Children Who Help Victims of Bullying: Implications for Practice







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Children Who Help Victims of Bullying: Implications

for Practice

James R. Porter&Sondra Smith-Adcock

Published online: 15 June 2011

#Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Abstract Over the years, literature on the phenomenon of bullying has evolved from treating bullying as an individual behavior to understanding it as a group process. Other than those of the bully and the victim, researchers have identified several roles children assume in bullying situations, with some assuming a pro-social role, often called the defender, in bullying scenarios. Practice literature continues to concentrate its attention narrowly on the bully and the victim, rather than on defenders. Understanding the individual and social circumstances related to defending suggests new avenues for practitioners interested in promoting improved peer relations in schools.

Keywords Bullying . Defender . Bystander . Peer-led interventions . Positive psychology . Program development

Victor sat alone in a patch of sand, drawing in the dirt, while other children played all around the playground.“Hey, Victor, want to join our club?” It was Ben, and his sidekick Allen. Like always, this was going to hurt.“No, I just want to play by myself.” Victor began to shake. Staring down into the dirt, he tried not to see Ben and Allen.

“Let’s show him the initiation, Allen!”shouted Ben. Ben kicked sand into Victor’s eyes, who got up to run away, but Allen grabbed him from behind. Ben scooped up hot summer sand and rubbed it into Victor’s hair. Some nearby children gathered to watch. Deanna, who was nearby, heard the rising commotion. “Not again,”she lamented and darted to the scene. Olivia, who was playing nearby, stayed behind. When Deanna got to the scene, Victor was lying on his back, gagging on a mouthful of wet sand, tears caking the sand in his eyes. The crowd was laughing.“Cut it out!” demanded Deanna. Ben and Allen turned around laughing, but feebly.

Deanna walked to Victor and raised him to a standing position. A boy named Richard yelled to Ben,“You gonna let a girl tell you what to do?”but no one tried to interfere

J. R. Porter (*)


S. Smith-Adcock

Department of Counselor Education, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, USA e-mail:


with Deanna—or to help her. Ben and Allen mumbled teases at Deanna, who ignored the insults. After helping Victor to the bathroom, Deanna decided she would try to convince Victor that telling an adult might help. Perhaps Victor would take her advice this time. Deanna was somewhat tired of coming to the rescue.


Typically, literature on bullying focuses attention on examining, understanding, and changing the behavior of children who bully or are bullied—focusing relatively little attention on any positive role children assume in situations where bullying occurs. Although peers are often present in bullying situations (identified as over 80% of the time by Hawkins, Pepler, and Craig2001), researchers have often approached bullying as solely an issue for those individuals who bully and those who are victimized (Green2003; Smith and Brain 2000). Furthermore, almost all intervention initiatives concentrate mainly on victims and perpetrators of bullying (Green2003; Sutton and Smith1999). Because such interventions with individual children are likely to have limited effect unless coupled with a more systemic prevention program, various authors have recommended extending the focus of anti-bullying interventions to include peers, especially those who act to defend against bullying (Green2003; Salmivalli1999).

The scientific study of bullying has its origins in Norway in the 1970s, with other Scandinavian countries also contributing heavily to the topic in the early period (Green

2003). Smith and Brain (2000) identified the publication of the bookAggression in the Schools: Bullies and Whipping Boys (Olweus 2001) as being a milestone in bullying research emerging from Scandinavia during that era. The study of bullying has since spread throughout North America, the Pacific region, the United Kingdom and other European countries, as well as in various developing countries (Salmivalli and Voeten

2004; Smith and Brain 2000). Furlong, Morrison, and Greif (2003) have concluded, however, that research and political interest in bullying was relatively slow to arise in the United States.

The primary focus of bullying-related research has changed over time from bullies to their victims, without consideration of context, to bullying as a group phenomenon, with various roles played by children. As far back as 1973, Dan Olweus studied group mechanisms related to bullying (Olweus2001), but such social-psychological attention was rare. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a substantial research focus on children who bullied or who were bullied, with the aim of finding characteristics that distinguished them from so-called“normal”children (Green2003; Smith and Brain2000).

