Committee for Children Blog

Bullying Isn’t Cool

by Rachel Kamb

Paul is small for his age—and Jordan is constantly there to remind him. “Puny Paul” is what Jordan and his friends like to call him. During a typical recess, Paul can be found cowering at the edge of the playground while Jordan spits on him. Paul might try to move away, but there is nowhere for him to go. Jordan’s friends laugh, while other students either pretend they don’t see what’s happening or look the other way. The playground supervisor always seems to be busy mediating ball games.

What’s wrong with these kids? Why does Jordan keep picking on Paul, when Paul does nothing back? And why doesn’t anyone stick up for Paul or go get help?

The reasons may be more complicated than you think. We know that bullying is primarily a group phenomenon that involves students in multiple roles, particularly as bystanders—students who witness or are aware of bullying.  One clear reason that Jordan may be bullying Paul is for the effect it has on the bystanders. Jordan is likely gaining social status through bullying Paul by appearing tough or cool, making others laugh, or showing that he has power. Because of the power differential in bullying, students who are being bullied have limited power to make it stop. Since there are often social or other rewards for students who bully, it can also be hard to change their behavior.

But certainly not everyone who sees what Jordan is doing feels okay about it, right?

Right! But even though witnessing bullying can cause a variety of uncomfortable emotions for students, they may use those feelings as a reason to avoid the situation or identify with the student doing the bullying rather than take positive action to stop the bullying. Students who witness bullying often look to others to decide how to respond. If other bystanders are doing nothing, watching, or laughing, they may be inadvertently encouraging the bullying.

Unfortunately, without intervention or training, students—even those who feel uncomfortable about what is happening—most often either passively observe, actively encourage, or participate in the bullying. However research shows that bullying usually stops when bystanders intervene appropriately. The power of bystanders to support or discourage bullying means that influencing how bystanders respond is a critical part of bullying prevention.

So how do students learn to be bystanders who discourage bullying?

A major focus of the Second Step Bullying Prevention Unit for K–5 is teaching students skills they can use to respond appropriately, not only when they are bullied, but also when they are bystanders. K–3 students learn and practice recognizing, reporting, and refusing bullying if it happens to them or someone else. They also learn how to be supportive bystanders by reporting or helping to report bullying, standing up for someone being bullied, being respectful and kind, and including everyone.

Students in grades 4 and 5 review and practice how to recognize, report, and refuse bullying, but then the focus shifts to appropriate bystander behaviors. Bystander behaviors are emphasized at this grade level because we know that as students enter the upper elementary grades, their peers increasingly influence their choices—both positively and negatively. Being part of a peer group that engages in greater levels of bullying is highly predictive of an individual being less willing to intervene in bullying incidents. So changing peer bystander behavior at this age is more important than ever.

But does teaching students how to be supportive bystanders really work?

Research shows that appropriate lessons can reduce the bystander behaviors that support and perpetuate bullying and also increase students’ sense of responsibility to help those who are victimized. In a recent meta-analysis, programs that focus specifically on bystander intervention were shown to be quite effective. We also know from the research that school and classroom climates that create disapproval of bullying can reduce bullying by creating a “social cost” for students who bully. The idea is to create a climate where it’s cool to be a bystander that does the right thing and helps stop bullying!

How does learning to be a supportive bystander fit in with what my students are learning in the Second Step program right now?

The Bullying Prevention Unit lessons build skills specifically helpful in reducing bullying and help students learn how to apply social-emotional learning (SEL) skills taught in the Second Step program to bullying situations. Assertiveness is an important SEL skill that can help empower students who witness or experience bullying to respond effectively, whether that means getting other bystanders to walk away or not support bullying, reporting bullying to adults, or confronting bullying directly. The lessons also reinforce the friendship skills taught in the Second Step program through an emphasis on including others and inviting others to join in activities, which can reduce the social isolation that contributes to bullying.

What is a simple message I can give my students to help reinforce that bullying in our school is not acceptable?

Students need to understand that they have a responsibility as bystanders. To say “It’s not my problem” when they see or know about bullying is wrong.

Bullying is everyone’s problem. It is all of our responsibility not to let bullying happen and to try to stop it when it does.

Rachel Kamb is a Program Developer at Committee for Children. She enjoys the positive climate where she works with her really cool peers.