10 Ways to Empower Defenders

Jon Konen
District Superintendent

Back to the main Bully Prevention Guide.

THE HONEST TRUTH…WE CAN'T BE EVERYWHERE! It is hard to tell parents that we cannot be everywhere on our campus to fully supervise students. With many of our schools, the sheer space and number of students we have make it nearly impossible to provide 100% supervision all the time. I mean supervision where all conversations can be heard, the ability to have an adult intervening within seconds of any negative interaction, and having an adult supervise all areas outside of the classroom. Good supervision should include a physical presence, as well as the ability to hear conversations. Supervision is one key to stopping bullying incidents. We can increase supervision by looking at our bully data, and locating our hot spots, times of day, and students involved. We know which students need more supervision.

Parents want to know that their child will be safe in all locations on campus as soon as they drop them off or put them on the bus. It is hard as educators to say, "We got this!" Do not get me wrong, there are a few students who have a pattern of behavior that needs constant supervision and they are on our level 3 plan.

  • Level 1 = Most students transitioning in our school independently,
  • Level 2 = Some students transitioning in our school need to be 6' or less from an adult at all times, and
  • Level 3 = A few students transitioning hand in hand or an arms' length from an adult at all times. That means we hand off the student from adult to adult. These students are not allowed out of earshot or eyesight of an adult.

I tell students who are frequent fliers in the principal's office, "When you are at school, how and when you transition, when and where you eat, whether you are allowed to go to recess, and even where you receive your instruction are all privileges that must be earned." Educators can change these facets of a child's learning environment.

One of the most powerful tools we have used more and more in our school are the "Defenders!" Defenders are those students who report bullying behavior to keep himself/herself or someone else safe. Defenders are not reporting to "tattle" or to get someone in trouble. It does not have to be an elaborate reporting system, but there needs to be protocols and procedures set up so "defenders" feel safe reporting and getting bully behavior stopped. Here are 10 strategies you can use to build up "defenders" at your school.

PU #122 - Teach What a Defender is…

Explicitly teaching what a "defender" is supports the idea that we need help as educators in making sure our learning environment is a place where everyone feels comfortable working and learning. Students know we cannot be everywhere, but if we can empower them to support us making sure everyone is safe, we can create an environment that is full of trusting and respectful relationships.

A student must be able to define what a "defender" is and what they can do to support our school. A "defender" is defined as anyone who dislikes the bullying and helps or tries to help the student who is being bullied. When students understand they can have power in stopping the bullying behavior, everyone takes on some social responsibility. As we empower our students with teachers and administrators that follow through, our students become the pulse and monitors of bullying in "their" school. Students may come forward and say, "We don't want that in our school."

PU #123 - Teach Why We Need Defenders?

Just as important as defining what a defender is, teaching explicitly why we need defenders should be at the forefront of all bully prevention lessons or class meetings. Teachers should be using defender examples to instruct students. Likewise, teachers should be celebrating these defenders every day. As a firm believer of "you get what you pay attention to," students will want to be a part of this because it is the correct thing to do while in your school. This culture feeds itself if done by a majority of staff members.

Too often students are afraid to report for fear of being the next one bullied, or they think since it does not involve them directly, that they can chose to do nothing. We must discuss with them the power they have to stop the behavior. We can explicitly teach why we need defenders and what they can do to stop bully behaviors (Content adapted from Olweus Bully Prevention Program):

  • Not laugh or join in the bully behavior
  • Find a way to physically move your peer away from being bullied…out of the bullying situation
  • Don't repeat the lies, gossip, name calling or other bullying behavior
  • Include the peer being bullied in your activities
  • Be supportive to all peers, especially the one being bullied
  • Always tell an adult what you saw and heard
  • Confront the bully about their behavior in public

PU #124 - Teach Tattling vs. Reporting

To be a good "defender," a student must know the difference between tattling and reporting. Tattling is trying to get another student into trouble, while reporting is done to keep another student safe. When safety is at the forefront of these conversations, its severity and importance are emphasized. Students can feel empowered to keep other students safe and can actually feel a sense of service. Of course, some students may take this concept too far and start, what they think, is "reporting." As educators, we need to keep talking with students about these differences and connect that to why we need more defenders. As a safe and positive learning community, we would rather have an overabundance of reports than bully behaviors left unreported. Erring on the side of safety will typically be a better strategy, especially when working with parents; it shows them that we care!

While we should not ignore a student who tattles, because there truly can be safety issue, we must teach why a student is reporting. We ask the student to think in their mind first, "Am I keeping someone safe, or I am trying to get someone in trouble?" All educators have students in their classrooms that try to uphold the rules and procedures of the classroom, though it is not their job. We must use this sense of justice to support us making sure students are kind to each other with their words and actions. We can flip these student's perspectives by asking them to find and report acts of kindness. When we put more focus on the positives, tattling should lessen.

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PU #125- Teach Reporting to a Trusted Adult

Emphasizing to students that they need to find at least one trusted adult on the school campus that they could report a bully situation to is vital. We ask students to report to the nearest adult as all staff members are trained in stopping bully behaviors from occurring. If they are uncomfortable, or due to other unforeseen circumstances, and cannot report the incident to the nearest adult, they can report to their classroom teacher. If the student is unable to tell a staff member, they can report to their parents or an adult at home.

We stress the importance of letting the school know immediately. The factor of time is always an issue. We let students know that telling an adult the sooner, the better! Time becomes a negative factor in getting a bully incident stopped. The longer a student waits to report the incident, the vaguer the memories: where it occurred, the time it occurred, who was involved, who were witnesses, and other important information. As there are no statute of limitations in reporting a bullying incident, educators will be more effective to deal with the situation immediately after it occurs.