The narrow focus on perpetrators and targets of bullying was evident not only in research studies but also in intervention efforts (Furlong, Morrison, and Greif 2003). Almost all counseling interventions in the past have focused on intervening with children who committed or were targeted by acts of bullying (Green2003). Furlong and colleagues (2003) concluded that state governments in the U.S. sometimes enacted bullying legislation in reaction to school violence as depicted in the media, rather than with reference to bullying literature. Consequently, the resultant laws and/or school policies may lean more toward punishing bullies rather than counseling them or attending to the broader sociological conditions that perpetuate bullying (Furlonget al.2003).

The trend of conceptualizing bullying as a problem between individual perpetrators and victims is changing. Researchers are now paying more attention to how bullying behavior is influenced by peers, schools, families, and larger institutions (Furlonget al.2003). Much of


the research on bullying now focuses on group processes, or participant roles (Rodkin and Hodges 2003; Salmivalli 1999). Currently, numerous examples of group-based interven-tions can be found in program evaluation literature (Merrell, Gueldner, Ross, and Isava

2008; Smith, Schneider, Smith, and Ananiadou2004).

An important result of the increased attention to group processes in bullying is the identification (Olweus2001) and empirical verification (Salmivalliet al.1996) of specific roles that children play in the process of bullying, including that where children defend victims of bullying. Unfortunately, interest in children who defend has been slow to grow, relative to other roles that children play. Even though a few research studies have examined the defender role, they generally do not focus on defending but rather discuss it as part of the context of bullying.

The purpose of the current paper is to review literature related to bullying social processes, with specific attention to the role of defender. Literature is reviewed that examines the pro-social role often played by children in bullying scenarios, the children that assume this helping role, and the circumstances that lead to defending. Further, implications for defender-focused interventions are examined.

Participant Roles in Bullying: Current Models

In a review of bullying research, Olweus (2001) proposed“The Bullying Circle,”a group model of bullying that describes roles children might assume in a bullying scenario.

“Victims”are those who are targeted by bullying.“Bullies”actively initiate and carry out the bullying.“Followers”and“henchmen”do not initiate bullying, but take an active part in the bullying.“Supporters”or“passive bullies”do not take an active part in the bullying, but they promote it openly. “Passive supporters” are “possible bullies,” who approve of bullying but do not display their support for it. “Disengaged onlookers”believe that the bullying is none of their business. They watch and do not openly express an opinion about it. “Possible defenders” think they should help, but do not help, and then there are

“defenders,”who actively attempt to help the victim and stop the bullying.

Salmivalli and colleagues (1996) empirically verified six “participant roles” that children typically play in bullying incidents: defender, bully, victim, outsider (i.e., uninvolved children), assistant (i.e., children who physically help the bully), and reinforcer (i.e., children who cheer the bully). The ‘Participant Role Approach’ to bullying (Salmivalli et al. 1996) uses the social role concept to posit that children maintain stable behaviors, such as bullying, as part of roles derived from an interaction between peer expectations (Kaukiainenet al.2002) and individual behavioral tendencies (Salmivalli1999).

Research on participant roles in bullying has focused on the salience of roles (Salmivalli

1998), social self concept (Salmivalli1998), social intelligence (Kaukiainenet al.2002), individual attitudes about bullying (Salmivalli and Voeten 2004), social acceptance and rejection (Salmivalli et al.1996), peer networks (Salmivalliet al.1997; Salmivalliet al.

1998), peer group attitudes about bullying (Teräsahjo and Salmivalli 2003), and group behavioral norms (Salmivalli and Voeten2004).

The Participant Role Approach defines the“bully,” “assistant,”and“reinforcer”roles as aggressive; the“victim”role as socially ineffective or even provocative; and the outsider role as neutral or complacent. Only the defender role is defined by a set of pro-social behaviors intended to alleviate bullying-related problems (Salmivalliet al.1996). Examples of each role exist in the opening playground vignette of this paper. Ben is clearly the lead bully: rubbing sand in the face of Victor the victim, who prefers to isolate himself on the playground. Ben’s


assistant, Allen, physically stops Victor from escaping. Richard is the most vocal reinforcer in the crowd, not only watching and laughing but also verbally encouraging Ben to harass Victor further. Olivia represents the outsider role. She did not come to the scene, either because she did not know about it or because she chose to ignore it. Deanna is the defender, with her friends relying on her to provide the most direct help to Victor.

