Who is involved?
Students who are targeted by bullying may feel very alone in the world. In reality, any bullying situation involves numerous actors.
THE POWER OF WITNESSES
The power of the person who bullies is profoundly influenced and may be mitigated by the actions of witnesses. Those who bully count on witnesses – those who are present when the bullying occurs or who are aware that it is taking place – to do and say nothing to help the targeted person or even to support their bullying behaviour. As such, those who bully derive their power from the fear or complicity of silent witnesses of bullying.
The isolation of the student who is targeted also increases the power of the student who bullies. That isolation can be mitigated or intensified by resource people – adults (and often young people) who have the capacity to be a source of support and help for the bullied student. When students expect that the adults in their lives will not believe them, or that they will be unwilling or unable to help them, they are not likely to seek help. In such an environment, students who bully can do so with impunity, knowing that their actions will remain secret.
Each of these parties has the power to influence the situation for better or for worse, and a choice about what role they play. At the same time, there are many factors that influence how and if witnesses and resource people will and can maximize their potential to bring about positive change.
BECOMING AN ALLY
We know that many students do not enjoy witnessing acts of bullying and want them to stop. Many adults were witnesses of bullying when they were in school and have told us of their anxiety and of the guilt they experienced in these situations.
The majority of students neither experience nor engage in bullying. These students are witnesses and allies. As such, they possess tremendous power – often untapped – to have a positive influence on the school culture. Bullying nearly always – in 85% of cases - occurs in the presence of witnesses. Canadian research has shown that more than half the time, intervention by student witnesses interrupts the bullying. In fact, more than half the time, when witnesses intervene the bullying stops within ten seconds. Coupled with this, is the often-ignored potential of students’ capacity to offer help to each other and provide peer support. As teachers we can play an important role in encouraging our students to recognize their power, develop this skill, and find the courage to interrupt bullying.
To create a healthy culture in schools, we can offer students simple, safe ways of following their conscience by taking action in the face of injustice. If we provide our students with opportunities to gain the necessary skills as well as safe procedures for supporting their peers who are targeted, many if not most will be relieved and happy to implement them. When witnesses do so, they become allies. Fostering our students’ ability and commitment to becoming allies is a key part of bullying prevention.
At the same time, our students need to know that they have a choice, and that their concerns for their own safety are also valid. As teachers we are responsible for ensuring that students can take action and speak their minds while staying safe. Allies can avoid giving their power to the student who bullies by:
- showing support for the student who is being bullied (with supportive words or gestures);
- refusing to laugh along or to watch the bullying and by leaving the situation;
- asking for help from friends or adults.
Many students are able to carry out such simple yet brave acts of courage and kindness, thereby making an important contribution to creating a healthy environment at school. As adults, it is our responsibility to provide effective support and to ensure the safety of students who find the courage to act as allies.
ADULTS SUPPORTING YOUNG PEOPLE
Without ongoing adult support and involvement within a school community, it is impossible to prevent bullying in schools. Adults are the primary catalysts for the kind of fundamental change to school culture that is essential to enable students who are witnesses of bullying to find the courage to de-escalate the situation and stand up for others’ rights. Teachers play a crucial role by helping all students develop healthy social relationships.
Students are always observing us. Our own tolerance for unkind behaviour will be reflected in their behaviour. We send a clear message when we take action to interrupt all forms of unkind or cruel behaviour, including unkind words, when we see them or hear them. Even if these words or acts do not degenerate into bullying, they nonetheless contribute to the ongoing creation of a certain kind of school culture. With our consistent and constructive involvement, and our positive role modelling, the incidence of bullying can be reduced.
Our commitment as adult resource people – lived out through our efforts to act as role models, our empowerment-based interventions aimed at stopping bullying situations, and our sensitive, consistent support for all students – is the indispensable key to bullying prevention.