Mobilizing Bystanders to Stop Bullying

by | Feb 23, 2011 | Parenting

Teaching kids how to be active bystanders, stand up to peer cruelty and speak out against bullying.  My “Bully B.U.S.T.E.R. Bystander SkillsI shared on Dateline.

Bullying is a learned behavior, and it is on the rise. One third of middle and high school students were bullied during the school year. Previous studies estimated the figure as one in seven students. Bullying appears to be far more intense, more frequent and beginning at younger ages than in years past.

3 Victims: Bullies, the Bullied and Bystanders

Make no mistake: Bullying is a cruel, intentional act that is usually repeated, and can have serious impact on children.

And every bullying episode really has three victims: the bullied (or target), the bully, and the bystander.

The bullied or target: Repeated bullying can cause severe emotional harm, and can be so serious that some school-age victims have committed suicide.

The bully: Nearly 60 percent of students identified as chronic bullies in middle school had at least one criminal conviction by the age of twenty-six.

The bystander: New research suggests that students who witness their peers endure verbal or physical abuse could become as psychologically distressed, if not more so, by the events as the victims themselves.

The consequences of bullying seem to finally be recognized. States are passing anti-bullying laws; schools are implementing zero-bullying policies; pediatricians are posting warning signs, and parents are increasing worried about their children’s safety.

Mobilizing Student Bystanders To Stop Bullying

In all our endeavors to stop peer cruelty, we are largely overlooking the most effective bully-reducing solution: mobilizing student bystanders to speak up.

The fact is, students witness 85 percent of bullying episodes and usually during times when adults aren’t around to help.

I reported to Brian Williams on NBC Nightly News that studies show that active bystanders can do far more than just watch.

Active Bystander Power

Peers can reduce the audience that a bully craves

Mobilize the compassion of witnesses to step in

Support the victim

Be a positive influence in curbing a bullying episode.

In fact, when bystanders intervene correctly, studies find they can cut bullying more than half the time and within 10 seconds.

The key is that students must have the right guidance so they know when to step in, be taught how skills that offer the right kind of help, and know when to get aid.

My Work on Dateline 

Middle school students appearing on Dateline special, “The Perils of Parenting”: three are hired actor “plants”; three are unsuspecting students

I worked with NBC’s Dateline’s correspondent, Kate Snow on a special entitled, “The Perils of Parenting.” Producers asked me to teach middle school students–when bullying peaks–specific bystander strategies.

I developed techniques after reviewing hundreds of research articles on the “Bystander Effect” and have trained hundreds of educators in how to use them with students.

The moment during the taping that one twelve-year old girl stepped in and spoke up to a boy to stop bullying another child was extraordinary.

She was calm, compassionate, courageous and glorious. She also used every one of the six bystander skills — and used them better than most adults. There also wasn’t a dry eye on the set–we all wiped away tears–and she proved the power of mobilizing students to be active bystanders.

NBC Correspondent, Kate Snow, debriefing students in Dateline special, “The Perils of Parenting” (I’m with their parents in next room explaining the “bystander effect”

Mobilizing the compassion of bystanders with specific bystander skills is largely overlooked in bullying prevention, but it may well be our best hope in creating safe and caring school climates.

The best news is that child advocates and parents can teach kids these same bystander skills. Doing so empowers children with tools to stop cruelty, help victims, feel safer and reduce bullying.

Bully B.U.S.T.E.R. Strategies

Chances are that your child will witness bullying. Here are six strategies I developed to teach so kids know how to intervene safely and when to report.  I’ve taught these skills to hundreds of teachers and students. They work.

There are parameters: To succeed you must first mobilize students as active bystanders. You must give them permission to step in. You must also teach specific strategies so they can step in. Each strategy must be rehearsed or role-played, until kids can use it alone. I’ve had schools have students role-play these in assemblies, make them into chart-reminders that are posted around the school, and even have students create mini-videos of each strategy to share with peers.

Not every strategy will work for every student.

STEP ONE: Teach Difference Between Tattling and Reporting

Kids must realize that safety is always the primary goal. So stress:

“If someone could get hurt, REPORT! Emphasize: “It’s always better to be safe than sorry.”

Then teach the difference between “Tattling” and “Reporting.” Also identify specific trusted adults children can go to and report bullying incidents.

TATTLING is when you trying to get kids IN trouble when they aren’t hurting themselves or other.

REPORTING is when you’re trying to help keep kids OUT of trouble because they may get hurt (or they are). Report bullying to an adult you trust. If the adult doesn’t listen, keep reporting until you find one who does.

STEP TWO: Teach What Bullying Looks and Sounds Like

The next step is to teach students what bullying behaviors look like so they will know when they should step in and not when the behavior is mere teasing.


“Bullying is a cruel or aggressive act that is done on purpose. The bully has more power (strength, status, or size) than the target, who cannot hold his own.

The hurtful bullying behavior is not an accident, but done on purpose.

The bully usually seems to enjoy seeing the victim in distress and rarely accepts responsibility and often says the target “deserved” the hurtful treatment.”

