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5 Key Skills of a School-Based Bullying Prevention Program

The social and emotional skills young people need to navigate friendship.

Most schools have policies that guide their practices around bullying. While these policies are vital to have in place, a truth that most professionals, parents, and kids can verify is that policies don’t change people; people change people.

Young people who struggle with social interactions don’t develop new skills because a policy told them they ought to and kids who like to dominate and control others don’t give up these behaviors because they read a rule on a poster. On the other hand, CASEL studies (2011) confirm that students engaged in social emotional learning (SEL) activities show higher levels of pro-social behavior, exhibit lower levels of conduct problems and emotional distress, have more favorable attitudes toward school and their peers, and achieve more academically. Bottom line: SEL programming fosters the educational and social conditions that make bullying far less likely.

Effective school-based Bullying Prevention programs can increase kids’ social and emotional competence by focusing on these five key areas:

1. Emotion Management

All kids have feelings. Some kids are had by their feelings. It is not uncommon, in fact, for young people to become so overpowered by intense feelings of anger, sadness, fear or frustration that their whole bodies respond. We have all seen it: the red face, the tears, the shaking, the balled-up fists, the yelling, the aggression. Learning to manage strong feelings in constructive ways is a process for young people. For some, it takes longer--and requires more explicit instruction--than others.

Kids who bully and kids who are bullied both need skills for managing stress and controlling their impulses. Emotion management programming also helps kids learn techniques for self-regulation and self-soothing.

2. Empathy

Empathy is the ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes—to understand how another person is thinking and feeling in a particular situation. In the world of Bullying Prevention, empathy is an important skill to develop in young people because kids who bully often get caught up in the social rewards they receive from their behavior, such as a sense of power and control over others, increased peer attention, and/or greater social status. As such, they risk losing touch with the hurtful impact their aggression has on their victims.

SEL programming focused on empathy development plays a preventative role in bullying because it teaches kids to feel for each other in very human ways, rather than to view peers as pawns in a popularity game. Effective empathy development activities guide young people to be consistently mindful of how others are thinking and feeling.

3. Problem-Solving & Conflict-Resolution

Building a bullying-free culture is not to be confused with having a conflict-free environment. Conflict is a natural part of human interactions and disagreement can be productive when it helps individuals consider all relevant perspectives. A key in Bullying Prevention SEL programs is to teach kids problem-solving skills that help them manage life’s inevitable conflicts in independent and respectful ways. Researchers have found that problem-solving strategies are 13 times more effective in de-escalating conflicts than aggressive, retaliatory, or emotionally reactive responses. (Wilton, et al, 2000).

4. Assertiveness

Assertiveness is a style of communication in which a person expresses his thoughts and feelings in a verbal, non-blaming, respectful way (Long, Long & Whitson, 2008). Whereas the aggression that characterizes bullying is destructive to relationships because it aims to hurt or depreciate others, assertiveness builds positive relationships though its honest and respectful approach. When kids learn and practice assertiveness skills, they become better able to communicate clearly, negotiate conflict independently, resist peer pressure, fulfill their own needs, and connect effectively with peers and adults.

5. Friendship Building

For school-aged children, friendships create a powerful sense of belonging. A vital component of SEL programming, especially in the context of Bullying Prevention, is helping young people develop skills for both making friends and choosing positive friendships. Friendship building should be broken down for kids into two components:

a. Making Friends:

For many young people, the ability to make friends comes as naturally as breathing, but for others, connecting with peers is utterly confounding. We know that chronic peer rejection robs kids of important opportunities to interact successfully with their peers and, in doing so, to develop the kinds of healthy social skills that lead to social support. Bullied children, then, find themselves in a vicious cycle of rejection, social avoidance, and isolation.

Focused SEL programming can be very effective in teaching young kids who struggle socially to adopt pro-social behaviors. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that good SEL programming is not limited to kids who are bullied nor it is about teaching kids to “act normal” so that they won’t be victimized. Rather, effective SEL curricula are comprehensive, reach out to all students, and focus broadly on helping kids of all abilities manage social dynamics.

b. Choosing Positive Friendships:

For many students, school represents an unfriendly territory for finding and forming close relationships. The competition for rank on the school social ladder can be intense and many otherwise kind kids choose to bully their peers as a way to rise in the local social hierarchy. One of the simplest, yet most powerful things that adults can do for kids who are caught in this kind of environment is to provide out-of-school opportunities for kids to form positive relationships with similar-aged peers. Both professionals and parents can play a vital role in encouraging kids to cast a wide net, seeking out friendships in their neighborhood, on a team, through a club, with a youth group, or as a participant in the Arts. In doing so, adults expose kids to multiple peer groups and all kinds of friendships. When a child does connect with a positive peer, the adult plays a critical role in holding that friendship up to the light.

Along with teaching kids where to look for positive friendships, adults offer kids a lifelong skill when they teach them what positive friendships should feel like. In their younger years, kids tend to be intuitive in their friendship choices; they make decisions on who to play with based on fundamentals such as who likes the same games and toys, and who is kind to them. As kids age, however, social dynamics become more complicated and motivations for seeking friendships change. It is not uncommon for upper elementary and middle school students to choose friendships based on social status alone. The logic goes something like:

  • She is popular, so if I can become her friend, I will be popular too.

Or, the corollary:

  • She is not considered cool. I like her, but if I spend time with her, people will think I’m a dork, so I’m not going to talk to her anymore.

There is even a tolerance for toxic friendships that sounds like:

  • She is really mean to me. She insults me and always makes fun of me in front of our friends, but if I don’t hang out with her, I won’t have anyone to hang out with, so I’ll just put up with the way she treats me.

It’s a sad fact of the tween and teen years that kids lose touch with their childhood instincts that gained them their first real friendships. For many, it takes years to re-gain the self-confidence to choose friends based on the qualities of the person rather than the person’s social status. Adults can play a role, however, in influencing kids’ choices when it comes to friendships and limiting the toxicity of their friendships.

SEL has everything to do with facilitating situations in which kids feel accepted and embraced by their peers. In experiencing these moments, kids re-learn what real friendships should feel like. Professionals and parents can facilitate this insightful process by engaging kids in dialogue about what to look for in a real friendship.


Despite the intense pressure in public education for students to perform well on standardized tests, there is no research evidence that indicates that test scores lead to better overall outcomes for kids in adulthood. There is abundant evidence, on the other hand, that having well-developed social skills results in positive outcomes for young people during their school years and throughout their lives (Winner, 2013). Integrating social-emotional learning into standard school curricula, from a child’s earliest years through high school graduation, is a proven way to fortify kids with the skills they need to cope with bullying and to thrive in all of their interpersonal interactions.


Whitson, S. (2014). 8 Keys to End Bullying: Strategies for Parents & Schools. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

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