Bystander Skills

Empowering students with bystander skills can help them feel equipped and confident to help in a bullying situation.

Bystander Skills to stop bullying - Character Counts
Grade Level: K-12
Character Skills
  • Respect
  • Caring
SEL Skills
  • Social-Awareness
  • Relationship Skills
Academic Skills
  • Effective Problem-Solving


  • Follow the Golden Rule.
  • Be accepting of differences.
  • Be courteous to others.
  • Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements.
  • Be considerate of others’ feelings.
  • Be kind.
  • Be compassionate.
  • Express gratitude.
  • Forgive others.
  • Be considerate of others’ feelings.

Assess and be sensitive to the feelings and needs of others.

Relationship Skills

Interpersonal and social skills to guide appropriate behavior and create positive relationships and meaningful connections. 

Effective Problem-Solving

Employ critical and creative thinking skills to solve problems and make rational, ethical, and effective decisions that produce the best possible result.   


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For specific ways educators can create a caring, inclusive schools refer to Michele’s book, End Peer Cruelty, Build Empathy: The Proven 6Rs of Bullying Prevention That Create Inclusive, Safe and Caring Schools (from Free Spirit Press). For individual strategies to help children develop skills to activate courage, self-regulation, and empathy (all crucial for Upstanding), see UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed In Our All-About-Me World. 

© 2017 by Dr. Michele Borba. Please honor this copyright. 

Michele is an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor, and author of 22 books including Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing or The Big Book of Parenting Solutions.

For more about Michele, refer to her website and daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check.  Follow her on Twitter @MicheleBorba.

From our guest contributor, Dr. Michele Borba

I teach the acronym BUSTER as a mnemonic to help kids remember the skills more easily. Each letter in the word represents one of the six bystander skills.

Not all strategies work for all kids. The trick is to match the techniques with what works best with the child’s temperament and comfort level and the particular situation

Don’t forget to ask students for their input and additional ideas. Their creativity never ceases to amaze me!

B – Befriend the Victim

Bystanders often don’t intervene because they don’t want to make things worse or assume the victim doesn’t want help. But research shows that if witnesses know a victim feels upset or wants help they are more likely to step in. Also, if a bystander befriends a victim, the act is more likely to get others to join the cause and stand up to the bully. A few ways bystanders can befriend victims:

Show comfort: Stand closer to the victim.

Wave other peers over“Come help!”

Ask if the victim wants support: “Do you need help?”

Empathize: “I bet he feels sad.”

Clarify feelings: “She looks upset.”

You can also encourage students to befriend a bullied after the episode. “That must have felt so bad.” “I’m with you. I’m sorry I didn’t speak out.” “That happened to me, too.” “Do you want me to help you find a teacher to talk to?” Though getting involved after the episode won’t reduce the bullying at the moment, it will help reduce the pain of both the targeted child and the witness. It may also help other children recognize there are safe ways to defend and support a targeted child.

U – Use a Distraction

The right diversion can draw peers from the scene, make them focus elsewhere, give the target a chance to get away, and may get the bully to move on. Remember, a bully wants an audience, so bystanders can reduce it with a distraction. 

One of the best distractions I’ve ever seen was a teen who saw bullying but did not feel safe stepping in to help (and most children as well as adults do not). So he got crafty. He unzipped his backpack and then walked near the scene and threw the backpack to the ground. Of course, he made it appear as though it was an accident, but it was a deliberate and brilliant act. “Oh no,” he said. “All my stuff is on the ground and the bell is going to ring. My grade will get dinged. Can anyone help?” And the teen drew the audience from the bully to help him pick up his papers. The target also had a chance to sneak to safety. 

Ploys include:

Ask a question: “What are you all doing here?”

Use diversion: “There’s a great volleyball game going on! Come on!”

Make up a false excuse to disperse a crowd: “A teacher is coming!”

Feigning interruption: “I can’t find my bus.”

S – Speak Out and Stand Up!

Speaking out can get others to lend a hand and join you. You must stay cool, and never boo, clap, laugh, or insult, which could egg the bully on even more. Students also must learn how to assert themselves and say that speaking up to a bully is the hardest of the six Bully Buster Strategies.

Best yet, older students are teaching the skill to younger students. Stress that directly confronting a bully is intimidating and it’s a rare kid who can, but there are ways to still stand up to cruelty. Here are a few possibilities:

Show disapproval: Give a cold, silent stare.

Name it: “That’s bullying!”

Label it: “That’s mean!”

State disapproval: “This isn’t cool!” “Don’t do that!” “Cut it out!”

Ask for support: “Are you with me?”

T – Tell or Text For Help

Bystanders often don’t report bullying for fear of retaliation, so make sure they know which adults will support them, and ensure confidentiality. You must give students the option of anonymous reporting. An active bystander could:

Find an adult: you trust to tell. Keep going until you find someone who believes you

Call for help: from your cell.

Send a text: to someone who can get help. Many schools now have a text service. 

Call 911: if someone could be injured.

E – Exit Alone or With Others

Stress that bullies love audiences. Bystanders can drain a bully’s power by reducing the group size in a few ways. Student bystanders could:

Encourage: “You coming?”

Ask: “What are you all doing here?”

Direct: “Let’s go!”

Suggest: “Let’s leave.”

Exit: If you can’t get others to leave with you, then walk away. If you stay, you’re part of the cruelty. Leaving means you refuse to be part. Just quietly leave the scene.

R – Give a Reason or Offer a Remedy

Research finds that bystanders are more likely to help when told why the action is wrong or what to do. Students could:

Review why it’s wrong: “This isn’t right!” “This is mean!” “You’ll get suspended.” “You’ll hurt him.”

Offer a remedy: “Go get help!” “Let’s work this out with Coach.”

Final Thoughts 

The right comments and behaviors can make peers stop, think, consider the consequences, and even move on. Those seconds are crucial and enough to stop the bullying or mobilize other students to step in and help. 

Bystanders can make a difference. They can be mobilized to step in and reduce bullying-that is if they are taught how. But it’s up to adults to show students safe ways to do so, help them practice those strategies so they are comfortable using them in the real world, and then support and believe them and acknowledge their courageous efforts.

Hundreds of students today skipped school because of peer intimidation and bullying. It’s time to rethink our strategies and teach bystanders how to step in safely and speak out against peer cruelty.

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