How Peer Support and Social Emotional Learning
Reduce Bullying

Many schools have signs on the walls in the school like, “no bullying zone” or “zero tolerance for bullying.” There is an anti-bullying week and most likely an assembly about how to stop bullying. Then, sadly, it’s done. The message stops, attention shifts away from bullying, and it is no longer a priority. It takes a commitment from schools and districts to stop bullying. A sign and an assembly are not enough. It takes training, commitment, time, energy, and a shift in culture to curb bullying. Even schools who do all those things well will still have bullying within their buildings. The commitment comes from seeing it through. It comes from investigating all bullying events, from having proper policies and procedures in place and adhering to them. It comes from having an open dialogue about bullying and a willingness to make school a safe place for all students.

“Experts agree that any anti-bullying program is only as strong as a school’s commitment to it. To get results, you have to put in the time.”

What Doesn’t Work, and Why:

The annual anti-bullying assembly: There are several reasons why this has very little or no impact. Students and staff can feel this is simply checking off a box without any real commitment to the problem. Creating a culture where bullying is less likely to thrive takes much more than a speaker, an assembly, and an hour of time.

The target and the aggressor “work it out”: This is wrong on so many levels and I will be as brief as possible. First, bullying always has an imbalance of power and having two children work it through when one party is more powerful will never work. We don’t ask adults who are targets of assault to “work it out” with the person who harmed them. We should NEVER ask that of our children.

Peer-led Anti-Bullying Efforts

Bullying is much more likely to be witnessed by students. The savvy child who engages in bullying acts is much more likely to torment their target(s) in the bathroom, hallway or on social media. Other students are often the ones around who witness bullying. Peers also have a greater impact on telling the bully to stop than an adult.

Peer-advocacy anti-bullying groups allow a group of students to look out for other students who may be bullied, excluded, or otherwise isolated by speaking up for them, advocating for them, and including them in activities.

Creating peer-advocates helps change the culture of schools. Research about bullying suggests that it is not generally driven by a few bad apples but rather by a culture that finds harassment and bullying acceptable. Peer groups where the students produced their own ideas and projects can show remarkable success. When children believe in their own ability to solve problems, they better understand when a problem needs adult help.

Arming socially influential and willing students with nonviolent communication and intervention skills has proven effective for schools and school cultures. Students who have been targeted for bullying report that supportive actions are the most helpful things a peer can do. Peer-advocates can spend time potential targets, talk with them and steer them away from a bad situation.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

Social and Emotional Learning is the process through which children and adults acquire the knowledge, attitudes, and skills they need to: establish healthy identities; recognize and manage their emotions; demonstrate care and concern for others; establish positive relationships; and make responsible decisions. There is much research and information about SEL that I will not go into, however integrating the tenants of SEL into the academics and culture of schools has proven to reduce bullying. Bullying prevention that is integrated throughout the curriculum makes an impact. Novels and fictional characters can be explored for concepts around bullying, mental health, strength and resiliency.

The power of peers should never be underestimated. Students working together toward a kinder culture can move mountains. I passionately believe that buddy benches and a “no kid eats alone” rule in cafeterias save lives. Schools that couple student-led programs with appropriate social and emotional learning opportunities can shift cultures where bullying is less likely to exist, and it will be stopped much quicker. Parents and caregivers should feel empowered to ask their child’s school about bullying prevention, and if the answer isn’t sufficient, how they can help to create a safer environment for all students.

By Dru Ahlborg
Executive Director
Bullying Recovery Resource Center