Despite the robustness of the defender role, the bullying literature makes only marginal study of it. The professional counseling literature makes no mention of the role. Even literature inclusive of the defender role discusses it as only a portion of the bullying picture, not as a focal subject.

The State of the Art in Research on Defending

Though research studies rarely focus specifically on children who defend, findings related to defending are available in related bullying research. Some research literature examines various qualities of individuals who defend and investigates contextual variables that may relate to defending. A review of study findings related to defending, it will be argued, suggests that more attention by practitioners toward children who defend may give rise to a wider array of strategies for intervention than currently exist.

Individual Tendencies and the Defender Role

Children who defend appear to differ from children who exhibit other bullying-participant behaviors in regard to certain individual characteristics. In particular, children who defend are distinguished from children in the more aggressive roles. For example, children who defend seem to respond more empathically to others than children who commit or abet bullying (Gini et al. 2007; Maeda 2003). Furthermore, children who report higher rates of defending also report anti-bullying attitudes (Salmivalli and Voeten2004). That is, higher defending scores correspond to increased agreement with survey items such as “Joining in bullying is a wrong thing to do” (Salmivalli and Voeten2004, p. 249). In addition, children who defend appear less likely than children who bully or support bullying to be cited by peers for exhibiting aggressive behaviors, such as losing their temper, embarrassing others, or forcing others to do things against their will (Maeda2003).

Children who defend appear better than children who bully at inferring other people’s cognitive and emotional motives from their behavior (Maeda2003). However, Gini (2006) suggests children who bully are similarly adept at this skill, though defending children are found to be more competent at cognitive motivational interferences than victims or children who bully. Gini (2006) suggests that children who defend are more apt than those who bully at inferring moral motives of others, and that they are less likely to ignore moral issues related to violence.

Some findings suggest that children who defend have more self-control than children in the more aggressive bullying roles. For example, children who defend seem better able than children who bully to inhibit intuitive, habitual responses when presented with novel stimuli (Monks, Smith, and Swettenham 2005). They also appear better at regulating their own emotions than children who bully, help the bully, or cheer on the bully (Maeda2003).

Some positive individual characteristics distinguish children who defend not only from children in aggressive roles, but also from children in all other identified bullying-related roles. Children who defend appear to have healthier self-esteem than children in other roles


(Salmivalli et al.1999), more favorable academic and emotional self-concept (Salmivalli

1998), and more social self-efficacy (Gini et al. 2008). Tani, Greenman, Schneider, and Fregoso (2003) found that children identified as defenders score higher than children in all other roles on trait agreeableness, which includes trait altruism. Finally, nine out of the 13 studies examined that directly consider defending behavior find boys to be underrepresented among children who defend as compared to girls (Goossens et al.

2006; Menesini et al. 2003; Salmivalli et al. 1996, 1998,1999, 2005; Salmivalli and Voeten2004; Sutton and Smith1999), though results are mixed in one study (Sutton and Smith1999).

Social-Contextual Variables and the Defender Role

The social world of children who defend differs from the environment of other children in several ways. Children who defend appear to be more popular than non-defending children, including children not identified in any role (Goossens et al.2006; Salmivalli et al. 1996). Furthermore, although their friendship networks appear to be smaller than the networks of children who bully, assist, or reinforce, children who defend appear less likely than children in any other role to be friendless (Salmivalliet al.1997). Salmivalli and colleagues (1997) also found that children who defend tend to associate mainly with each other and that they do not appear to associate with bullies or bullies’ friends. Therefore, it appears that similar children tend to associate with each other, or that children who associate with each other tend to become similarly behaved—two possibilities that may interest educators and counselors who want to promote defending in children.

