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Tuesday, June 19, 2012


I have written a lot about bystanders in this blog recently and I also wrote a lot about them in my book, No Place for Bullying.  Knowing that too many words on a topic can  be confusing, I have tried to summarize the key points about what we need to know about bystanders and their role in bullying prevention. 

This quotation from Ken Rigby's book, Children and Bullying, aptly sums up the challenge adults have with bullying prevention (it's a Good News/Bad News one):

" teacher influence is generally ineffective.  The approach must be more subtle and indirect...but clearly the most important factor is the influence of other students, specifically what children think their friends want them to do...Applying this last piece of knowledge requires teachers to help students understand what other students think, as opposed to telling them what they think they ought to think."

I think it is hard for most schools to not go directly at a problem especially when it is  a high profile problem like bullying.  Schools are  propelled to go directly at the problem by laws, policies, rules and regulations.  The bad news is that this direct route doesn't work.  The good news is the indirect route does work and has been proven to work in just about any situation where "change" has been successful.  The best leaders lead the process of getting people to influence each other, or to put it another way, the best leaders use the leadership of others to change the culture.  Since this is such an important lesson for all educators to learn and remember, I have tried to map out this indirect route toward success into an  ABCD format.  I hope it helps.

A:  All about the audience:  Educators must focus time and energy on the audience (bystanders) and that means all students.  Bullying is done for an audience and often serves a social function that we must understand.   We need to focus on the students who are not really breaking the rules-these are ones we often take for granted.  Most importantly-the audience must know that they have this power and influence. We need to tell them, remind them and show them this fact in any way we can.

B: Bullying is like Broadway:     Attendance is the key to whether a show stays open or closes.  If an "audience" doesn't show up for bullying, the reason for bullying is taken away and it usually stops.

C: Clarify the caring:  This is perhaps the greatest tragedy of bullying prevention.  Research shows that most students don't approve of bullying, but this feeling/opinion is typically suppressed and subsequently is mistaken for approval by the students who bully and who are bullied.  Educators must give the majority of these caring students the public opportunity to voice these thoughts and feelings.  Sadly the longer they stay hidden, the more they can become lost and forgotten.  This is why the research shows that empathy in bystanders diminishes the longer they are in school and the older they get.  It is possible to reverse this process.

D:  Display the disapproval (thumbs down): When this is combined with "C",  bullying prevention becomes more effective.  Educators must give students the opportunity to voice their disapproval about bullying in general.  More importantly, students can be taught or coached on how to simply and clearly display disapproval in as many simple, and if necessary,  scripted ways as possible.  If students had a scripted response to say when they are confronted with  bullying, e.g. "That's not cool", there is a greater chance they might  intervene.  If that seems like too much to ask of students, given all of the reasons for not intervening, we must remember that we don't need to get the majority of bystanders to intevene or show disapproval- we just have to get more than NONE of them. One can make all the difference.

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