LSLS – October is National Bullying Prevention Month: Part 1 – Tips for Students Who are Bystanders

Excerpted and adapted from Dr. Lori Ernsperger’s book Recognize, Respond, Report: Preventing and Addressing Bullying of Students with Special Needs, the suggestions shared here will help teachers provide effective support for all kids, no matter which side of the bullying equation they’re on. This will be a three-part blog. Part 1 will include tips for students who are bystanders. Part 2 will include tips for students exhibiting bullying behavior. Part 3 will include tips for students who are victims of bullying.

For Bystanders:
Invest in or develop a bystander education program. Formal training will teach students how to intervene safely and appropriately when a peer is being bullied. Whether you buy a prepackaged program or develop a unique bystander education program, your most important goal is to ensure student safety and deter students from aggressive confrontation. A bystander protocol with simple, concrete steps (similar to the “stop, drop, and roll” fire safety) will help encourage safe student interventions on behalf of peers who are bullied.

Raise awareness of bullying. How does bullying start? How can you tell when a bullying incident is beginning? What are the verbal and nonverbal signs of aggression, power, and domination? Teach students to look out for and recognize words and actions that indicate a peer is being bullied. Identify helpful actions bystanders can take. Your bystander education program should teach students to recognize whether they can safely intervene or should immediately contact an adult or the authorities. If a student determines it’s safe to intervene, then identify age-appropriate skills through guided group discussion. Some helpful peer actions—suggested in a survey of students who were bullying victims—include spending time with students experiencing bullying, encouraging them at school, helping them get away from the bullying situation, and helping them tell an adult.

Foster empathy for bullying victims. Some students may find it difficult to empathize with victims of bullying who exhibit challenging behaviors or diverse characteristics that are outside the other students’ realm of experience. Teaching your students about diversity and acceptance can help dismantle this mindset. For example, you might discuss the general characteristics of various disabilities and try simulation activities that foster a better understanding of differences.

Teach the difference between “tattling” and “upstanding.” Many bystanders are reluctant to intervene in a bullying situation because they fear they’ll be labeled a “tattletale.” That’s why it’s important to explicitly teach them the difference:

Tattletale—Someone who wants to get someone else in trouble. (Example: “Kayla cut in line in the cafeteria!”)

Upstander—Someone who wants to get a peer out of trouble or be a friend. (Example: “Someone threw Jason’s backpack in the toilet.”)

It’s tough to erase the stigma associated with tattling, but it’s important work. Start by teaching and reinforcing the language regarding tattletales vs. upstanders, provide plenty of examples your students can relate to, and hang visual reminders in the classroom (a poster, maybe) to keep the message fresh in your students’ minds.

Create a peer mentoring program. Studies have shown that peer mentoring can significantly reduce bullying victimization and students’ feelings of anxiety, depression, and social isolation. You can implement a more structured program like the We Will Generation of PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center, which provides activities, resources, and videos that educate and inspire peer mentors. Or try organizing informal peer social groups around the central goal of be a buddy, not a bully. Designate cafeteria tables, courtyard benches, or “friendship zones” on the playground where students who may struggle with social and communication skills can have a safe place to eat and play with others. Whether your efforts are structured or unstructured, the goal of peer mentoring can be a great way to foster friendships, support differences, and advance opportunities for inclusion.

I’d like to highlight Hutto ISD’s middle school peer buddy program where they model be a buddy, not a bully. The teachers who developed and implement that program presented at Region 13’s Beat the Heat conference in 2017.


Life Skills Educator? Join our Region 13 Google Community to connect with other Life Skills Educators across our Region and receive tips and resources from your Region 13 Autism and Low Incidence Disabilities Specialists!

Contact:  Darcy Schiller at or 512-919-5224.

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