Active Bystander Awareness: Cultivating Active Empathy in Youth

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“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” –Mister Rogers

After the murder of George Floyd under the knee of Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, we have seen the broad scope of human capacity laid bare: days of peaceful protests and senseless violence, hate-planted fear and selfless love. For those of us living in more rural communities, these images on our screens may seem distant and disconnected from our lives. But we can’t allow ourselves to be fooled into complacency. The issues that are currently being fleshed out in the big cities are present throughout America, and we can take action. 

I know that this seems a very serious topic for an educational theater company like Little Theater Workshop to take on. But it is actually the perfect place to start the conversation, especially with children. Theater–and, in the larger picture, storytelling–is the art of seeing the world as it is and envisioning what it could become. And education is the art of making those visions possible by cultivating the people needed to make it happen. The vision cannot be successful without the people and the people cannot be successful without the vision.

Before we go any further, though, I want to be clear that the tools laid out in this article are important in any era, whether it is a time of upheaval or relative peace. I think we can all agree that society has its injustices, and that people can do bad–and unfortunately sometimes very bad–things. There is a lot of fear, anger, and hatred in the world, but we must always maintain hope. One way we can take action right now involves looking to the future: cultivating children’s natural kindness and empathy, and empowering them with tools so they can safely act to make the world a better place.

But what can we do?

Today, I’m going to lay out some of the theories and tools surrounding the concept of Active Bystander Awareness. 

Back in the early spring, when I scheduled Little Theater Workshop’s Active Bystander Awareness for Youth program for this week, I could never have expected the class subject to be quite so relevant. Unfortunately, COVID-19 restrictions have made it impossible to hold the workshop. So, this article is meant to help you begin a conversation around Active Bystander Awareness with your child, grandchild, or other important youth in your life. That said, the suggestions herein are applicable to anyone, any age. I find that whenever I teach children how to stand up for each other, I also grow in my own understanding. I hope that you discover the same as you approach what it means to be an Active Bystander.

But, Lynn…

What is Active Bystander Awareness?

Although it goes by many names, at its core, Active Bystander Awareness is a set of skills a person can develop that will help them safely intervene when they see an immediate act of injustice occurring. 

In practice, being an effective Active Bystander means:

  • Being able to identify unjust/oppressive situations that would benefit from an outside intervention. For children, this is often (but not always) related to bullying in schools.
  • Assessing the safety of your intervention of choice. Sometimes, an immediate or physical intervention is not safe for the bystander. But being a witness, or calling for help, or following up with a victim are also interventions. Violence should never be considered as an intervention.
  • Taking action. In Active Bystander Awareness workshops, we emphasize that being inactive makes you one of the antagonists. Whether intentionally or not, inaction condones unjust behavior. 
  • Reflecting on the effectiveness of your intervention. This is how we grow into better Active Bystanders!

There are many ways to intervene in a situation. One of my favorite stories of an effective intervention happened on a crowded subway. Two men were having a verbal altercation, and it looked like it was going to get physical. Most of the bystanders did nothing–some started witnessing by recording the altercation on their phones, and perhaps some were assessing how to best respond without getting injured themselves. But then, a third man nonchalantly breaks through the crowd, steps between the pair, and begins to eat a bag of chips. The chip-eater’s actions were so bizarre, the situation was immediately diffused, and the two went their separate ways.

But how does someone become like this confident chip-eater? Firstly, it is important to recognize that the chip-eater’s actions might not have been safe for everyone on that subway car. If I had been there in my present state as a pregnant woman, my risk assessment would have been significantly different than the chip-eater’s. My response would have been less immediate and far less physical. And even if you feel that you could immediately intervene safely like the chip-eater, knowing how to step in is not always intuitive. An Active Bystander needs to practice these skills.

For kids, we are often looking at bullying situations. Peer interventions (including both immediate responses and support/friendship thereafter) are considered some of the best ways to stop bullies. More general studies on bystander behavior indicate that when a bystander intervenes, the immediate problem is averted 50% of the time. Given the number of factors in any given situation, those are good odds! Now imagine how the odds would rise and the number of oppressive situations would decrease when many (or most!) of the students in a school felt empowered to take action when they saw bullying take place.

