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Bullying Prevention: Encourage Children to be Upstanders - A guest blog

Samantha Power, an Irish-American diplomat is credited with coining the term “Upstander”. But what exactly is an Upstander? The Oxford English Dictionary defines an Upstander as “a person who speaks or acts in support of an individual or cause, particularly someone who intervenes on behalf of a person being attacked or bullied”.

Have you ever wondered why children don't stand up for others? Perhaps you question how much influence you have over their response. Maybe you’re not sure how to encourage children to adopt the role of the Upstander.

In this blog post, I will explore all these issues and provide insight into how you can address them.


Why don’t children stand up for others when they witness bullying behaviour?

Young bystanders often face a dilemma. They might feel caught between the desire to help and the fear of being bullied themselves. They are less likely to provide support if they suspect that others in the group will remain passive. There’s strength in numbers.  Challenging the behaviour of others can be difficult if the child fears retaliation. When we stand up we can stand out. There may be a sense of relief that they are not the one being targeted.

Girl upset, covering her face

Self-preservation is one explanation for not responding to bullying behaviour. Let's look at some of the other reasons. Some find it difficult to empathise with the pain caused by bullying behaviour. Others may interpret the bullying as trivial and be desensitised to the impact of the event. When bullying takes place online, the disinhibition effect takes place.  This means that children can miss the anguish inflicted by nasty posts.

A common misconception is that if a bystander does not join in then they are not complicit. Yet children can feel guilt and shame for not trying to help. Instead, we can encourage children to be Upstanders - a person who acts in helpful ways.


How encouraging children to be Upstanders can help

An act of solidarity may have a ripple effect. We need to equip bystanders with Upstander skills if we want to effect change. When others support the child who is being bullied, they feel less isolated. Peer support also minimises the risk of subsequent episodes of bullying. It’s important to get buy-in from the peer group to support the Upstander so that it is safe to intervene. Peers are more likely to be Upstanders if schools challenge the existing norms. 

Child helping a boy up

Parents and guardians are, of course, the primary caregivers. However, the school has a very influential role in shaping behaviours. Unlike parents and guardians, the school staff have access to the peer group, and can, therefore, challenge the group norms. Schools can also use positive reinforcement to emphasise the desired responses. Bullying prevention programmes that encourage children to be Upstanders are more successful.

We can dispel the misconception that bystanders are not complicit as long as they do not join in.  We can have to challenge the group norm if it discourages telling. We need to remember that young children may be unsure about what they can do to help.


How to encourage children to use Upstander skills

1. Teach children about the bullying dynamic

Often when thinking about bullying, we assume that there are only two roles - the “bully” and the “victim”.  It’s vital that we teach children about the role of the bystander (the audience). We need to emphasise that the bystander can have a powerful influence on what happens next. For example, bystanders can encourage bullying behaviour by smiling or laughing. Children need to know that if they share or comment on a nasty post it is more likely that the behaviour will continue. However, bystanders can choose to be Upstanders and act in helpful ways to defuse the situation.

Teacher supporting children after a falling out


2. Help children to feel empathy for others

We can show the children video clips of real-life case studies to foster empathy. Invite guest speakers, to talk to the children about the impact of bullying behaviour. Is there a local sports star that the children admire? If so, the children could relate to them talking about how it feels to read negative commentary online after a match.  Using puppets can help younger children to understand the impact of bullying behaviour. Real-life examples such as the stories of Rosa Parks and Malala Yousafzai can help children to identify injustice. Books such as “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio can foster insight into how it feels to be treated unfairly.

Children playing with puppets


3. Explore safe ways to be an Upstander

We need to ensure that they don’t unintentionally get hurt themselves. For example, rather than directly confronting a peer, it may be safer to subtly convey support for the target. It may also be wiser to initiate interventions as a group rather than acting as an individual.  Help the children to identify supportive peers who will back them up. Encourage the children to think about what they could do to show support instead of tackling bullying behaviour head-on. For example, they could check in with the target afterwards by sending a message. They could invite the child to play with them. They could take a screenshot of a nasty message posted online and show the evidence to an adult at home or at school.

Group of children linking arms


4. Encourage confidential disclosures

We need to encourage children to tell. How can they do it discreetly? Could you set up a postbox system where they could write a note to flag an issue? Could you encourage them to tell someone at home who could support them to make a report?

Teacher talking to an upset child


 5. Give children opportunities to rehearse their Upstander skills

Role-play using scenario cards can help children to practice using their Upstander skills. Ask the children to reflect on their chosen response. Help them to identify the associated risks and consequences by asking open-ended questions. E.g. What might happen as a result?  What could you do differently?

Child thinking


Marie O'Sullivan, Anokha Learning

Marie O’Sullivan is an experienced teacher and counsellor with an M.Sc. in Child and Adolescent Counselling. She was awarded a distinction for her Master’s Thesis on Bullying Prevention. She is a Course Author at Anokha Learning. Marie’s articles on Bullying Prevention have been featured in local and national press.

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