SEL Tip: A Safer Way to be an Ally

Young people can be active allies to someone who is being targeted without directly engaging with the aggressor. Help students learn a safer, non-confrontational way to be an ally: the "Join Us Intervention."

Many of history’s greatest tragedies unfolded under the watchful eye of passive bystanders. In fact, the more bystanders there are, the less likely it is that any of them will help – a phenomenon called the “bystander effect.” We’ve seen this effect play out in the Holocaust and other major events. We also often see it when someone is being bullied in the cafeteria, classroom, hallway, or school yard.

There are many reasons that people of all ages choose to be bystanders rather than allies. Sometimes bystanders presume that the issue is a personal one between the aggressor and target and they “don’t want to get involved.” Sometimes they believe that the target must have done something to deserve the harsh treatment of the aggressor. Sometimes they have underlying biases that allow them to feel separate from the target. But perhaps the most powerful reason, and one that may underlie all the others, is that the bystanders are simply afraid. While many adults are adept at hiding this fear, it is often evident on the faces of children who are witnessing bullying.

Many of us believe that if we move from being a passive bystander to being an active ally that we must engage directly with the aggressor. And this is a frightening prospect. We fear that the aggressor will turn on us, and we will become the target. We may even fear that we will be left to face the aggressor on our own.

These fears are reasonable, for all of us. But they are especially powerful for kids who may be in the school yard, cafeteria, or library with kids of various ages and sizes.

When students believe that being an ally may put them in danger, they need to get an adult to intervene.  But in many situations, young people can safely act as allies themselves – especially if they use the simple method below, the “join us intervention.”

I’ve seen this strategy work in school yards and cafeterias with kids from 7 to 18. Consider introducing it to your students - and give them a chance to practice and roleplay the intervention before jumping in and using it in real life.

The “Join Us” Intervention!

1.  If you see a person being targeted, determine if the bullying is physical, or poses a danger to the targeted person (or you) in any other way. If it does pose danger, get adult help immediately.

2.  If the threat is not dangerous, get yourself a friend who also believes in being an ally.

3.  Approach the situation so that you can easily make eye contact with the target. Smile and wave warmly at the target as you approach. Sometimes standing behind the aggressor so that the target can easily see you is a help.

4.  Once you have established eye contact with the target, maintain that eye contact and say, “Hi (target’s name), it’s great to see you today! We are (going to eat, playing basketball, studying). We’d love it if you joined us!”

5.  Do not engage with or respond to the aggressor. Even if they ask you direct questions, simply ignore them by maintaining your eye contact with the target.

6.  If they do not join you, they may feel afraid. If it’s appropriate, you and your friend can move to stand next to them and repeat the same invitation. Continue to maintain your eye contact with the target. Don’t engage with the aggressor.

7.  If the targeted person joins you, walk away from the aggressor together and stay together for the rest of the period doing whatever you planned to do – eat, play basketball, study.

8.  Ask the target about themselves and get to know them a bit, if you don’t know them already.

9.  At the end of the period, ask the target if they would like you to meet them at other times during the day so that they are not alone.