When to Take Action Against Bullying

John Bailey
6 min readApr 20, 2021


Adults feel a strong urge to protect their young. Many are aware of a need to balance that urge with the developmental needs of children. And, bullying is an especially sticky context for that balancing of protectiveness against the need to grow through challenges.

In May of 2012, University of Michigan’s National Poll on Children’s Health asked adult opinions about when Schools should intervene in bullying situations. Here’s what they found:

• 95% if a student makes another student afraid for his/her physical safety.
• 81% if a student embarrasses or humiliates another student.
• 76% if a student spreads rumors about another student.
• 56% if a student isolates another student socially.

It’s great to ask adults this question — but not as important or interesting as asking children the same question. They’re the ones in the situation, trying to cope and to learn how to resolve conflicts. They will also have to balance the social and self-confidence consequences of an adult rescuing them — which can make things worse.

Informal surveys of youngsters I have met or worked with around this issue suggest most of them agree with the adults — about a need to intervene when there’s a fear for their personal safety.

If they fear being injured, they want adult intervention.

But, for situations less intense than that, most prefer assistance learning how to manage rather than having adults do it for them. They have an intuitive understanding of their need for skills, and a natural desire to learn them.

Let’s think about “intervention” in three levels:

  1. Direct Intervention
  2. Supportive Intervention
  3. Preventive Intervention

Direct Intervention is often remedial because things have decayed to the point of a credible threat to someone’s safety. That threat can be due to violence, or because the target child’s coping skills are insufficient for them to recover and grow.

Reaching the need for Direct Intervention means the “posture and submit” system has failed for some reason. Direct Intervention strategies are thus “fight or flight” reactions:

  • Punishing the bully in some way — expelling them from school, bringing legal actions, or criminal charges, etc.
  • Helping the target to flee the situation through transfer of classes or schools, changing their schedule, home-schooling, etc.

Direct Intervention strategies may relieve the threat of harm, but in the process retreat from the learning and growing opportunity for the children. Because human beings tend to adopt a single strategy solution for resolving their needs, it is difficult to use Direct Intervention without seeming to suggest the bully adopt strategies of “be sneakier”, or “find another target”. Likewise, Direct Intervention seems to suggests the target adopt “flight”.

This does not prepare them to function in the real world — where resolving conflict is best done with more nuance and finesse.

Direct Intervention tends to be expensive and inconvenient. So, be sparing with it and use other methods as much as possible.

Direct Intervention should happen when there’s a credible threat to someone’s safety — whether from violence, or due to impaired coping skills.

Supportive Intervention leverages challenging events into learning and growing experiences — and should reduce or prevent the need for Direct Intervention.

Supportive Intervention is three simple steps:

  • Conversation
  • Coaching
  • Cheering

The first part, Conversation, means having open lines of communication with kids — especially about social issues. When (not if) your child experiences difficulty in social situations, you’re already talking about it. And, it isn’t weird, because you’ve primed that pump (see below). You help them talk through the issue to understand what is going on and how to work with it. Good conversation leads into the next step, when it is needed…

Platitudes and rote sayings about “sticks and bones”, etc do not qualify as Conversation!

The second part, Coaching, means exactly that — a four step process used by EVERY high-performance athlete, business person, public speaker, musician, and performer of every kind across the world and across history:

  1. Debrief (the previous performance)
  2. What if? (ideas for future performances)
  3. Experiment (test the ideas in a controlled setting)
  4. Rehearse (condition the responses they want)

Begin by Debriefing experiences and perceptions. Include teaching the difference between an opinion and a fact, and the difference between one person’s experience of an event and someone else’s experience of that same event. Teach that different people assign different meanings to the same experience — and that means they feel differently about it.

Follow that with “What would you do differently?” questions — and EXPERIMENTS you may facilitate based on those questions. The mission is to prepare, not to pander. Let your child act the part of the other party, and see what you can do with the challenge — what can you model for them. Then, can they model what you demonstrate or not? If not, what can you come up with (together) that they can model?

When you have an idea, help them rehearse. Children may think it’s “weird” unless you make it normal: Find their sports or performance heroes and find out that person’s rehearsal schedule. Find some YouTube footage or an article to show that’s how success really happens. Then, make the process part of together time.

The Coaching step may be repeated a few times before success is finally realized — just like any star athlete. And, this is an important understanding the child must come to. We may have to approach a problem more than once, with more than one imagined and rehearsed solution, before we get to success. And, that’s where the final “C” comes in:

Cheering is the Supportive Intervention program’s vital step. No achievement is complete without recognition and celebration of the success, once it’s realized. Make sure you emphasize the satisfaction and self esteem they can experience from having solved a life puzzle and built a skill that can serve them in the future.

Supportive Intervention and custom-building skills for specific life-challenges can run the range from verbal skills to physical self-defense skills, depending on the nature and intensity of the challenge.

Supportive Intervention should be given whenever a child finds friction or challenge in social sorting or even escalating bullying where self-defense may become necessary.

Preventive Intervention: is what it sounds like — all the things you do to help reduce the need for Supportive Intervention, and hopefully to avoid the need for Direct Intervention.

Preventive Intervention includes modeling social skills — and the explicit conversation around noticing and caring about others’ feelings and our own — and using those understandings to better our performance in life — just like any high-performance athlete.

Modeling is the most important aspect of Preventive Intervention because children learn more and adopt more strategies from modeling than from being told what to do.

Seeking, committing to, and enjoying specific training is another aspect of Preventive Intervention. This includes everything from communication skills, to self-mastery skills, to physical self-defense skills. The word “training” means to change one’s habits and habitual reactions to things. This includes training non-verbal communications that have a protective effect, even if you aren’t paying attention to them at that moment.

Practicing the skills you learn — and sharing that practice with your children as part of a fun and excellence-building lifestyle — is another part of the Preventive Intervention strategy. This is a good reason to join training groups, or martial arts schools, and to be socially active along with your child in anything they’re doing — as part of your modeling the deliberate building and use of social skills.

Preventive Intervention, like Supportive Intervention, pays life-long dividends in skills and safety — and it does so at an efficient rate of return. Make the investment!

Preventative Intervention should be happening on an ongoing basis. If you aren’t participating through prevention, you may wind up doing Direct Intervention.

Remember that sorting out social status is a process parents CAN NOT do for their children, and attempting to do so generally backfires, often making things worse rather than better. The time to take action against bullying is right now — starting with having more frequent and directed conversations with your children.