Committee for Children Blog

Upstander Advocacy

Adult speaking to upset child.

For decades, Committee for Children has promoted policies that support bullying prevention through social-emotional learning (SEL). More recently, we’ve been researching equity gaps in education, which disproportionately impact communities of color, and exploring links between bias, bullying, SEL, and culturally responsive pedagogy.

The Shift Toward Cultural Competency

Culturally responsive pedagogy isn’t about teaching any particular content; rather, it’s about recognizing and validating students’ distinct backgrounds and cultural strengths and making lessons contextually meaningful and easier to master. (For more information on culturally responsive teaching, read Zaretta Hammond’s book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain.) It could look like a language arts teacher giving students a broader choice of authors to read or topics to write about, or a math teacher using examples that reflect students’ varying interests and traditions. It asks teachers to be aware of possible biases and to consider broader perspectives.

This approach to teaching can bolster students’ confidence in their identities and help create a shared appreciation for differences. That matters because, according to federal statistics gathered by, in the US about 20 percent of students ages 12–18 have experienced bullying. reports that many of those students were targeted for bullying because they were deemed “different” from their peers, often because of culture or race.

However, when schools foster safe, supportive learning environments, they can reduce violence and bullying and promote positive, inclusive behaviors that boost students’ well-being and academic outcomes.1, 2

SEL teaches children specific skills like self-awareness, social awareness, and empathy. Similar to culturally responsive pedagogy, SEL uses a strengths-based approach to build student confidence and improve learning. The hope is that this approach will break down barriers and build trust, which would help prevent bullying and improve student learning and outcomes.

Bullying Behavior

Bullying, whether motivated by race or not, doesn’t happen in isolation. It’s enabled by group dynamics that are shaped, in part, by policies and practices. Bullying negatively impacts all people involved in a bullying incident, including those who witness it, and the consequences can be severe and lasting.3 Conversely, the interactions of all people involved in a bullying incident can determine what happens. An upstander is someone who intervenes on behalf of a person who’s being bullied. When upstanders intervene, it can reduce instances of bullying by more than 50 percent.4 (Read a comprehensive review of bullying research in a special issue of American Psychologist.)

Policy Opportunities

A civic organization and think tank called New America, which advances evidence-based policy recommendations, collected and reviewed state policies and teaching standards across the nation to better understand which states explicitly address culturally responsive pedagogy and related competencies. Analysts found a lot of variation. All 50 states include some broad mention of culturally responsive competencies in their standards, but few offer any specificity. (See the state-by-state comparison on New America’s website.)

To lessen the fragmentation, inconsistency, and vague requirements in education policy, we recommend that states and schools:

  • Better connect policies pertaining to bullying prevention, SEL, and culturally responsive pedagogy
  • Report data to the state level for a more holistic analysis of bullying demographics and trends, such as links between current events and types of bullying (cyberbullying, racially motivated bullying, and so on) as well as their resulting negative effects
  • Adopt clear, consistent definitions for bullying, SEL, culturally responsive pedagogy, and related concepts
  • Support universal standards and professional learning practices that promote SEL and culturally responsive competencies
  • Go beyond merely posting policies on school websites and instead roll out comprehensive programs that support a positive school climate where bullying is less likely to happen

Proactive Steps for Educators

Educators are well-positioned to build a culture of belonging that helps prevent bullying and minimize equity and education gaps. Consider a few best practices suggested by our in-house experts and global community of educators:

  • Read and discuss the Captain Compassion® bullying prevention comic series with students. It raises engaging questions and provides examples of how to address stereotyping, cyberbullying, harassment, and other relevant issues.
  • Learn about students’ cultures and why it’s so important to acknowledge them. Recognize cultural diversity as a strength and treat differences as assets, not deficits.
  • Hold high expectations for all students, and recognize that some may benefit from having a lesson presented in a different way.
  • Be able to identify and respond appropriately to student and staff cultural insensitivity or conflict. This includes empowering learners (adults and youth) to move from being bystanders to being upstanders by teaching them how to recognize, report, and refuse bullying.
  • Clearly communicate expectations based on shared values and norms that include being inclusive and kind, and hold adults to the same standards as kids.
  • Teach specific social-emotional skills that strengthen empathy, respect, kindness, and the ability to be curious about multiple perspectives.
  • Integrate SEL into core curricula and reinforce it through daily routines.
  • Do what you can to create a calm, welcoming classroom.
  • Avoid labeling students as bullies or victims. Instead, talk about bullying in terms of behavior and recognize that many kids who bully have also been bullied.
  • Communicate regularly with families to strengthen connections between school and home.

Community Action Alert

Because there’s power in numbers, we work to grow our coalition of organizations and people who are committed to supporting legislation that prevents bullying and harassment so that schools can be safe for all children. Join our advocacy effort and help us convert bystanders to upstanders.

Additional Resources


1. Dusenbury, L., Calin, S., Domitrovich, C., & Weissberg, R. P. (2015). What does evidence-based instruction in social and emotional learning actually look like in practice? A brief on findings from CASEL’s program reviews. Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.

2. Committee for Children. (2014). Bullying prevention in schools starts with social-emotional learning.

3. Rivers, I., Poteat, V. P., Noret, N., & Ashurst, N. (2009). Observing bullying at school: The mental health implications of witness status. School Psychology Quarterly, 24(4), 211–223.

4. Hawkins, D. L., Pepler, D. J., & Craig, W. M. (2001). Naturalistic observations of peer interventions in bullying. Social Development, 10(4), 512–527.