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How to be an Upstander

Updated: Aug 22, 2021

Did you know there is a difference between being friendly vs being a friend?

Bystander vs Upstander

Being friendly is smiling at someone and saying, "hi." It's nice, but it's not making a connection with someone. Being a friend means taking things to the next level. Being a friend requires action, conversation, and engagement. Being a friend takes courage. It's the difference between being an upstander vs a bystander.

If students were coached on how to be a friend, we could eliminate social isolation in schools. Think about what an impact that would make. Think about how many lives that might have saved this past school year.

We Can Take Immediate Action

It's possible that being noticed by another student could prevent future school shootings and violence. Please don't think I'm arguing that gun control and mental health are not also issues that must be addressed. I'm not. But, teaching kids to notice the loner, to acknowledge them, to pay attention, to engage them in a conversation is something that we can immediately act on. Noticing is the first step.

We know when someone sits alone at lunch day after day. We know when someone is acting out in school or on social media to get attention. We see these things, and we often do nothing.

Encouraging Action is Critical to Solving the Problem

Helping kids know how to reach out after noticing is key to solving the problem of social isolation. I'm not suggesting they become best friends, but simply asking, "How is your day going?" might establish a connection that changes the course of many lives.

We all want to be noticed and to feel that we matter to someone else. If a student goes through his or her day without any meaningful contact with another student or teacher, they are more likely to be depressed and angry. They are more likely to hurt themselves or someone else. We can take immediate steps to stop this from happening.

3 Steps to Encourage Inclusion & Acceptance

  1. Notice - ask students to notice when they see a classmate who is alone at lunch or recess. Encourage them to think about how someone feels if they are trying to fit into a group but being rejected.

  2. Act - ask students to grab a friend and sit with that student at lunch or invite them to engage in an activity at recess.

  3. Check Back - ask students to check back with the classmate. Periodic interaction lets someone know that you still care, that you want to include them, and that you accept them as they are. It lets someone know they haven't been forgotten. This step might also include notifying a safe adult that you are worried about this classmate. Let kids know it's OK and appropriate to privately share their concerns.

We often share this slide when speaking with 3rd - 8th grade students. It's a simple way to explain the difference between being friendly (bystander) vs being a friend (upstander).


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