Search form

Bystander Buy-In: A Transformative Bullying Intervention Strategy

New approaches to bullying intervention often focus less frequently today on the two students directly involved in the behavior―the bully and victim―and increasingly on the new approaches for bystanders and their key role in preventing incidents and reporting them.

Getting witnesses to help stop bullies may mean training them in less traditional ways, experts say, involving social and emotional learning and even use of new technology that can make it easier and safer for them to act.

“Kids are present during nine-out-of-every-ten incidents of bullying, but intervene on behalf of others less than 20 percent of the time,” says Signe Whitson, an expert on bullying and school counselor who has written several books on the topic and writes a blog about it for Psychology Today, generally focusing on the social and emotional learning she feels is necessary. “The same study shows that when kids step in to halt bullying, the episode stops within 10 seconds more than 50 percent of the time. That's power.”

She and other experts suggest that carefully training bystanders in the steps they can take may be the most effective preventative measure. Bullying, she notes, rarely takes place without bystanders and often they contribute to the problem. Research, meanwhile, has also shown witnesses may suffer the most difficult social-emotional problems from a bullying incident―even more than the victim or the perpetrator.

Ross Ellis, a bullying expert and founder of the website Stomp Out Bullying, says that working with bystanders can attack the issue in several ways. For example, they can:

  • Reduce the audience that a bully craves by not participating and, especially, not instigating.
  • Help slow down or halt a bully and mobilize others to also.
  • Support the victim and reduce the trauma.
  • Be trained to create a school climate of empathy for others and learn to avoid such behavior themselves.
  • Report a bullying incident since adults aren’t present 90 percent of the time and victims often avoid reporting.

Bystanders as the Key

Bullying has gotten the attention of educators for decades. The American Educational Research Association (AERA) recently called it “one of the major current problems youth face,” with one third of students saying they’ve been bullied. It has been connected to short- and long-term psychological and academic problems and, AERA says, “students who are bullied report anxiety, low self-esteem and depression, a negative attitude toward school, decreased school attendance and lower grades, along with suicidal ideation and suicide attempts and a host of other emotional problems.”

For years, recognizing the impact the problem had on students, educators examined ways to change the behavior of bullies and protect the victim and encourage them to report. Eventually, a third actor in the events was recognized and a Bystander Intervention Model was developed for various circumstances where witness action could help prevent aggressive acts. (It grew out of a notorious murder where New Yorkers did not respond when they heard calls for help, but it began to be applied to bullying prevention.)

Very recent research shows that bystanders have a “powerful role in inhibiting or exacerbating bullying” and when students are trained in the same five steps established in that intervention model (noticing the event, interpreting it as an emergency, accepting responsibility for intervening, knowing how to intervene or get help, and following through) they are more likely to be involved.

A detailed study of the bystanders role found they are “extremely important actors in deterring the demoralizing and damaging impacts of bullying” and that it is an educator's “duty to change the role of the bystander to be a major component of any anti-bullying program”.

“Kids need explicit instruction on how to report, what to say, and who to talk to about common bullying situations,” says Whitson. They need adults to listen to them thoroughly, take them seriously, and believe them when they find the courage to speak up about bullying among their peers.”

When Bystanders Are the Problem

The website “Eyes on Bullying” notes that often bystanders can instigate bullying or encourage it by laughing or cheering or making comments, and sometimes joining in. Too often they just let it occur or ignore it.

In addition, we know victims often don’t report incidences of bullying, but neither do bystanders―for a variety of reasons, according to the organization Committee for Children (CFC). Witnesses of these incidences say they also fear retaliation, don’t want to lose status, don’t recognize subtle bullying, and think it is just “kidding around” and feel ashamed, especially if they participated or didn’t act.

“Children are adept at hiding bullying-related behaviors and the unequal ‘shadow’ power dynamics that can exist among them. Because of this secrecy, adults underestimate the seriousness and extent of bullying at their schools,” the organization reports.