Admittedly, these skills are extremely nuanced and continue to develop over time. Despite my training as an Active Bystander, I can name many times when I have regrettably remained inactive in the face of injustice. I can also name many times when I have (on purpose or through ignorance) been the leading antagonist myself. But, being an Active Bystander is like a muscle–you need to keep working at it, and readjusting your form as you grow, and learning from your mistakes. For kids, understanding the Active Bystander framework will not make them superhero bystanders every time, but it will make it easier for them to apply these tools in new situations as they grow.

How do I teach a young person about being an Active Bystander?

Quick Note: For the sake of simplicity, I am going to use the term “bullying” to describe a negative encounter and “bully” to describe the perpetrator. In a larger picture, “bullying” is a placeholder for a large number of actions, including harassment and oppression.

As I laid out before, an effective Active Bystander can:

  • Identify Bullying Situations
  • Assess Safety
  • Take Action
  • Reflect

Your approach should depend largely on the age and cognitive development of the specific child. Regardless of age, though, it’s important to start with the basics: building empathy. And one of the best ways to do this is to expose them to the stories of people from different cultures, socio-economic backgrounds, and abilities. One of my favorite TED Talks, “The Danger of a Single Story,” does a great job of delving into this. Through exposure to a wide variety of perspectives, it becomes easier to see when something is not as it should be.

So, for the youngest children–toddlers through age 6 or so–I’d recommend just focusing on building empathy. Here are some of ideas on how to do that:

  • Read books and watch movies and TV that feature a diverse range of main characters. Although there’s still a long way to go, we are lucky to live in a time when more and more children’s media features protagonists of diverse backgrounds. Take some time to consider whose story might not be represented in your child’s life, and do a quick search online to find good options. 
  • Attend cultural events that are not related to your personal background. Set an example for how to respectfully participate and appreciate someone else’s culture. In the Philadelphia area, we are lucky to have access to a wide variety of heritage festivals to choose from.
  • Teach them a mantra. One I particularly like is, “I see you. I hear you. I love you.” This emphasizes the importance of recognizing and respecting other people’s perspectives.

For children in elementary school and up, an exploration of Active Bystander Awareness can be steered by the youth themself. The adult acts more as a facilitator. Like with younger children, you want to begin by assessing what sort of stories are being represented in the books, TV, and movies your family consumes. Is there anyone missing? Help build up that diverse knowledge base so they are able to take that first step of being an Active Bystander.

When the time seems right–maybe they are responding to something on TV or sharing a story about seeing someone bullied at school–here are some questions that can get the conversation going, and an activity that will help them develop their Active Bystander skills:

  • Ask them for an example of a time when they saw someone being bullied, and they didn’t do anything.
  • Help them reflect on why they didn’t do anything. Did someone else try an intervention? Did it work?
  • Using that example (or another like it), brainstorm different interventions. Make sure you emphasize that violence is not an option. It’s okay if some of the suggestions are silly. Don’t hold judgement as you’re brainstorming.
  • Act the scenario out! Be the bully, and recruit another family member to play the bullied. Have the youth be the Active Bystander and try out some different scenarios. The most important thing is not to solve the situation with “magic”–each character needs to respond realistically. So, if one of the interventions is the wacky offer to fly away on unicorns, the bully can respond with anything…except jumping on a unicorn steed. Instead, the bully might scoff and say, “What are you, crazy?” and leave the situation OR turn on the Active Bystander instead. Keep in mind that this is rehearsal for real-life situations, and although it can be fun, it is important to show realistic consequences for one’s choices.
  • Reflect on what worked and what didn’t. Why do you think that’s how it turned out? For older kids, delve into how their interventions made you feel as the bully. This helps youth understand that the outcomes are not all black and white–with some interventions, the situation is unaffected, with others, everyone leaves happy. But with most, the results are somewhere in-between.

I cannot overemphasize how important it is for this conversation to be more than just words–studies have shown that just talking about intervening as an Active Bystander is not enough. People of any age are more likely to intervene in a real-life situation if they have the opportunity to practice in a safe, supportive environment. And the more people are willing to step into these difficult social situations, the more a community develops a helping culture, where everyone feels a level of responsibility for the safety and well-being of their neighbors.

Remind yourselves and your children that there is hope amidst the fear. As a society, let’s look for the helpers, learn from the helpers, and then be the helpers.

For more information and resources on Active Bystander Awareness, check out this Active Bystander Orientation at the Digital Library Federation.

Have questions, comments, or ideas to share? Feel free to leave them here or email Little Theater Workshop at Wishing you all safety and good health!

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