Having friends similar to them may be important for children who defend, considering that Salmivalliet al.(1998) report that defending behavior may relate, more than do other role behaviors, to the composition of a child’s friendship group. They found that a child’s current friendships with children who defend related positively to his or her current frequency of defending behavior, but that a child’s prior defending behavior did not predict current defending. In contrast, prior bullying and victim behavior predicted current bullying and victim behavior (Salmivalli et al. 1998). This evidence may imply that defending behavior is more related to a child’s current social context than the persistent habits of behavior apparent in findings about children who bully. If so, defending is clearly an area that can be addressed by peer-based intervention.

In addition to each other, children who defend usually have friends who are identified as victims and outsiders (Salmivalli et al. 1997). Ironically, despite their popularity among peers and camaraderie with like others, children who defend do not appear to receive peer support for their behavior in a form comparable to that which children who bully receive from“assistants”to“reinforcers.”Approximately 16 studies (e.g., Camodeca and Goossens 2005; Salmivalli et al.1996) have identified roles in which children specifically support acts of bullying either by physically assisting or otherwise reinforcing (i.e., cheering, inciting, watching) children who bully, but researchers have not found such supporters for children who defend. This appears consequential considering that defending behavior may rely heavily on peer support.

If defending behavior appears stable only when one’s friendship group continues to be inhabited by defenders, it seems that social support for defending behavior may be crucial to its continuance. Furthermore, children who bully not only have the camaraderie of other children who bully, but also the real-time,in vivosupport of children who may not bully, but who do assist and cheer bullying. Defenders are not known to have this added support,


and an exploration of this phenomenon may reveal something about the nature of defending behavior as perhaps being transitory.

Another contextual variable that seems to predict a child’s defending is a classroom’s set of bullying-related norms. Norms that are anti-bullying appear to contribute to defender behavior (Salmivalli and Voeten2004). Interestingly, girls seem to rely more on classroom anti-bullying norms for their defender role stability than do boys, even though girls appear more stable overall in the defender role than do boys (Salmivalli et al.1998). Thus, the classroom environment is a likely source for thein vivosupport that might be needed for effective defending. However, it is notable that this environmental condition seems related to girls’defending more so than boys.

Social conditions related to defending behavior in research suggest new areas for intervening in school bullying. To drive bullying intervention that focuses on defenders, we must consider friends and other peers to play a critical role in the social contexts that may influence defending. Some prevention and intervention programs have used peers to try to help reduce bullying and violence at schools.“Happy Face Week”and“Creating a Peaceful School Learning Environment,” among other programs, are addressed below. Peer-led strategies include using peers as mentors, mediators, presenters, monitors, and friends of victims and bullies. When peer-based intervention programs have been studied, a variety of outcomes have been shown. These findings will be summarized and implications for the development of new programs will be offered.

School-Based Peer-Led Interventions and the Defender Role

The limited research devoted specifically to children who defend is reflected in their apparent omission from school anti-bullying programs. These authors could find no literature describing interventions that intentionally incorporate children who are known to defend, though Salmivalli (1999) recommends the use of children who defend as models, mentors, and counselors in school anti-bullying programs. However, later interventions developed or evaluated by the same researcher (Salmivalli2001; Salmivalliet al.2005) did not employ children who defend. In one of those anti-bullying programs, Salmivalli (2001) used peer counselors, but selected them using criteria other than their defender behavior. It appears that it is difficult to incorporate the defender role into bullying prevention practice, perhaps because of its inconspicuousness in research literature.

Though no studies have specifically employed “defenders” in peer-led interventions, findings of existing studies suggest some important points to consider when planning school “anti-bullying” or “pro-defending” peer interventions. For example, peer-led interventions have been associated with both positive and undesired outcomes and findings are inconclusive. The following section summarizes research on peer-led anti-bullying programs conducted in various countries. Implications for incorporating actual defenders in anti-bullying interventions are discussed.

