Using Ally Behaviors to Address Bullying in Schools

November 17, 2017Heather Carey

Recently,  the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) donated some critical training to to help educators support and empower young people who are experiencing bullying. I sat down with Stacy Davison, Director of Training at ADL to learn more about bullying in schools, what ADL is doing to help address the problem, and what steps teachers and parents can take to build a culture of respect in their schools.

What makes bullying different from other forms of mean behavior?

“Bullying” is often used as an umbrella term to describe any instance of mean behavior, from making a disparaging comment to a one-time physical altercation.  Of course all harmful acts need to be addressed by adults, but it is also important to distinguish these sorts of isolated incidents from bullying so that appropriate intervention and consequences can be used. There are three aspects educators need to identify to determine if a behavior is, in fact, bullying: 

  • Repetition – bullying involves repeated actions or threats of action. If a child pushes or trips another child one time, that would not constitute bullying.
  • Intention – Was the mean behavior done to cause fear, harm or distress to another child?  
  • Power Imbalance – a child targeted by hurtful actions has less power or perceived power than the child directing that action at them. For example, students who are gender non-conforming may not be perceived to have as much “standing” in a school’s social hierarchy so they may be targeted by those with more power.

What is ADL’s approach to addressing bullying?

When we talk about bullying we use language that empowers people rather than diminishes them.  So we focus on the behaviors that are involved in bullying situations instead of prescribing labels to students.  Behaviors can be fluid and change depending on the situation.  So students may choose to act as a bystander when they witness bullying one day, but we want them to understand that tomorrow is another day and they can choose ally behaviors.  Similarly, we don’t use the term “bully” as a label because it may cause students to take on that negative persona, whereas we want students to recognize that they can change their behavior.

At the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), we address bullying in schools by teaching students to adopt “ally behaviors” with their classmates. 

Research on bullying reveals two tendencies that shape our approach - most students tend not to intervene when they witness bullying and they tend not to tell adults about bullying incidents because they have little confidence that the outcome will be positive.

What advice would you give students about being an ally?

School-based programs that address bullying often focus on in-the-moment confrontations in which bystanders stand up to the student who is bullying and tell them “Stop!”  While this action can be effective it can also be risky and scary for some students so we encourage a range of ally behaviors. 

  1. Intervene, if they feel it’s safe and they feel comfortable, young people can confront the student who is bullying and tell them to knock it off by saying something like “Hey, it’s not cool to treat other people that way.”
  2. Support a student who is targeted in the moment or later.  Reaching out and acknowledging that they saw what happened and showing empathy can help the targeted student feel less isolated and alone.
  3. Don’t participate. This action isn’t about ignoring the behavior; it’s choosing not to laugh or encourage the bullying behavior. Intentional actions like walking away or saying nothing can speak volumes.
  4. Seek out a trusted adult. A coach, teacher, counselor, or family member can be a good sounding board and offer ideas.
  5. Get to know new people and learn about them.  Try to leave judgments and stereotypes behind and help other students at your school feel welcome.

It is critical for adults to share a broad range of options with young people and to also remind them that these ally behaviors apply to online interactions and relationships as well. Educators can learn more in-depth, practical strategies to address bullying by taking ADL’s free 20-minute on-demand course, Building Ally Behavior at   

What advice would you give teachers and families to encourage reporting of bullying behavior?

The majority of students do not report bullying because they don’t want to be labeled a “snitch,” they are afraid of possible repercussions or they don’t think that adults will handle the situation well. In this course, we discuss how adults can make themselves more approachable, take issues seriously, listen attentively and with an open mind, and empower students whenever possible by giving them the tools they need to solve issues on their own. 

What can schools do to create a climate in which bias and bullying are not accepted?

All students should feel a sense of belonging – that they are respected and valued for who they are, regardless of their race, ability, religion, gender identity, immigration status, etc. Administrators should articulate values of respect and inclusion and provide training for teachers and students on the harmful impacts of bullying. Educators should be positive role models and intervene when bias-motivated incidents and bullying occur in their classrooms. Students should be encouraged to actively practice ally behaviors and take on school-wide initiatives that promote peer respect. Families should support these school-wide efforts. Ultimately, every member of the school community plays a vital role in creating a climate of respect and inclusion for all students.

About Heather Carey

As Director of, Heather is responsible for building out the Foundation’s K12 platform that enables nonprofit organizations to deliver state-of-the art professional development resources, content, and connections to teachers.


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