Bullying Prevention: Helping Students Stand Up for Each Other

When we look back on our years in middle school and high school, most of us remember individuals who helped us solve problems, get things done and overcome challenges. They’re the ones who stuck up for us when we needed it. They celebrated the highs and cried with us during the lows. They were the people who “had our backs” and were our “allies,” which comes from a Latin word meaning “to bind to.”

Sometimes our allies were parents, teachers and other adults. But often, those allies were our friends. In fact, research consistently shows that young people are most likely to turn to their friends, not adults, when they need help — even if their friends are not equipped to respond in helpful ways.

As educators and adults, how might we encourage the kinds of positive supports that fuel learning, growth and well-being? What roles can we play in ensuring that our students’ friends are positive allies for each other in learning and in life?

This research from The Search Institute broadens ideas often focused on bullying prevention to explore how students’ can shift from being “bystanders” for each other in learning and in life to becoming “allies” for each other, binding your classroom together to help everyone be successful.

It’s easy to ask students to help each other out. But research shows that whether students help each other is shaped by the relational culture in the school. Research highlights a range of factors — many of which teachers influence — that make it more likely that students will support each other in learning and other areas of life.

The Importance of Friends

Almost two-thirds of high school seniors say that having strong friendships is a “very important” part of their life, according to a survey of seniors in about 130 public and private high schools. Only one in ten says that relationships are only somewhat important or not important.

student relationships importance

Friendships Lead to Developmental Advantages

As children develop cognitively and socially, friends become an important resource. Children in friendships help each other navigate stress during transitional periods in their development. According to researcher Willard Hartup at the University of Minnesota, “The evidence shows that friends provide one another with cognitive and social scaffolding that differs from what nonfriends provide, and having friends supports good outcomes across normative transitions.” The quality of the friendship matters as well. Children who enjoy support from friends are more likely to exhibit cooperation and willingness to help others. Conflict-ridden or coercive friendships have the opposite effect and tend to lead to developmental disadvantages, such as dependency or victimization.

When Students Do — and Don’t — Motivate Each Other in School

Students who feel emotionally secure and connected to their peers are more likely to be motivated to learn, contribute in class and engage in classroom activities. The opposite is also true: Students who do not perceive their relationships with peers as supportive tend not to be as motivated in school.

When Do Friends Help Friends?

Sometimes students are consistent in supporting each other, whether with schoolwork, family issues, or personal and emotional challenges. But sometimes they are not, with issues of bullying, teasing and ignoring each other being too common. What makes a difference in whether young people turn to friends for support or give support to each other? Researchers have found students are more likely to support each other when they believe they…

  • Belong (versus feeling isolated);
  • Can do something;
  • Have a responsibility to do something; and
  • Are safe and comfortable with each other.

On the other hand, students don’t share their difficulties with classmates when schools and teachers focus on extrinsic motivation, performance goals and norm-referenced grading. All of these practices put students in competition with each other.

Collaborative Learning Promotes Academic Growth

A key to supporting each other is learning to work together. Students’ ability to problem-solve, comprehend class material, and communicate positively with others is enhanced by collaborative learning, which involves partners with differing ability levels who are able to work together to complete a task. (Collaborative learning focuses on assessing individual learning, not group performance, as is the case with cooperative learning.) But collaboration isn’t automatic. To be effective, students need to learn how to give feedback, explain their ideas, and encourage others to participate in discussions.

Bystander Intervention Can Decrease Instances of Bullying

Too often, we hear of bystanders who do nothing when they see bullying or other harmful behaviors. What does it take for young people to shift from standing by to doing something when they see something? Researchers have identified a number of factors that shift students from being bystanders to allies:

  • They see the actions as causing significant harm to the victim.
  • They feel empathy toward the victim.
  • They evaluate the social dynamics, including whether or not the victim is a friend and whether the victim is respected by peers.
  • They believe that what is happening is wrong.
  • They have been encouraged by adults to take action in these situations.
  • They believe that intervening will actually be helpful.

When Students See Something, Will They Say Something?

When students learn that peers’ plan to engage in dangerous activities, they are more likely to tell a friend or family member than seek help from an adult at school. However, students are more likely to intervene if the school’s climate promotes positive teacher-student relationships, fairness and respect.

myths of bullying


Helping Students Become Allies For Each Other

Students can be vital resources and allies for each other in your school and classroom. Here are some ways teachers can make it more likely that students will help each other grow and learn.

1. Show and Tell:

  • Teach students to maintain respect in words and actions in your classroom.
  • Show empathy and a positive response when interacting with students that do not meet expectations.
  • Show students specific ways they can help each other feel included and supported.

2. Expect:

  • Set, and consistently enforce, expectations about how classmates treat each other, so that each and every student feels welcomed, safe and included.
  • Encourage students to speak up respectfully if they notice someone is not treated fairly.
  • Be clear to students that you disapprove of putdowns and bullying and will intervene when necessary.

3. Connect:

  • Regularly check in with each student, if only briefly. A brief interaction can give you a cue if more support may be needed.
  • Help students think through options and resources when they encounter obstacles.

4. Teach:

  • Focus on intrinsic learning and goals, rather than comparing students or reinforcing competition among students to do better than each other

5. Connect:

  • If students finish classwork early, pair them with another student who may need a boost.
  • Use role-play and learning-by-doing activities to explore feelings associated with supporting and being supported by others.

6. Recognize:

  • Be specific and fair in honoring students for the ways they support each other and contribute to a positive classroom environment.
  • Be intentional in recognizing a range of students for their contributions, not just a few.


Jostens partnered with Search Institute to provide research-based data and advice for dealing with common school challenges. Over the past 30 years, Search Institute has studied the strengths and difficulties in the lives of more than five million middle and high school youth across the country and around the world to understand what kids need in order to succeed. Like Jostens Renaissance, Search Institute focuses on young people’s strengths, rather than emphasizing their problems or deficiencies. Visit SearchInstitute.org to learn more.

Click the button below to print the full guide that includes the all research, references, and activities:

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