Results from a “befriending” intervention studied by Menesini et al. (2003) with children aged 11–14 years in Italy were mixed. The authors of the study used peer helpers to protect their victim-friends from others. The befriending program, which is consistent with defending, focused on five initiatives. First, the importance of helping others was emphasized to the entire student body. Second, students nominated themselves or others to be peer supporters in the intervention. Third, peer supporters were trained in communi-cation and listening. Fourth, with teacher supervision, peer supporters then carried out customized helping tasks for target children, sometimes victims, who were assigned to them. Fifth, peer supporters trained other students in how to support peers. Menesiniet al.


(2003) found that the control group increased in negative behaviors, roles, and attitudes, whilst the experimental group did not increase. Bullying behaviors were attenuated but not eliminated. Because there was no intentional recruitment of peer supporters, the authors concluded that some students, though trained to become peer supporters, may have had trouble letting go of old aggressive behaviors.

“Happy Face Week”evaluated by Salmivalli (2001), with 7th and 8th graders in Finland, is another example of a peer-led campaign that, while having overall success, reported negative as well as positive outcomes. In this study, boys’ bullying behavior did not improve and they actually increased in their pro-bullying attitudes. In the program, eight students who had been previously selected by peers to serve in a pre-existing “peer counseling” system were recruited for Happy Face Week. For 1 week, activities ranging from using posters, a“finish-the-cartoon”contest, speech, dramatic, and musical media to small-group discussions led by peer counselors were used to promote anti-bullying messages. Noting that the negative results of the intervention were only evident in boys, Salmivalli (2001), pointed to the most obvious explanation that all peer counselors in the program were girls. The author also noted that activities used in the program might not have fit masculine paradigms of discourse. The peer counselors were selected by their peers but were not necessarily known to defend. Results were positive among girls, but not boys.

Cowie (2000) recruited, trained, and supervised“peer supporters”who were to intervene in bullying and offer peer support sessions when they observed a student in need. These researchers targeted children who were“bystanders.”Results indicated increased bullying and stronger anti-victim attitudes, although there was no control group. Some students perceived the program as helpful. Cowie and Ofafsson (2000) assessed perceived benefits of various peer support programs in various schools in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Peer supporters and victims of bullying reported perceived benefits, but these positive results were not generalized to other students. Consistent with other research (e.g., Salmivalli 2000) males were much less likely than females to be peer supporters in these programs or to participate fully in the anti-bullying campaign.

A school violence prevention program developed in the U.S., “Creating a Peaceful School Learning Environment,” is based on a participant-role approach that includes a component in which high school students mentor elementary school pupils. In this program, peer mentors are typically children with disruptive histories, not children known to defend. Goals for the program are to de-pathologize the child who bullies and to deter school violence through the audience of bystanders.

One study that evaluated the Creating a Peaceful School program (Twemlow, Fonagy, Sacco, Gies, Evans, and Ewbank 2001) concluded that the overall program works well when compared to no intervention because discipline referrals went down. However, evaluation of this program did not investigate the peer component separately, making separate judgments about the peer-mentoring component difficult to make.

In research conducted in Belgium and the Netherlands, Stevenset al.(2000) randomly assigned 24 schools to either a control condition or an experimental condition in which bystanders were taught to intervene in bullying scenarios. Focusing on the social circumstances that promote bullying activities, these researchers used Olweus’Bullying Circle (2001) to select children to participate in the peer helping intervention. Children known to defend were not necessarily employed. Pro-social attitudes and rates of intervening in bullying improved temporarily, with changes disappearing a year later in students aged 13–16, but remaining to some measure in children aged 10–13.

A thorough review of anti-bullying and school violence prevention literature by this author finds no peer-based bullying intervention program that selects as helpers children


with a demonstrated propensity to intervene in bullying or to befriend and protect victims. In addition, it appears that many intervention programs are intended to benefit children who bully or are bullied; children who are thought to be exceptional due to their problems. It is possible, however, that targeting children with known problems deflects resources away from children who are not exhibiting an obvious need. Children who defend may need personal support to the same degree as children who do not help victims. In addition, it may be that supporting children who frequently work toward a peaceful playground will indirectly benefit the students around them. Despite this possibility, there do not appear to be intervention programs designed to support students already thought to openly oppose the victimization of their peers.

