Six Ways to Student Activate Empathy and Courage to Support Bullied Peers

By Michele Borba, Ed.D.

Bullying wreaks havoc on children’s emotional moral, and cognitive development; demolishes feelings of safety; and if not stopped, can shatter young lives. The typical approach to prevention and intervention has been to deal individually with the child who engages in bullying and the target. But new insight into the roles student witnesses play in bullying incidents has generated a major shift in perspective. How student spectators respond to the child who is bullying, the target, or other bystanders can dramatically increase or decrease the intensity and duration of the bullying. That’s why I’m convinced that activating the compassion and courage of student witnesses may be our best hope in reducing peer cruelty.

Empathy can ignite our children’s “helping muscles,” and moral courage can be nurtured. If students must be taught a range of bystander strategies and know they will be supported by staff and peers, they can be primed to respond positively help a classmate and reduce bullying. But to succeed, students need the right guidance so they know when to step in, how to help safely and effectively, and believe adults will give them permission to do so.

Here are six ways to activate our children’s empathy and courage to stand up for bullied peers from my book, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me-World and mobilize children’s compassion to become Upstanders.

Create an inclusive classroom.

Studies find that when bystanders have a positive attitude toward a targeted student, they are more likely to help the target, rather than to support the child who is bullying. So, create opportunities for students to get to know each other. Use strategies such as class meetings, cooperative learning and restorative justice to help students develop respectful relationships and care about eaah other.

Tell stories of “quiet” Upstanders.

Some students worry that they are too shy to speak up or lack the physical prowess to be Upstanders. Ally any concerns by telling your students stories about ordinary kids who are making a quiet difference on the bullying scene.

Christian Bucks, a Pennsylvania second grader, felt for excluded classmates and thought a playground Buddy Bench would be a solution. A lonely child could sit and signal classmates that he wanted someone to talk to, and kids could invite him to play. Christian shared his empathy-driven idea with his principal, and a bench was added to the playground. The local paper posted a picture that went viral. Hundreds of students worldwide asked for a bench at their school to help peers make friends and feel included.

Kevin Curwick got tired of seeing peers bullied online, so the Minneapolis teen created an anonymous account-@OsseoNiceThings-to tweet kind comments and let peers know someone cares. “I just couldn’t stand back,” Kevin told me. Classmates began copying Kevin’s strategy of posting kind tweets about peers, and cyberbullies lost their power because kids stopped following them.  Then a news station published the story, and Kevin’s “nice campaign” went viral. Teens from as far as Croatia and South Korea started “nice accounts to stop online bullying.

Convey: “Kids want help.”

Most students hate to see peers treated cruelly and do want to help, and if they don’t, they often suffer from guilt or shut down their empathy as a way to cope.

Students often don’t intervene because they assume the target doesn’t want help, so discuss bullying as a class: “Would you want your friend to help if you were bullied?” “How would you feel if a classmate helped or didn’t help you?” Stress that peer support could come during or after a bullying incident. Then ask students: “On a scale of zero (never) to ten (always), how much would you want a friend’s support if you were bullied?” Each student should write their answer on a 3”x 5” card without signing their names! Collect the cards, and share responses: “Ninety percent of you want classmates to stand up for each other.” When kids know that their peers want their support they’ll be more likely to offer it.

Stress that small helping acts make a difference.

Convince students that even minute, quiet acts can make a difference. An African proverb helps convey the message: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” Role-play simple acts of befriending that might help curb peer cruelty and don’t require face to face contact with an aggressive student. That’s threatening for adults as well as kids! Ideas could include: walking closer to the target, finding an adult to help, encouraging other students to move toward the targeted child and away from the bully.

Let kids know that if just one bystander helps, other students are more likely to intervene. Research shows that 57 percent of the time bystanders step in to help, bullying is reduced or stopped. But also advise: “If you don’t know what to do or you don’t feel safe to help, you can walk away, or report the incident to an adult or support the target after the incident.”

Encourage kids to befriend after the bullying.

“It’s never too late to show a friend you care,” is a mantra all kids need to hear. Let’s encourage our students to befriend a bullied child even after the bullying episode. Doing so helps reduce the pain of both the targeted child and the guilt of witnesses who didn’t or couldn’t step in. Many children who were bullied tell me that peer support was what helped them most. The key is to teach students how to care.

Teach Kids to Use Their HEART

I teach the acronym “HEART” from my book, UnSelfie, to help students learn ways to support bullied peers. You might post a chart of “Ways to Care” so students can add ideas and have a constant visual reference. Keep in mind that these skills are best learned through role play.

H = Help. Run for first aid. Call others to help. Pick up what’s broken. Then role play with students simple ways to leave a scene safely to get help.

E = Empathize. Show your concern and how you feel. “He did that to me and I was scared.” “I know how you feel.”

A = Assist. “Do you need help?” “I’ll find a teacher.” “I’ll walk you to the office.”

R = Reassure. Stand closer. Comfort the student. Let the target know: “It happens to other kids.” “I’m still your friend.” Or “Teachers will help you.”

T = Tell how you feel. “You didn’t deserve that.” “I’m so sorry.” “I know it’s not true.”

We must encourage student to be socially responsible and teach ways for them to care about others. Doing so will help students be more likely to act on their empathic urges and mobilize their courage to stand up for others. But courage in risky situations is possible only if children trust adults and know what to do. That is why it’s crucial that we convey to our students that we will support them, and then teach safe ways so they can stand up for others. And it all starts with empathy.

Michele Borba, Ed.D., is an internationally renowned educational psychologist, speaker, expert in parenting, bullying, and character development and award-winning author of 22 books translated into 14 languages. Her latest are UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me-World and The 6Rs of Bullying Prevention: Best Proven Practices to Combat Cruelty and Build Respect.  See www.micheleborba.com or follow her on twitter @micheleborba.

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