Become an Upstander: Creating a Bullying-Free Culture in Youth Activities

As adults, we may feel uncertain about how to handle bullying when we see or hear it happening. We may respond in ways that don’t make the best use of the opportunity to teach a youth the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Bullying among children is inappropriate because it is aggressive behavior that is intentional and involves an imbalance of power and strength. If the situation is not handled appropriately, we could end up inadvertently promoting, rather than reducing, bullying.

Become an upstander – someone who takes action to stop prohibited conduct when the easiest course would be to stand by and do nothing. An upstander lives by the Scout Oath and Scout Law and protects others from bullying and prohibited conduct.

Here are some tips Scouting uses to help respond more effectively on the spot and make the best use of the “teachable moment” with all youth in the activity.

When you see or hear bullying

  • Immediately stop the bullying: Stand between the child or children who bullied and those who were bullied, preferably blocking eye contact between them. Don’t send anyone away – especially bystanders. Don’t immediately ask about or discuss the reason for the bullying or try to sort out the facts.
  • Refer to the bullying behavior and to the relevant BSA policy prohibiting bullying. Use a matter-of-fact tone of voice to state what behaviors you saw/heard. Let Scouts know that bullying is unacceptable and against the Scout Law (e.g., “Calling someone names is bullying. I won’t allow Scouts to hurt each other that way.”)
  • Support the bullied Scout in a way that allows him or her to regain self-control, to “save face,” and to feel supported and safe from retaliation. Make a point to see the Scout later in private if he or she is upset, but don’t ask what happened at the time of the incident. It can be very uncomfortable to be questioned in front of other Scouts. Let his or her leaders know what happened so they may provide additional support and protection. Increase supervision to assure the bullying is not repeated and does not escalate.
  • Include bystanders in the conversation and give them guidance about how they might appropriately intervene or get help next time. Don’t put bystanders on the spot to explain publicly what they observed. Use a calm, matter-of-fact, supportive tone of voice to let them know that you noticed their inaction or that you are pleased with the way they tried to help—even if they weren’t successful. If they did not act, or if they responded in aggressive ways, encourage them to take a more active or proactive role next time (e.g., “Maybe you weren’t sure what to do. Next time, please tell the person to stop or get an adult to help if you feel you can’t work together to handle the situation.”).
  • If appropriate, impose immediate consequences for Scouts who bully others. Do not require Scouts to apologize or make amends during the heat of the moment (everyone should have time to cool off). All consequences should be logical and connected to the behavior. As a first step, you might take away program opportunities. Let Scouts who bully know you will be watching them and their friends closely to be sure there is no retaliation. Notify other Scouters and discuss the incident at the next unit meeting.
  • Do not require the Scouts to meet and “work things out.” Unlike other conflicts, bullying involves a power imbalance, which means this strategy will not work. Trying to find a way to “work things out” can re-traumatize the target who was bullied and does not generally improve relationships between the parties. Instead, encourage the Scout who bullied to make amends in a way (after follow-up with an adult/parent) that would be meaningful for the target who was bullied.


Individual follow-up and support

  • Even if you make good use of the “teachable moment’ when bullying occurs, you will still encounter situations in which adults will need to provide follow-up interventions. Follow-up is time-consuming and may not be appropriate in every case of bullying. In addition, Scouters who provide follow-up are likely to need specialized skills or training, as well as enough time to investigate problems, to administer appropriate discipline, or to provide support or therapeutic intervention.
  • Provide follow-up interventions, as needed, for the Scouts who were bullied and for those who bullied. Determine what type of situations and level of severity of bullying incidents require follow-up intervention from adults and designate who should intervene in various circumstances.
  • Notify parents of children who are involved, as appropriate.
  • Bullied Scouts need to process the circumstances of the bullying, vent their feelings about it, and get support. Some may need assistance reading or interpreting social signals, practicing assertive behavior, building self-esteem, or identifying friends and Scouts who can give them support.
  • Scouts who bully may need help recognizing their behavior, taking responsibility for their behavior, developing empathy and perspective-taking abilities, and finding ways to make amends. They also may need help to learn how to use power in socially appropriate ways (e.g., focusing their energy on causes they care about.)
  • When there are suspicions of bullying, gather more information by talking privately with bystanders. Intensify observation and supervision and offer incentives or positive consequences to active, helpful bystanders to increase involvement by Scouts. To be successful, bystanders need opportunities to discuss and practice responses outside of the heat of the moment. The more options they have, the more successful they will be.