CFC found that children don’t tell adults often because they don’t think they will intervene. “In the workplace, shoving co-workers in the hallway would not be tolerated. Yet many adults believe that young people need to ‘work out’ bullying problems on their own,” the organization reported. “This belief may promote a ‘code of silence’ about abusive behavior.”

Bystander Approaches

New research also shows that a 90-minute educational program that focuses on appropriate responses for bystanders could be more effective than many of the broad, school-wide anti-bullying efforts that involve more elaborate student programming and staff man-hours. It involves students getting attention away from the victim, being compassionate towards them, and reporting the incident appropriately.

Whitson supports that sort of approach, saying that adults need to do more than remind kids to “stand up for others” because the bystander role, while important, is complex and difficult to navigate. “It can be unrealistic to ask tweens and teens who spend their whole lives trying to fit in to then stick their neck out for someone else,” she says. “However, when we show kids how simple of a task it can be to stand up for others―by standing near them, diffusing a situation with humor, telling someone to 'knock it off,' or sending the victim a reassuring text later in the day―we make the task more realistic and achievable.”

She suggests bystanders memorize and practice a simple statement they can use to stop bullying such as: “Cut it out, dude, that’s not cool,” or “Come on. That’s immature. We’re too old for that stuff,” or “That’s mean. Stop it.

Kids can change the subject, find a reason to scatter the crowd (“We better get out of here―the principal has spotted us.”) or somehow distract the bully or delay the action while others get help, Whitson says.

Other experts suggest educators remind students to text a kind message to the victim, who likely feels very isolated. It helps bystanders be more aware of the affect of such events and builds empathy. Lessons that promote empathy, courage, and responsibility in social settings can also help.

“At the student level, schools using an SEL framework teach students skills in the areas of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, and responsible decision-making,” a report from major education groups says. “These core SEL skills are the foundational competencies that students need in order to deal with bullying.”

Another report shows that social emotional training improved bullying problems, especially when it came to bystanders

Whitson notes that bystanders are often fearful about being a victim themselves, getting in trouble or being judged as a snitch, but a change in the school climate and in the student’s feelings about themselves can often mitigate the problem.

Experts recommend that teachers and administrators create a climate any way they can where bystander action is championed and rewarded, while making sure students believe adults will support them. They should be given ideas about stopping an incident and how to report it, experts say, and have an opportunity to practice those skills.

Whitson thinks teachers play a key role. “I am a big believer that it begins with building class culture and that teachers are the decisive element in bringing an end to bullying in schools, based on the relationships they cultivate with students and the relationships they foster among and between peers.”

Reporting with Tech

When it is hard for bystanders to report a bullying incident, new technology might help. Experts say students may feel comfortable with these platforms and can report anonymously and quickly. Some allow videos or photos of an incident to be downloaded and others enable follow-up reports to be exchanged. Here are four options:

  • Sprigeo: About 2,500 schools are using this application, which allows students to report bullying or concerning issues with other students online. The company reports on average schools get five actionable threats each week, 99 percent of which are true. They also offer staff and student “leadership” training.
  • STOP!t: The app allows students to report on bullying as it happens. It costs $2 to $5 per student per year to use and is available on their phones. The company reports 6,000 schools have connected.
  • Anonymous Alerts: Another app that allows students to report bullying anonymously and reportedly is serving 1.2 million students in 1,500 schools, including Sandy Hook schools in Newtown, CT, where the attack on a school prompted its developer to come up with the idea and where schools have since adopted it.
  • Incident Reporter: Allows students, administrators, and staff to report an incident and then tracks it to record the action that has been taken and notify parents, staff, and administrators when it has been resolved.


Jim Paterson has been a newspaper and magazine editor and an award-winning writer for The Washington Post, USA Today Weekend, the Christian Science Monitor, Parents magazine, and a number of national and regional publications. During a break from writing he worked as a school counselor for seven years and quickly became head of a counseling department and "Counselor of the Year" in Montgomery County, Md. He now writes about education primarily. More about Jim at