In our Back to School series, Mashable tackles the big issues students face, from mental health to representation to respectful communication. Because returning to the classroom is about more than buying school supplies.
As your child heads back to school, it’s important that they learn how to deal with a prevalent problem that extends beyond the classroom: bullying.
Whether they’re experiencing it first-hand or witnessing it from afar, children should understand that it’s not uncommon. In 2017, the National Center for Education Statistics found that 20 percent of U.S. students between 12 and 18 reported being bullied at school.
If your child is in the position to do so, there are ways they can act as an ally to people being bullied. Children who are willing to support their peers have a chance to affect real change.
“One of the things when you’re talking to your child is letting them know that so often, bullying is happening outside the view of adults,” said Julie Hertzog, director of PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center. “Stress how important their response is, because they can make such a difference for someone.”
If you want to equip your child with the tools to become an advocate for other children, there are a few things to teach them.
Of course, there are times when it is not safe for children to step in. Ross Ellis, CEO of Stomp Out Bullying, said if intervening online turns into an unsafe situation in real life, the school administration and law enforcement should be contacted. The first concern is always your child’s safety.
And if a weapon is involved, children should absolutely not intervene, said Trudy Ludwig, children’s advocate and best-selling author who writes children’s books about bullying prevention. If your child is a bystander to this type of situation, Ludwig advises they get away quickly and quietly, and immediately report the incident to an adult.
With all that in mind, here are some ways your child can safely support their classmates.
1. Teach them safe, kind ways to intervene
Rather than trying to rectify the situation alone, the best way to intervene is in a group, Hertzog, Ellis, and Ludwig said.
As long as your child and others feel safe and comfortable doing so, experts suggested they approach an ongoing situation in two ways.
Firstly, they can verbally support the person being bullied by saying “‘Cut it out!’ ‘Stop it!’ or ‘It’s not cool what you’re doing or saying,’” said Ludwig.
Secondly, they can suggest to take the classmate being bullied somewhere else. If someone is taunting another kid, for example, they can “nudge a friend and be like, ‘hey, let’s just go over there and ask them to walk to class with us,'” said Hertzog.
It’s important to stress, however, that intervention doesn’t mean bullying someone back.
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2. Have them comfort the child being bullied
Whether they intervene or not, your child can also comfort the student being bullied afterwards. Hertzog suggests encouraging your child to approach their peer, offer support, and let them know they absolutely don’t deserve what is happening to them.
“It’s important for parents to relay to their children that they may not be able to solve the problems, but they can help that child get through the hurt by comforting them [and] including them in a group game or activities,” said Ludwig. “They start to think, ‘I deserve this,’ or ‘Nobody cares.’ Just that simple kind of response really shows that person that they’re not alone, that somebody does care.”
3. Tell them to report the bullying incident
After your child comforts the person being bullied, they should make sure to report the incident to a trusted adult.
Your child should then ask that adult how they think they should handle the situation next time. Hertzog said this is helpful because “so often, the adults in the school know the dynamics of the kids involved, and can be a little bit more direct with what they would encourage the child to do. But also, part of it is just making the adult aware of what’s happening.”
If your child witnesses online bullying, they should take screenshots and report the incident to the appropriate social networking site. They should also avoid responding to any of the comments in question.
If social networking sites don’t take action, Ludwig explained that, along with privately encouraging their friends to report online abuse, they should “continue to provide comfort and support to the kid who is being bullied online, and talk with an adult [they] respect and trust.” They can reach out to the child being bullied through a direct message or text, and let them know they don’t deserve to be bullied or harassed. An adult can also help them work with the social networking sites to make sure that the sites address the bullying.
Your child should encourage their classmate to block the person doing the bullying so they don’t have an avenue to continue harassing the victim, Ellis added. And just like an in-person situation, your child should report the incident to an adult at school.
4. Practice empathy at home
Rather than simply instructing them, make sure to instead start an open, honest conversation with your child about empathy. Encourage them to be an ally for their classmates.”You’ve got to be careful as a parent, because if you come off sounding like you know it all, the kid will shut down,” said Ellis.
“You’ve got to be careful as a parent, because if you come off sounding like you know it all, the kid will shut down.”
You can encourage empathy at home by asking your children to consider how they would feel if someone was being mean to them, and what they would like a bystander to do for them in that situation, Ludwig explained. You can also use children’s books as a way to model behavior. “Show stories that show different characters, different diverse cultures, ethnicities, races, and nationalities,” said Ludwig. “We want to feel loved, valued, respected, and appreciated, regardless of the package we come in.”
5. Let your child know that you support them unconditionally
Teaching your children all of the ways they can stand up for their classmates is important. It’s just as important to make sure they feel secure in the fact that you have their back.
“Sometimes, for whatever reason, they get involved in a situation that they’re going to need to be able to talk about,” said Hertzog.
You can discuss what they did right and give them ideas about how they can react next time.
“When they do step out for somebody, let them know that they did the right thing.”