Neuroscience shows us definitively that acts of kindness change the brain and that school-based programs that specifically integrate the teaching of kindness and empathy skills into the academic day note real reductions in bullying behavior.
What follows are eight simple, practical, easy-to-implement skills you can teach kids to help bring an end to bullying.
1. Memorize a simple statement.
Most school-based bullying prevention programs tell students to show kindness and empathy by standing up for kids who are bullied—which is spot-on advice! We know that when kids step in to stop bullying, the incident of cruelty stops within 10 seconds more than 50 percent of the time (Hawkins, Pepler, & Craig, 2001). Unfortunately, too few programs teach kids how to stand up for others!
My students tell me that one of the most frequently applied skills I teach them is the use of Bully Bans. Bully bans are short, to-the-point statements meant to interrupt an incident of bullying in its tracks without escalating the conflict. Bully bans take into account that during stressful moments, kids’ brains rarely come up with “helpful” things to say. Rather, the heat-of-the-moment usually sparks emotionally-charged, conflict-fueling words and actions.
Bully bans are meant to be developed with kids during non-stressful moments, then committed to memory so that kids can easily access them when they are needed. Effective bully bans include:
- Cut it out, dude—that’s not cool.
- Hey, that’s over the line.
The key is in letting kids brainstorm their own simple statements so that their language feels comfortable and natural to them. Then, adults can help kids role-play saying their assertive words in a confident, casual voice.
2. Change the subject.
Some young people will find it too risky to say something during an episode of bullying, no matter how comfortable they become with effective wording. That’s perfectly understandable and even logical; too often, brave upstanders find that when they show kindness and empathy for someone who is being bullied, the aggressive student immediately unleashes their cruelty on them.
Some kids have the confidence and social capital to take that risk but for others, a great strategy is to teach them how effective it can be to stop an episode of bullying in its tracks by simply changing the subject. For example, a child who wants to quickly deflect the pressure off of someone being bullied can simply ask aloud if someone knows the date of the math test or the score of the football game.
3. Scatter the crowd.
Another quick diffuser: Prepare kids to say something like, “Guys, we’ve gotta get to class before the bell rings.” This is a quick and easy way to scatter the crowd of onlookers from whom a bully is deriving social power and to stop bullying on the spot.
4. Use humor.
Teach kids how effective it can be to lower the stress of a bullying situation by making kids laugh. Tell a joke, do something funny, share a meme, bring up a viral video or even gently turn the tables on the kid who is bullying by gently making light of their behavior. There are lots of ways caring, empathic kids can use humor to diffuse a tense situation and take the pressure off of a vulnerable student.
5. Stand with the person being bullied.
For those moments when verbal interventions such as bully bans, distractions, and humor won’t work, encourage your young person(s) to simply walk over and stand close to a person who is being bullied. Often, just the act of wordlessly standing with a vulnerable person can be enough to change the mood and stop the bullying. It also lets the person being bullied know that he or she is not alone.
6. Reach out after the fact.
Good news: On-the-spot strategies to bring an end to bullying are highly effective. More good news: If the opportunity is missed, all is not lost! Teach kids that when they aren’t able to intervene in the moment, the efforts they make to show kindness and empathy soon after an incident of bullying can also have a significant impact.
Encourage kids to make time later in the day to talk to a peer who has been on the receiving end of cruelty. Invite the student to hang out with you at lunch or sit with you on the bus. Send him a friendly text. Message her on social media.
7. Express sympathy.
Another effective way to show kindness and empathy to a student who has been bullied is to find them later in the day and tell them that you are genuinely sorry about what happened. The power of this simple act of looking a fellow human being in the eye and letting them know that what happened to them also pained you cannot be understated.
While they are at it, encourage kids to tell the bullied kid that he is awesome and doesn’t deserve to be treated badly. This simple act of friendship and compassion can make all the difference.
8. Get help.
Bullying is all about making a person feel isolated and alone. By the upper elementary and middle school years, many kids already believe that their life will only get worse if they tell an adult they are being bullied, anticipating that they will be called a “tattletale” (and worse!) and further degraded for their act of reaching out. This is part of the basic M.O. of a child who bullies; creating this fear is how they keep other kids isolated and powerless.
One thing bystanders can do to show kindness and stop bullying is to be the one to bring the matter to an adult’s attention. This takes the heat off of the bullied student in a big way. Encourage kids to think carefully about who they go to for help, as not all adults help equally. They should be sure to choose someone who they believe is fair and will use discretion in their interventions, so as not to cause new problems for a bullied student. A trustworthy adult can work to uphold school standards of safety and dignity for all students while also addressing the situation in a way that prevents it from recurring.
Whitson, S. (2016). 8 Keys to End Bullying: Strategies for Parents & Schools. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.