How to Help Children Stand Up to Peer Cruelty & Stop BullyingIn this guest post, Dr. Michele Borba, an educational psychologist and parenting and bullying expert, offers specific, evidence-based tips on bullying prevention. Her latest book, End Peer Cruelty, Build Empathy, helps teachers and parents instruct children on how to step in safely to halt bullying. She emphasizes how creating a caring culture based on respectful relationships is the foundation for bullying prevention. Dr. Borba reminds us that counteracting school violence and bullying starts with safe, secure learning climates—with caring adults at the helm. Whether you are a parent or educator, as she explains below, “Children can be taught to step in, be Upstanders and reduce bullying.” Read on to find out how.

Dr. Michele Borba tells us how:

That old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” is a misnomer 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 bully-reducing solution: teaching children how to speak up and stand up to bullies. For instance, children can reduce the audience that a bully 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 in creating safer schools for our children and I know so because I’ve spent the last two decades researching the topic and working with hundreds of educators worldwide.  

Studies show that most children witness bullying when adults aren’t around. The best news is that we can teach children specific skills to empower them to stop cruelty, help victims, feel safer and reduce bullying. But there are caveats.

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.
  • They are uncertain if the target wants help.

Parents and teachers must teach kids what bullying behaviors look like. Give a clear explanation: “Bullying is a cruel, aggressive act that is done on purpose, and never an accident. The child who is bullying has more power in strength, status, ability, or size than the target who can’t hold his own. That’s why kids need to help.”

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

end peer cruelty build empathy

Below are six strategies to teach kids how to safely intervene from my book, End Peer Cruelty, Build Empathy. The acronym “BUSTER” helps children remember 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 were even featured on an NBC Dateline special.

Of course, not every strategy works for every student, so you must provide a range of strategies. Then adults must guide students so they know when and how to step in safely or when to get adult help.

The trick is finding techniques that match each child’s comfort level and fit the particular situation. Each BUSTER skill should be practiced until kids feel confident using it without adult guidance. Some teachers have children role-play the Upstander skills in assemblies or classrooms, and then make poster reminders displayed on hallways. Parents can practice at home with their children. Above all, children must trust the adults will back them up so they feel safe to step in and speak out.

“Bully BUSTER”: 6 Strategies to Help Children Become Upstanders

B-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.

  • 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.”

U-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, even stop the bullying. Those who bully usually want an audience, so bystanders 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.”

S-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. It’s important to stress: “You must stay cool, and never boo, clap, laugh, or insult, which can egg the bullying on more.

  • 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!”

T-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 going until you find someone who believes you.
  • Call or text for help. Call 911 if someone could be or is injured

E-Exit Alone or With Others. Tell kids that those who bully usually love audiences. Bystanders 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!”

R-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, be Upstanders and reduce bullying. It’s up to us, parents and teachers, 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.

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