Not So Easy to Be an Upstander

Be an Upstander!A couple of years ago, I was working in an elementary school in which a fifth grade girl was being bullied by a group of girls. The girls would write rude and inappropriate words in the bathroom. This was a daily occurrence. The adults worked diligently to stop this. We even looked at writing samples, and, by the end of the week, thought we might know who was involved, but couldn’t confirm it. The most powerful part of the process was when a student came to me to report who was responsible. She said that she felt bad that this was happening to another student. She came forward and said that it was her twin sister. She wanted the bullying to stop. She became an upstander.

Working in schools for close to 20 years, I have done hundreds of role-plays with students on how to stand up and be assertive when they see bullying take place. I have always been impressed by their willingness to stand up for others. Young people are so creative in resolving the most challenging scenarios. For the most part, students can act on what to do and understand why it is important to take a stand against bullying. Young people are tremendously empathetic and caring. Yet, when dealing with real life situations, becoming an upstander is not easy – for adults or kids! As adults asking kids to take a stand, we sometimes lose sight of that.

The nature of bullying is that the aggressor wields power (real or perceived) and influence. That power and influence usually and often transcends beyond the walls of the school building. I am always reminded that for many children, those who bully are often their neighbors. Imagine speaking up at school and then crossing paths in the streets. Young people recognize that risk. When asking students to stand up, we need to make sure that we take their realities and situations into consideration.

Risks of Being an Upstander

Talking with students about the challenges of becoming upstanders, the usual response is the fear of being targeted for saying something. Students recognize that being targeted is a horrible experience. Rarely do aggressors work alone, they usually have their circle of “friends” that they work with to give them the audience and attention they crave. Given the choice of being protected by hanging with this person or standing up for someone in need of support presents a moral dilemma. We need to recognize that for young people there is a status factor that exists when being connected to someone with power. I often think about that “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series, where the main character creates a list of where he stands in the social order. For some of our students, standing by someone who bullies is a quick way to move up in their own perceived social order.

As adults, we need to recognize the tremendous courage it takes to be an upstander. Creating and protecting anonymity are critical elements in encouraging our young people to step forward. Every act of standing up of others, no matter how small is worth praise.

Edwin Figueroa works with non-profit organizations, including Operation Respect, to implement conflict resolution, peer mediation, youth leadership, advisory, restorative approaches, and anti-bullying programs.

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