It appears that existing peer intervention programs did support meaningful and consistent behavioral outcomes (e.g., Menesini et al. 2003). It is, however, of concern that many studies reported mixed findings (e.g., Stevens et al. 2000). For example, Stevens et al. found that while anti-bullying attitudes were high among students, rates of defending went down following an anti-bullying intervention. Furthermore, some interventions were associated with increased bullying and lower levels of defending (e.g., Cowie and Ofafsson

2000), occasionally even from peer supporters who used bullying behaviors to protect victims (Menesini et al. 2003). Importantly, girls are more attracted to the notion of defending than are boys (Cowie 2000; Salmivalli 2001), and in some cases, boys even developed more pro-bullying attitudes (Salmivalli2001). Age and developmental stage also seemed related to outcomes, with older children generally responding more consistently to defending interventions than younger children (e.g., Stevenset al.2000).

Direction can be taken from interventions that report success and from researcher recommendations when intervention outcomes were mixed. First, peers taught to intervene in bullying appear to do so, though they may use questionable methods (Menesini et al.

2003) and lack lasting change (Stevenset al.2000). Second, in most studies, peers selected to aid in intervention were not known to defend, though Salmivalli (1999) and Stevenset al.(2000) made this recommendation a decade ago. Third, pairing non-aggressive children with aggressive children seems to help the aggressive child and not hurt the non-aggressive child, and Salmivalli et al. (1997) recommend restructuring peer groups to break up bullying groups. Finally, developmental characteristics and gender may have implications for how interventions are designed.

Future“pro-defending”peer intervention programs may do well to identify children who are defenders and/or bystanders prior to implementing an intervention. For example, in many cases it may help to select as peer supporters children who are assessed as defenders. Several versions of a defending scale exist, and one includes items useful for selecting out children who defend consistently (Salmivalliet al1996). Training of peer supporters should involve the type of defending behaviors that adults wish to see, but can also reflect the anti-bulling beliefs of most children (Menesiniet al.). This will reinforce the existing proclivity to defend that some children already exhibit, and perhaps improve upon the longevity of positive outcomes for programs.

In addition, research conducted in many countries, supports the importance of person, place, and time to deter bullying social processes. In addition to peer helping, interventions that address the peer social group, whether it is at the classroom level or peer-group level are recommended. For example, peer pairing or group restructuring may work to disrupt existing negative social processes and promote a more anti-bullying climate. Children thought to be followers and children who are not known to defend can be encouraged to belong to friendship groups with children who are thought to defend. Salmivalli and colleagues’(1996) scale also assesses the followers of children who bully, terming them


behaviors in children who might otherwise provide an audience for bullying (Gini et al.

2008) and decrease the isolation which Salmivalliet al.(1997) report in some victims, and which may potentiate or exacerbate victimhood (Hazler and Denham2002).

In peer-led and defending-focused efforts, males may require specific attention. Boys who appear to be the most stable in their defending behavior can be elevated as examples for others to follow, as“buddies”who are paired inside and outside of the classroom with children who do not defend, and as peer counselors for other males who seek help. Because results may be temporary, it seems ideal that programs use ongoing assessments to gauge whether positive behavior changes are occurring and being maintained.

Lastly, though research from a number of countries exists, all studies examined by these authors on the topic of defending have been conducted in the U.S. or Europe and as such, may represent a narrow idea of bullying and defending. Further research is needed that examines the context of anti-bullying research and defender-focused intervention in other areas of the world.


The research reviewed in this article suggests that, while some children exhibit behaviors that may help victims of bullying at schools, these behaviors cannot be trusted to happen at satisfactory levels without informed intervention on the part of educators, counselors, and program developers. Changes do not appear to occur automatically and do not appear to continue without maintenance. Furthermore, programs that capitalize on children’s strengths seem to have been largely untried.

Schools have a mission to educate and for lasting change to occur, it may require that defending become a daily part of a school’s curriculum; a skill to be taught and assessed. Just as children are not expected to become adept in mathematics without daily instruction, they cannot be expected to develop the ability to befriend and protect others on their own, though some children may appear to have a head start in that direction.


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