For example, a student reports to a teacher that another student has been calling them names. When the teacher asks when and where it occurred, the student replies, "It was outside at recess last month." When asked what words were used, the student responds, "Something like…block head…but, I don't remember exactly." We cannot take these reports lightly as there has obviously been damage done to the student who is being name-called. We still need to equip the student with some strategies, as well as interviewing the student who exhibits the bully behavior (may include re-teaching, parent contact, and more). This is where setting up an explicit reporting system with the student can play a part in getting it stopped for good. We can ask the student to report to an adult immediately with the following information: 1) what happened, 2) where it occurred, 3) who was involved, 4) where there any witnesses, and 5) time it occurred. If students are unable to report to an adult, they can keep a log on a piece of paper with these columns on it and can turn it in to an adult or a parent when they get home. Educators can then use the information to get the bully behavior stopped.

Students must feel like the adults in the school will take care of the situation. Adults must do the following in order to get students to buy in and report:

  • Make it clear to the bully that bullying will not be tolerated in the school
  • Model and discuss empathy as much as possible
  • Get parents involved
  • Let students know how they can access other support (school counselor, principal, etc…)
  • Develop clear and consistent rules and consequences against bully behaviors

PU #126 - Teach Scenario-Based Classroom Instruction

Teaching scenario-based bully incidents is powerful for students to learn empathy. Teachers can use situations that occur in the school, or use scenarios they find somewhere else. Getting students to discuss how they feel about these situations is key to getting students to become defenders of their school.

Modeling language and actions for students is crucial in making this type of instruction more effective. Students can practice what to say when they are encountered with similar bully behaviors. Empowering students gives them tools to use for personal safety, and to defend others in their school. You know your school is on the way to success when a student can stick up for another student and they have no relationship prior to the incident. It becomes what we do in our school; it can define the culture, as well.

PU #127 - Use Public Recognition and PA Announcements on Defender Situation

What a principal (or other educator) says on the morning announcements can be a powerful tool. The message can change a school's culture. When students hear about what is going on in their school, especially when highlighting students, they want to be a part of it! There is no better way to encourage a positive learning environment than making public announcements about the way we treat each other with kindness and empathy.

Each morning on the PA a staff member (principal in our school) can share a bully incident, and then how someone supported the situation. Only using the student's name who supported or was a defender is important when reading about the incidents. Unlike news agencies, schools can highlight how the situation was solved and not highlight what actually occurred. This solution-based philosophy supports students becoming strong defenders of the school.

Here is an example of a possible PA message:

"Good morning Lions! Today I would like to highlight a Lion Defender. This person was able to stand up for another student out on the playground when three other students were making fun of a peer. We would like to acknowledge Logan as a Lion Defender. Logan was able to say, "Stop," and he reported it to an adult immediately. Keep up the good work, Logan. If you know of other defenders in our school, please let your teacher or any other staff member know about the Lion heroics so we can highlight them."

PU #128 - Earn a Defender License

Some schools have created "Defender License's" for students who uphold the virtues of the school. Students get a license, similar to a driver's license, which states they are defenders of their school. This can be a powerful tool in creating a culture of kindness and empathy.

One school lists these qualities in order to earn a "Defender License":

  • Knows the role of a defender
  • Understand the difference between tattling and reporting
  • Does not have discipline referrals for lack of respect, kindness, or defiance
  • Has proven to not be a bystander, but sticks up for someone that is being bullied by others

If your school uses this idea, make sure your staff has agreed to how a license is earned and how it may be taken away. This idea may not work in all educational environments.

PU #129 - Emphasize PBIS for All Students

Another idea to empower defenders is through a positive behavior intervention system (PBIS). Giving students the power to take part in finding what is good in the school can also change the culture. Depending on the PBIS used in the school, a priority should be developing defenders.

A kindness campaign is one example that schools can use to make PBIS more visible. Students and staff members take part in finding kindness in the school. The example below shows a bulletin board with a tree on it. Each leaf (Lion Paw at our school) on the tree is an act of kindness in the school. These can be read in the morning on the announcements. The power is watching the tree grow with kindness.

PU #130 - Use Student Led Assemblies

Student led assemblies can be another powerful tool in developing defenders in your school. Students can lead an assembly that inspires other students to take part in defending their school from bully behaviors. Students can do skits, model language, sing, dance, and so much more to get other students engaged.

Recently, during an honor roll and attendance assembly at our school a group of 6th grade girls did something unique. I was mid-sentence, and one of the girls grabbed the microphone and stopped me. Music began to play, one girl started dancing…I thought, "Must be a ‘flashmob' planned here," and I moved back! Then another girl started dancing, before long we had 12 different dancers. By the end of the song half the 6th grade class was dancing. Afterwards, a small group of 6th grade girls gave a message on bully prevention and what we do in our school to stop bully behaviors from occurring. It was fantastic and I cannot believe that they organized the whole event on their own.

PU #131 - Use Student Created Videos and Service Announcements

Nothing is more powerful than listening and watching peers. Creating videos that empower students to the do the right thing can be another powerful tool for defenders. Students are using kid-language to identify and stop bully behaviors. These videos can be used school-wide, put up on YouTube/Facebook page, or even on the school's web site.

In my past school, a group of juniors and seniors developed a video that gave strategies to stop bullying in our school. The video recreated several bully situations and how students could solve the issues. We watched the videos at a middle and high school assembly. The students also made versions of the videos for younger students. Students viewed these videos in the elementary classrooms across our school. Though this was over 10 years ago and we were not emphasizing defenders at that time, it could be a powerful tool in your school.

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Jon Konen