Then teach (depending on the child’s age) that bullying can be:

  1. Physical: Punching, hitting, slamming, socking, spitting, slapping,
  2. Verbal: Saying put downs, nasty statements, name calling, taunting, racial slurs, or hurtful comments, threatening
  3. Emotional: Shunning, excluding, spreading rumors or mean gossip, ruining your reputation
  4. Electronic or cyber-bullying: Using the Internet, cell phone, camera, text messaging, photos to say mean or embarrassing things
  5. Sexual: Saying or doingthings that are lewd or disrespectful in a sexual way

Students can make posters, power-point presentations, skits, or projects about bullying. The key is that they understand the real definition of bullying. And they must know that the staff is serious about supporting them.

Bystander Books

Confessions of a Former Bully, by Trudy Ludwig. Tricycle Press

Say Something, by Peggy Moss Gardiner. Tilbury House

Teammates, by Peter Golenbock. Peter Golenbock

The Bully Blockers Club,by Teresa Bateman. Albert Whitman & Company

STEP THREE: Teach Bully BUSTER Skills

I teach the acronym BUSTER to help kids remember the skills. Each letter in the word represents one of the six bystander skills. Not all strategies work for all kids. The trick is to match the techniques with what works best with the child’s temperament and comfort level and the particular situation.

B-Befriend the Victim

Bystanders often don’t intervene because they don’t want to make things worse or assume the victim doesn’t want help. If witnesses know a victim feels upset or wants help they are more likely to step in. And if you befriend a victim, you’re also more likely to get others to join your cause.

Show comfort: Stand closer to the victim.

Wave other pees over: “Come help!”

Ask if the victim wants support: “Do you need help?”

Empathize: “I bet he feels sad.”

Clarify feelings: “He looks upset.”

U-Use a Distraction

The right diversion can draw peers from the scene, make them focus elsewhere, give the target a chance to get away, and may get the bully to move on. Remember, a bully wants an audience, so reduce it with a distraction. Ploys include:

A question: “What are you all doing here?”

A diversion: “There’s a great volleyball game going on! Come on!”

A false excuse: “A teacher is coming!”

An interruption: “I can’t find my bus.”

S-Speak Out and Stand Up!

Speaking out can get others to lend a hand and join you. You must stay cool, and never boo, clap, laugh, or insult, which could egg the bully on even more. Stress that directly confronting a bully is intimidating and it’s a rare kid who can, but there are ways to still stand up to cruelty.

Show disapproval: Give a cold, silent stare.

Name it: “That’s bullying!”

Label it: “That’s mean!”

State disapproval: “This isn’t cool!”

Ask for support: “Are you with me?”

T-Tell or Text For Help

Teach “Reporting (Trying to stop someone from being hurt) vs. Tattling (Trying to get someone in trouble).”

Stress: “If someone is in harms way, report and get help.” Call from a cell, send a text, find an adult, or call 911.

Bystanders often don’t report bullying for fear of retaliation, so make sure they know which adults will support them, ensure their confidentiality and give the option of anonymous reporting. Find an adult you trust. If you have problems, keep going until you find someone who believes you.

E-Exit Alone or With Others

Bullies love audiences. Bystanders can drain a bully’s power by reducing the group size a few ways.

Encouraging: “You coming?

Asking: “What are you all doing here?

Directing: “Let’s go!” Suggesting: “Let’s leave.”

Exiting: If you can’t get others to leave with you, then walk away. If you stay, you’re part of the cruelty. Leaving means you refuse to be part.

R-Give a Reason or Remedy

Bystanders are more likely to help when 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.”

Final Thoughts

The right comments and behaviors can make peers stop, think, consider the consequences, and even move on. Bystanders can make a difference. They can be mobilized to step in and reduce peer cruelty. It’s up to us to show them safe ways to do so, support them,  and then acknowledge their courageous efforts. 160,000 students today skipped school because of peer intimidation and bullying.

These strategies are under copyright ©Borba 2011. Please honor the copyright. Thank you!

Related posts in this special Bullying Series include:

Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert

I am an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books.

You can also refer to my daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Checkfor ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news about child development.

Follow me on twitter @MicheleBorba

You can also find dozens of research-based and practical tips about bullying (as well as 100 other topics) in my latest book,The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. Refer especially to the chapters on Bullying (pg 232); Bullied (pg 323); Sensitive (pg 284); Bad Friends (pg 314); and Peer Pressure (pg 373).

Resources for this blog:

NBC Nightly News: “Bullying increasing” Reported live by Tom Costello, September 5, 2010.

C. Goodnow, “Bullying Is a Complex, Dangerous Game in Which Everyone’s a Player,” Seattle Post-Intelligence, Sept. 1, 1999.

N. R. Crick, “Relational and Overt Forms of Peer Victimization: A Multiinformant Approach, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 66., No.2,” Mar 26, 1998. J. C. Rusby, “Bullying in Middle School May Lead to Increased Substance Abuse in High School,” Journal of Early Adolescence, Dec 30, 2005.


D. Olweus, “Bully/Victim Problems Among Schoolchildren: Basic Facts and Effects of a School-Based Intervention Program,” in The Development and Treatment of Childhood Aggression, 1991.

American Psychological Association (2009, December 15). Witnesses to bullying may face more mental health risks than bullies and victims. ScienceDaily. from­ /releases/2009/12/091214121449.htm

Craig, W. M. & Pepler, D. (1997). Observations of Bullying and Victimization in the School Yard. Canadian Journal of School of Psychology, 13(2): 41-60.

Hawkins, D. L., Pepler, D. J., & Craig, W. (2001). Naturalistic Observations of Peer Interventions in Bullying. Social Development, 10(4): 512-527.