How Empathy, Kindness and Compassion Can Build Belongingness and Reduce Bullying

How Empathy, Kindness and Compassion Can Build Belongingness and Reduce Bullying Cyberbullying Research Center

I have known Dr. Patti Agatston for almost ten years now, and our work meets at the intersection of teens and technology. Justin and I hold her and her colleagues in the highest respect because like us, they make sure that the information they share is based on solid research instead of sensationalistic anecdotes or fluffy interpretations. Patti has served on the Board of Directors for the International Bullying Prevention Association for the past six years and helps the organization remain committed to providing excellent evidence-based and promising approaches to preventing bullying and improving school climate. She and I were recently chatting about the role of kindness in preventing bullying, and so I’ve asked her to share some of those thoughts below for our readers.

I have worked in a large suburban school district outside of Atlanta for the past 24 years and also consult with private and public schools throughout the country. I have co-authored a cyberbullying book and curriculum. I have trained schools in research-based bullying prevention programs and best practices, trained peer helpers, peer mediators, and Sources of Strength Peer Leaders, trained in Second Step Violence Prevention, Life Skills Training, and a variety of other programs and practices designed to reduce aggression and teach social-emotional skills to youth. Each of these programs and strategies, when offered with commitment and fidelity, can have something to offer to schools and communities. Thus I am not a fan of “one-size fits all” for bullying prevention and school climate initiatives. I believe each school needs to find the strategies that work best for their community and also consider layering and integrating strategies that complement one another, as was discussed at the Integrating School Climate and Reform Symposium held in July of 2015.

The symposium also highlighted the importance of student voice to reduce bullying. Recently, I have been particularly touched by three young women at a middle school in my county who approached the administration at their school last year because they were greatly saddened to hear of the death of a teen who felt isolated and excluded. These girls had never met this individual, but they followed her Tumblr account and it greatly impacted them. So they decided to do something. They started a student-led club at their school for anyone who felt excluded or just needed a few friends. I have an office at the school the girls attend and was so impressed with their kindness and compassion that I agreed to be their club sponsor. They had to have a sponsor to be an official club but they let me know right away that they would be planning the activities, bringing the snacks, getting the word out as they truly wanted it to be a student-run initiative.

And they have delivered. With little to no input from me they came up with a schedule last year that included board games, art activities, and activities to promote kindness such as posting inspirational quotes and caring messages on note cards around the school. Each club meeting they give out passes to attendees and encourage them to share the passes with other students who might need a friend or want to connect more with other students.

The club was a success last year and so it has returned this year. The young women are eighth graders now so they are looking for others to take on their message and goal of including others once they move on to high school. Each meeting, I sit quietly on the side, engaging if my opinion is asked, but primarily sitting back to watch these youth make a difference with their own high levels of kindness and compassion.

These young women have discovered important truths without my lecturing them. They intuitively understand the belonging principle. They know that when youth feel included and accepted there will likely be less bullying, less judgment, less cruelty. They understand that spreading kindness can move from a ripple to a wave and make all the difference among their peers. Maybe they developed more compassion as a result of attending an elementary school that had a great Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. Maybe they learned it from their family, or their faith community. But however they learned it – I am so grateful that they are using their convictions to make a difference. I should also note that this middle school has also implemented a character education program and is looking to incorporate restorative practices into their school culture. But how exciting to see young people take the lead in a strategy designed to directly impact their peers!

The approach of these young women fits beautifully with this year’s theme for the International Bullying Prevention Conference, “Reaching New Heights in Bullying Prevention through Empathy and Kindness. They provide an extremely strong and diverse set of workshop presentations and lengthier pre-conference trainings, and include student-led presentations. One such student-led presentation that I am particularly excited about is that of Trisha Prabhu. She is the 15 year old inventor of ReThink, a software program that recognizes common phrases used to cyberbully and responds with a popup that asks the writer, “Are you sure you want to do that?” Just this prompt alone appears to cause enough self-reflection that the writer decides not to post the message 93% of the time. Like the students who formed the club, Trisha also felt compelled to do something when reading about a student who died by suicide after experiencing a number of challenges including cyberbullying. Trisha’s empathy, compassion, and passion for coding came together as she worked in her own way towards contributing toward a solution. And that’s what we need from everyone.

While one action or strategy will likely not be sufficient for solving all of the challenges that we face when addressing bullying, each of us can contribute in some small way to spreading kindness and compassion that can improve our schools and communities. I hope to see you at the International Bullying Prevention Conference to learn more about creating empathy and spreading kindness! 


  1. We use Second Step in our school, and I agree that teaching empathy and compassion has definitely decreased the negative behaviors in my classes over the 3 years we've used it. Students are more mindful of others. They are choosing their words wisely, and this HAS to trickle into their online lives as well!

    ReThink seems like a tremendous tool for schools and parents. I wonder how difficult it would be to get parents to "buy in" and install it on their children's devices? Could schools have parent in-services to introduce and install? Bravo to Trisha for her innovation and compassion!

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