5 Creative Ways to Teach Kids to Be Upstanders

By Christa M. Tinari, M.A., coauthor of Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle School: 48 Character-Building Lessons to Foster Respect and Prevent Bullying

5 Creative Ways to Teach Kids to Be UpstandersImagine this: You’re a sixth grader entering your classroom, and you see two popular students laughing as they walk away from another student’s chair that has a note taped to it. The note says, “You’re gross! Eww!” Your heart pounds. You feel angry and anxious. You want to do something, but don’t want to be the next target of such harassment. You have a few choices: confront the students who left the note, report the incident to the teacher, try to remove the note before the targeted student sees it, or deliberately sit next to the targeted student to show support. What do you do?

Students face dilemmas like this on a daily basis. Can we better prepare them to be upstanders in such tricky challenges? Yes, we can. Read on.

Who Is an Upstander?
The Oxford Dictionary defines upstander as “a person who speaks or acts in support of an individual or cause, particularly someone who intervenes on behalf of a person being attacked or bullied.” We may think of an upstander as an extraordinary person who has a lot of self-confidence and courage. However, all students can learn to be upstanders by developing skills that can be applied in situations like the one just described.

What are upstander skills? In practice, they are the techniques and responses used by people in order to (a) interrupt bullying behaviors or (b) support the target of bullying behaviors. Examples include assertively telling a bullying student to stop, using persuasion or distraction, reporting the incident to an authority, inviting the target to sit or walk with you, offering empathy, listening without judgment, and saying positive things (in person or online) about the target. A previous blog post by Michele Borba describes additional ways kids can become “Bully BUSTERs.” What’s clear is that there are many ways to be an upstander that don’t include directly confronting a person who is bullying.

So why don’t kids always stand up? The reasons kids don’t act as upstanders are simple: They’re not sure it’s their business to intervene or reach out, they want to avoid being the next target, or they simply don’t know what to do.

What Can We Do?
We need to get real about how students become proficient at upstander skills. We can’t simply introduce and teach the concept once during Bullying Prevention Month and expect it to stick! An assembly with an upstander theme can inspire kids, but more is needed to see real change. Upstander skills take social awareness, empathy, courage, and practice, practice, practice. In short, we need to teach upstander skills across all grade levels and provide opportunities for kids to practice the skills throughout the school year.

Here are five ways you can teach upstander skills throughout the year:

1. Ripped from the headlines: Use current events and historical examples. Whistleblowers, nonviolent protesters, those who offer refuge to the persecuted, politicians who create laws that protect human rights. Upstanders can save a life, improve a community, and change history forever. An upstander’s actions often involve risk and are often unpopular. In Create a Culture of Kindness, coauthor Naomi Drew and I crafted upstander lessons that used the real-life stories of young people like Dee Andrews, Whitney Kropp, Malala Yousafzai, Travis Price, and David Shepherd to demonstrate the courage, creativity, and empathy that is needed to put upstander skills into action. Compelling stories (that are appropriate for various age levels) can be drawn from the fields of science, social studies, health, and even sports. For example, high school students can examine the controversial actions of Colin Kaepernick. Students can consider the following questions: Who were the targeted individuals? Would I have taken the same action? Why or why not? What risks were involved in taking action, and what were the consequences? How has considering this story expanded my understanding of what it means to be an upstander? BONUS! Download “Why I Would Be an Upstander,” a free printable worksheet from Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle School.

5 Creative Ways to Teach Kids to Be Upstanders2. Role-play scenarios (skill practice). Some students see role plays as a time to break out their silly accents, outrageous behavior, and acting chops. It’s more productive to think of role playing as “skill practice.” Before the role play, teach your students a few new upstander skills and write down the skills on index cards. Also write down developmentally appropriate scenarios you have prepared ahead of time. It’s useful for scenarios to have some gray area, with no clear right or wrong solution. Students get into small groups and read each scenario. They discuss which upstander skill they’d most likely use in each. Then they act it out.

Afterward, consider handing a new skill card to the small group and asking them to apply it to their scenario. The other students can guess which skill the role-playing group is demonstrating. Follow up the role plays with a discussion exploring the upstander choices students can make when they are faced with a tricky situation. Keep in mind that every student, and every situation, is unique. Rather than telling students what to do, equip them with a moral reasoning process they can use to determine what action might be best.

3. Explore using the arts. The arts can play a powerful role in deepening student engagement with subject matter. Dramatization can bring content to life in a vivid and exciting way. Crafting a sculpture, writing a poem, composing a song, or painting a mural all invite students into a deeper, more personal contemplation of the subject matter. And experiencing art others have created fosters perspective-taking and expands one’s sense of empathy. For example, consider Mark Wills’s version of the song “Don’t Laugh at Me.” Creative expression can and should be a powerful part of your students’ exploration of what it means to be an upstander.

4. Use peer-to-peer teaching. Younger students are excited and receptive when older students visit their classrooms. With the assistance of educators or counselors, even elementary students are capable of creating simple lesson plans to share with their younger peers. They can read storybooks that feature solutions to teasing, exclusion, and bullying; teach younger students about historical upstanders they’ve researched; and do skits with puppets that demonstrate upstander skills. Peer-to-peer connections like this increase positive relationships between students across grade levels and contribute to a kindness-is-cool mentality in the student body. As the saying goes, we learn what we teach, so in addition to benefiting younger students, this activity will increase older students’ knowledge and skills.

5. Connect it to home and the community. Students can interview their caregivers or community members using the following questions:

  • Who is an upstander you admire? Why do you admire that person?
  • Tell me about a time when you stood up for or supported someone else? What influenced your decision to stand up for that person?
  • Tell me about a time when someone stood up for you. How did it impact you?

The responses gathered from the interviews can be shared as quotes during morning announcements or in articles for the school paper or newsletter. Students can also produce video interviews that can be featured on a school or local TV station. Whatever you do, get conversations going about what it means to be an upstander both at home and out in your community!

I hope you’ll use these ideas throughout the year to reduce bullying and provide your students with the skills they need to be effective upstanders in tricky situations.

Author Christa TinariChrista M. Tinari, M.A., 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 www.peacepraxis.com 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.


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