What Adults Can Do to Help Kids Bring an End to Bullying

10 practical ways to build competence in students and disempower kids who bully.

Posted Feb 23, 2018

Not long ago, a national organization that provides mental health services for school-aged children posted an open question for followers on its social media page: You witness a student being bullied; what do you do?

Hundreds of people responded right away. The majority of their answers focused squarely on punishing the child who bullied—most with the type of language that would shock the very children they felt so strongly about protecting. “Shame the bully!” responded one teacher, who boasted that her 22 years of classroom experience validated her answer. “Kick the kid out of school,” demanded a professional counselor.


If social media is a reliable barometer of public opinion, it seems clear that the knee-jerk solution to the problem of bullying is hostility and vengeance. The response is understandable: adults who were bullied during their own youth often feel a strong urge to protect the current generation of young people from the same kind of abuse. Likewise, many adults feel justice is best served when aggressors are punished for their wrongdoing.

Yet the problem with bullying prevention strategies that center on the behavior of kids who bully is that they leave targeted kids in a powerless position, assuming that their lives will only get better if the child who bullies changes his/her ways. In fact, in their landmark study, Davis and Nixon (2010) found that adult actions aimed at changing the behavior of children who bully are actually more likely to make things worse for their victims—not better.

Bullying Prevention strategies that shift their focus to building positive social skills in all young people achieve better results. Studies by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL, 2011) clearly show that effective SEL programming drives important social outcomes such as positive peer relationships, higher levels of kindness and empathy, increased social engagement and reduction in problem behaviors such as bullying. What’s more, students who receive SEL programming academically outperform their peers and graduate at higher rates.  For schools driven by standardized test scores, this approach to education cannot be ignored.

What follows are 10 practical ways that educators, counselors, caring adults, and parents can build social and emotional competence in the kids with whom they work and live:


When kids show cruel behavior toward one another, approach them from a teaching framework, rather than a punitive one. Role model and teach young people the skills they need to treat others with dignity, then hold them accountable for maintaining those standards of conduct.


Use role play to help kids practice using assertive phrasing, neutral tones, confident body language, and other effective communication skills.


Engage kids in conversations about what positive friendships should feel like. For example, have kids brainstorm ideas such as:

  • A friend is someone who you can laugh with
  • A friend is someone who helps you to feel good about yourself
  • A friend is someone who doesn’t put you down


Teach kids skills for regulating emotions, such as mindfulness, deep breathing, journaling, positive self-talk, talking with a friend, exercise, timeouts, etc.Fortify young people with the skills they need to cope with the anxiety, frustration, loneliness, fear and/or sadness caused by bullying.


Teach kids that they have choices when it comes to emotional expression.Provide instruction on anger expression styles: aggression, passive aggression, passivity, and assertiveness.


Cultivate kids’ extracurricular interests. Doing so allows kids the opportunity to develop new and different friendships, which can be an excellent source of social support when kids are struggling with their peers at school.Non-academic pursuits can also add joy to a child’s life—an emotion that is drained by experiences of bullying.


Be a role model of assertive emotional expression, problem-solving, and conflict resolution.


Make social skills instruction a part of the school-wide curriculum and everyday interactions with kids. Place particular emphasis on emotion management, building empathy and kindness, problem-solving, assertive expression, and forming positive friendships.


Talk to the students in your school about which skills they think they need to effectively handle bullying. Use interviews, anonymous surveys, large group discussions, and small group activities to find out what students find most helpful—and least helpful—when it comes to bringing an end to bullying.


Use Mix It Up days, organize walks, establish Buddy Programs, encourage poster campaigns, celebrate Kindness Weeks, and facilitate other structured, organized activities to make it clear that forming positive friendships is a priority in your school and to jump-start the process of getting kids to interact with people from outside of their regular social circles.

Signe Whitson is a national educator on Bullying Prevention and author of six books, including the 8 Keys to End Bullying Activity Program.  For more information, visit signewhitson.com


Whitson, S. (2016).  8 Keys to End Bullying Activity Book for Kids & Tweens.  New York: W.W. Norton & Co.