How to Motivate Students to Stand Up to Bullying

By William T. Mulcahy, LPC, NCC, CEAP, author of the Zach Rules series

How to Motivate Students to Stand Up to BullyingAs I watched my four-year-old daughter march off to school, dressed in orange to bring attention to National Anti-Bullying Day, I couldn’t help but think of how much we as a society have learned since I sent my first child to preschool 15 years ago. Back then, they didn’t wear orange or hand out hero bracelets or read books on bullying such as Zach Stands Up. In fact, it wasn’t until 2005 that the government started collecting any data on bullying. Since that time, we have learned the harmful impact bullying has on children of all ages.

We know that one out of every five students reports being bullied. These numbers rise significantly for students with disabilities, students of color, and students who are or are perceived to be LGBTQ. We know that students who experience bullying have an increased risk for depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, lower academic achievement, and dropping out of school. They also report more headaches and more stomachaches and are at increased risk for suicide.

As with so many things in society, progress has been made, but we much left to do if we are to dramatically move the needle toward zero bullying. One of the questions I often hear from teachers is “How do I motivate my students to stand up to bullying?” The answer to this question is complex, given the dynamics of bullying. But with a combination of awareness and empathy, and a focus on research, we can make a dramatic difference in motivating students to stand up and speak out when they see bullying happen.

One of the first steps in motivating students is knowing and accepting that bullying is an ongoing problem. It’s important to also acknowledge the good news—that school programs on anti-bullying decrease bullying by 25 percent. In other words, your work as a proponent in ending bullying is essential. You really do make a difference! If it seems like I’m trying to motivate you, that’s because I am.

I know that many teachers struggle to fit social emotional learning (SEL) and anti-bullying programming into the already crowded day, but it is essential to include these lessons. One of the great things about SEL is that it focuses on what I like to call the “positive opposite” of bullying. Often we are tempted to focus mainly on the problem we need to fix: “These kids are bullying each other. We need to get rid of it.” I am not denying the truth of that statement. But I think that to better motivate students, we need to ask ourselves, “What do we want to create?” instead.

In my mind, the answer goes something like this: “We want to create classrooms and school environments of empathy, solidarity, support for each other, and, even if not friends, friendliness. We know that these types of environments foster meaningful relationships and unity, help students feel safe, and make for exemplary learning.”

When you know the final result you want to create—empathy, solidarity, support, meaningful relationships, safety, exemplary learning—you, as a teacher, are better able to focus on the process of building that vision rather than trying to stop bullying.

This visualization is an essential mindset to take for many things in life, but it’s especially useful for combatting something as dynamic and power-based as bullying. Students who experience bullying are often isolated and feel scared and lonely. Some of the most helpful things for students who experience bullying—in other words, what makes it better—include telling adults at school, telling adults at home, and telling friends. Perhaps a follow-up question we should be asking is: “What do we want to create that will motivate students to stand up to bullying that really makes a difference?” Or, “How can we motivate students to stand up to bullying by coming to talk to a teacher, other students, and their parents or caregivers at home?”

Your students will be much more motivated to talk to you, family, and friends when they are supported in an empathetic, unifying, and safe environment where reinforcement and rewards for showing empathy, being friendly, and supporting unity flow purposefully. This purposeful reinforcement starts on day one of your career and does not end until you retire. Why? Because students know what it feels like to learn in an environment of support and empathy, and they know what it is like not to be in such an environment. Students talk, news travels, and your presence, whether negative or positive, is felt and shared. To this day, my high schoolers sit around the kitchen table and commiserate about the unsupportive teacher they had in third grade—the teacher that made fun of my son’s name and criticized my daughter for not knowing the difference between coins.

It’s nearly impossible to motivate students in this type of environment to stand up to bullying when they feel the adult in the room is unsafe to approach. But no matter what has come before—remember, the best time to set up a classroom supported by unity and empathy was six months ago—you can always start improving your classroom environment.

Okay, so now that you’ve decided what you wanted to create, you need to make sure the message resonates on all levels of learning and all throughout your students’ daily schedules. You regularly reinforce and reward the positive opposite of bullying—kindness, empathy, solidarity, and mutual support. Now you have to walk the talk.

Someone has been texting one of your sixth-grade students nasty messages and threats. Someone continues to make fun of one of your first graders’ clothes and appearance. Someone is spreading hurtful and mean rumors about one of your 16-year-olds.

The most helpful things a teacher can do are listen to the student, check in with them afterward to see if the bullying has stopped, and give advice. These are the moments when you get to see what you created really shine. You are the dispatcher of unity and empathy. The students know it, feel it, sense it. You’ve got their backs, no matter the circumstances.

I don’t know about you, but when I know deep down inside that someone’s got my back, I feel safe to express my feelings—including my worries, fears, and gratitude. But it’s more than this—in this type of environment, students start to understand the intrinsic reward you get from being connected to people through genuine relationships based on empathy and positive regard, not on power and manipulation.

In the book Zach Stands Up, Zach and his friends learn to stand up to bullying by using the four parts of the Stand Up to Bullying STAR method.

  1. Speak up—talk to or support the person experiencing bully behavior.
  2. Take off—get yourself or the person experiencing bullying away from the situation.
  3. Actively listen—let the person talk about what happened.
  4. Report—tell an adult what happened.

While the STAR method is extremely important to teach students, the underlying crux of the story is that Zach and his friend Sonya have a teacher who has established a safe and supportive environment where the kids understand the importance of standing up for each other and know their teacher is a safe person they can report the bullying to who will listen without being dismissive or insensitive.

When it comes down to the reality of the classroom, there truly is no catch all “secret formula” for motivating students to stand up to bullying. But in the spirit of the Zach Rules series, here is a Template to Motivate.

  1. Don’t wait. It’s never too late to make a difference.
  2. Decide what you want to create. What is your positive opposite of bullying? Make sure to involve your students in the process of creating this environment.
  3. Make sure to educate and integrate. Students need to be equipped with the tools to stand up to bullying. Practice often. The positive opposite, or the safe, supportive, unified connection between students, needs to be a part of students’ entire school day, every day.
  4. Reward and reinforce when students show positive opposite behaviors.
  5. Watch as the positive opposite grows. The idea is that this way of interacting becomes so deeply held by students that it creates meaning in their lives and they purposefully and instinctively share it with others.

It can be hard to think about our students being involved in bullying in any role. But when we focus on creating a unified and compassionate environment, we not only motivate students to stand up to bullying, we lessen the chances for bullying to occur and deepen students’ internal sense of self-efficacy to know, “I got this.”

bill-mulcahy-webWilliam “Bill” Mulcahy, MS, LPC, LMHC, NCC is a licensed professional counselor, psychotherapist, author and of books and tools for teaching children to cope with the challenges of life in the 21st century. Bill has served as a supervisor at Family Services of Waukesha, WI, as a counselor at Stillwaters Cancer Support Services, at Empathia Inc., as an employee assistance professional and has worked with children with special needs. He has been in private practice since 2016. He is also the father of seven children including two children on the autism spectrum and lives in Venice, Florida with his wife, Melissa.

Free Spirit books by William Mulcahy:


zachgetsfrustratedzach-makes-mistakesZach Stands Up

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