Be An Upstander—Not A Bystander

By Barbara Gilmour

Bullying is the second-largest epidemic in the U.S. after obesity, and it isn’t going away. More than 3.2-million children are bullied every year. An estimated 160,000 children stay home from school every day for fear of being bullied. Physical bullying increases in elementary school, peaks during middle school, and declines in high school. Verbal abuse, on the other hand, remains constant. These stats are just a sampling of the research addressing this problem, from and other sources.

Preventing bullying and establishing healthy relationships for children is a top priority for parents, educators, and camp professionals. Parents today are frustrated that teachers and administrators aren’t doing enough to stop bullying; educators are frustrated that parents aren’t sending their kids to school with the basic skills needed to get along with others. This leaves children stuck in the middle, just wanting the bullying to end. Additionally, research now shows that the predominantly reactive bullying solutions many schools are implementing are not working. As camp professionals, it’s important for us to get past the idea that ”camp should be fun and not a time for instruction or training.” Rather, the focus should be on proactive strategies and solutions that will ensure your camp stands out as a bully-free, safe environment. After all, an unhappy camper is not going to come back. Kids might have to go to school and tolerate bullying, but if their experience at your camp isn’t positive, they can choose another camp.

The Bullying Cycle
Though many descriptions of the bullying cycle are available, it usually starts with rudeness or incivility, which leads to bullying, and can then escalate into violence. The challenge is breaking the cycle at the beginning, which is the easiest part of the cycle to address.

What does Bullying Look Like?
Bullies come in all shapes, sizes, genders, and personalities. There are many theories on what constitutes bullying. has a concise definition: “Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance, with the likely potential for repetition.” It includes teasing, staring, ignoring, name-calling, put-downs, excluding, gossiping, and racial, religious, ethnic, or sexual-orientation slurs. Bullying, or social cruelty, can center on weight or size issues, popularity, and economic status.

Proactive Strategies For Camp
The goal as a camp professional is to provide a safe, caring, stress-free environment where kids have fun and feel welcome and accepted. Many resources are available in setting up a camp’s policies regarding kids’ behavior, including what you expect, what you won’t tolerate, and how disputes and infractions will be handled. Make this information available in promotional materials so parents can be confident you will be taking great care of their child.

Caring, Sharing, And Being Kind
Dealing with incidents after the fact should not take precedence over the resources and training made available to staff members to combat these behaviors. Believe it or not, preventing bullying may be as simple as being kind to one another. Here are some approaches that should be encouraged among campers and staff members:

  • Take a camp tour and ask new campers what areas of camp need to have good manners or social skills demonstrated and why.
  • Help kids learn to get along by stressing The Golden Rule: “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” Too many kids, and adults, live by a different rule: “Treat others the way they treat you.” Have campers create role-plays demonstrating both statements so they see the difference.
  • Encourage the use of magic words: “please,” “thank you,” “you’re welcome,” “excuse me,” and “I’m sorry.”
  • Encourage the use of greeting words: “hello,” “goodbye,” “good morning,” and “good night” to show respect to all. 
  • Stress the need to look people in the eye, to speak clearly and pleasantly, to smile, and to give them space. (Turn this into a game by asking kids to form two lines, first moving forward so they are very close, and then back to a more comfortable place.)
  • Make a daily contest out of using all the magic words; to add even more fun, encourage dramatic flair.
  • Conduct various circle times when kids compliment each other. Use this format for intros on the first day when kids share who they are, where they are from, and something interesting about themselves.
  • Promote a daily “kindness challenge” or contest (with incentives, if you want).
  • Teach empathy by asking kids to walk in someone else’s shoes. Kids can actually swap shoes (with socks, of course). Or, as an art project, kids can trace their shoes on heavy paper, cut them out, put their names on them, swap both left and right with someone else’s, and then attach them to existing shoes with rubber bands. Share thoughts, problems, hopes, etc. with each other to gain insight into what someone else is going through.
  • Repeat the camp tour at end of session and see what kids remember and have learned about when good manners and social skills are needed.

Stand Up, Speak Up—Be An Upstander
Use prepared skits or have campers create role-plays to depict the following scenarios:

  • Campers observing bullying and deciding what to do about it
  • Campers confronting a bully
  • Campers encouraging a victim of bullying
  • A camper deciding to tell someone in authority about being bullied
  • Campers refusing to participate in bullying (have them show kindness and empathy to the victim and the bully). Stress always being an upstander—not a bystander—as half of bullying incidents will be diffused when people step up to stop it.

Barbara Gilmour is the Creator of Cool Kind Kid and CEO of CKK Educational, LLC, Social Skills and Bullying Prevention Curricula, Award-Winning Music, and Supporting Products. Reach her at
The Impact Of Bullying
The list below highlights some of the issues that camp counselors need to look out for. Be aware of mood, attitude, emotional, or personality changes. Ask campers if they need to talk, if are they okay, or how their day was.

Kids who are bullied are more likely to exhibit:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Changes in sleep and eating patterns
  • Loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy
  • Health complaints
  • Decreased academic achievement and school or social participation.