing in grief and cancer-related issues. He has also worked with children with special needs. Currently he works in private practice in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, and is the owner of Kids Cope Now, a program for providing books and tools to help kids in the hospital. Bill lives with his wife and family near Summit, Wisconsin.
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