Supporting positive peer action

What do we want peers to do when they witness mean behavior? This seems to me an important question to begin with. Let’s start with a question which I have asked in teacher trainings in many settings: “If you were in an abusive relationship, what would you most want your friends to do?” People will answer” “Give me emotional support.” “Listen to me.” “Spend time with me.” “Avoid telling me what to do and respect my need to make my own decisions.” “Help me not blame myself for the other person’s mean behavior.”

Then I follow up with a second question: “If you were in an abusive relationship, what would you most want your friends NOT to do? What would be the worst thing they could do?” People most often begin answering this question by saying, “I wouldn’t want them to blame me for the abuse.” “I wouldn’t want them to abandon me.” “I wouldn’t want to be TOLD I had to leave before I was ready to.” Then as we continue the discussion, I ask if there is anything a friend could do that would make things even worse. In every training people say something like: “The worst thing would be if they confronted my abuser and then left me alone with the person.”  It seems clear that when peers confront an abuser, any improvement in the person’s behavior would be short-term, and could be followed by an increase in the abusive behavior when the abuser and target were next alone together. Confrontation could also lead to aggression toward the person confronting the abuser.

The outcome of this thought experiment echoes what youth have told me in workshops. More importantly, it echoes the results of the Youth Voice Project research. Mistreated youth taking our survey told us that they benefited most from inclusion, listening, and support from peers. Even quiet support was described as helpful (“Someone called me at home to give support”). One thirteen-year-old woman wrote: “My absolute best friend stayed by me, she was the only one and made me feel good about myself and reassured me that I wasn’t as mean as the other girls. It made me feel more confident that I would be able to keep being myself and not let this ruin my life.”

Having peers confront the mistreater or ask the person to stop was rated by our survey respondents as less helpful and more likely to lead to things getting worse than these actions of alliance and support. Peers who have confronted youth who mistreated others have also reported that they then became the targets of teasing or other mean actions.

How do we encourage youth to take on these roles of alliance and support? I see four important steps. First, I believe that we should stop talking about “stepping up,” “standing up against bullying,” “peers taking action to stop bullying,” “being a defender’” and all the other language which implies that we want students to confront youth who mistreat others. We’ve found these techniques are sometimes risky and ineffective.

Second, we can ask youth schoolwide to anonymously describe their own actions of alliance and support. In school surveys we phrase the question like this: “Please write about a time when you helped another student who was mistreated or alone. What happened when you did that?” In the Youth Voice Project study, more than 9,000 of our 13,000+ survey respondents wrote about something they had done. Here are a few examples:

  • “Yesterday me and my two other friends saw a person in our grade all alone at a tree. She was crying and we ran over to see what was wrong. She said ‘I’m so tired of being alone’ or something like that. So me and my friends all sat with her and made her laugh and feel better.”
  • “I befriended them. And my friends followed my example. Then [the people we helped] didn’t want to hurt themselves anymore.”

These moving accounts can be collected at a school and then read to the student body or used to create hall posters. As students continue to hear positive examples of kind alliance behavior by their own peers, they see these actions as more desirable and more normative. Then students will be more likely to respond to mistreatment with support for mistreated youth.

Third, we can use theater and other media to portray students’ kind actions toward mistreated and isolated peers.

Fourth, we can build a team of students who volunteer to mentor isolated and mistreated youth. In supporting such a group, it is important to have team members meet regularly to discuss their positive actions, the results of those actions, and how they feel about what they have done. These questions help youth see value in, and thus continue, their kind, inclusive actions.

For more information about what adults and peers can do about bullying, see Youth Voice Project: Student Insights Into Bullying And Peer Harassment

This site presents current research about reducing bullying AND reducing the harm that bullying can do.