Drama is a Powerful Tool to Address Bullying

drama is powerful tool for anti-bullying

Some of you requested more help with addressing bullying behaviors in your classrooms and wondered what choices you might make in selecting and devising drama work. 

Drama is a powerful tool in addressing bullying.  It must be used consistently and over time to be effective.  A onetime experience is not enough to provide the outcome we all desire.  This is another in a series of articles that explains steps you might take, safely, to move your classroom, school, community group, or program to a bully free zone through the experiences of dramatic play.

Here are some ideas for classroom practice.  Please, as always, share with me any of your ideas, activities, and questions!

Why Drama?

Research shows that young people need:

  •   – A way to practice anti-bullying behaviors.
  •   – Ways to step out of themselves, in a safe environment, and look at the problem from a distance.
  •   – To develop a common vocabulary and language among peers to discuss and create an anti-bullying culture.

In the first article on Anti-bullying, I mentioned that the simple act of taking on a role sets a young person outside of themselves and provides a safe distance to explore proper language and actions that might be used in a bullying situation. Let’s delve a bit deeper into this aspect of dramatic work. I want to take a closer look at those who stand by and watch: the observers – the bystanders. 


Bystanders can remain innocent by not getting involved in the bullying event.


Most bullying is public, done in front of others. Bystanders are “assistants” to bullies. If a bystander does not report the bully, move to protect the victim, or attempt to deter the bully in any way, he is, in fact, a contributor to the bullying. Bystanders only support the bullying victim in some way in 25% of reported cases.

I didn’t do anything.

This is a familiar refrain when addressing young people who witnessed someone else being bullied.  How do we flip this concept so that students might support the target of the bully’s aggressive behaviors in a safe and productive manner? We want to begin by having the students be able to understand bullying roles through distancing – nothing accusatory or laying blame. Drama is perfect for accomplishing this. We want to give students the knowledge of how to diffuse a bullying action when they witness it or know about it. We also want them to have the confidence of when and how to seek help.

Activity Idea #1 “Role on the Wall.”

Have someone lie down on a long sheet of white paper and trace an outline of that person using a washable marker. (I find that this is best to be done before class as the figure should be anonymous.) Hang this figure of a human, the ROLE, up on the wall.

  1. First label the Role on the Wall as: SCHOOL BULLY (you might have that label written on a strip of paper that you hang over the bully’s head).
  2. Have the students find a space facing the Bully. Ask them to think how close or far away they might stand to show their personal feelings about people who bully others. Tap students and have them tell you why they chose the space they did.
  3. Next, have each student make a shape with their body that indicates how they feel looking at this Bully: are they scared, determined, shy, angry, empowered, etc.? Again, tap some of them to tell you the emotion they are communicating.
  4. Have them think of something the Bully might have done…what is it she did? What would they say to the Bully? What would the words be? How loud would they say it? Give them time to think. As you move about the room and tap some of them on the shoulder, have them speak their words/lines in character to the Bully. You might also choose to have them all speak simultaneously or half the room at a time.

Partner the students and have them share their statues, their lines, and their vocal choices with each other. Have them decide how they can work together to create a moment where these two friends speak to the Bully. They can choose to become one statue, two identical statues, or keep their original shaped statues. Have them decide how they will speak and what they will say to this Bully. Let partners share their ideas. Have some or all partners share their moment. Have them think what words might make a situation worse and what words might help diffuse the situation or cause it to stop.

Activity idea #2 The Bystander

Change the label of the Role on the Wall from BULLY to BYSTANDER.

  1. Ask the partners to come up with a bullying event this Bystander observed. Explain that their job is now going to be as an assistant to the Bystander in aiding the target and getting the bullying to stop.
  2. Give each set of partners three sticky notes of different colors.
    1. The first color: Students write the bullying event that is happening and describe how close the Bystander stands to the event.
    2. The second color: Students write words the Bystander could say to the Bully or to the Target to help the situation.
    3. The third color: Students write what the Bystander should do next.
  3. The partners come forward and stick the notes onto the body of the ROLE.
  4. Have three students come forward, with each reading all of the notes of one of the colors.
  5. Conduct a discussion (not a lecture…and keep your ideas to a minimum) about what they heard and how a Bystander can be a Hero or can be part of the Bullying event if they do nothing. Hear what the students think about this. Again, discuss which lines escalate and which can calm a situation.
  6. Have one partner become the Bully and the other the Bystander. Have them create a scene where the Bystander (either during or after a bullying event) comes forward and speaks to the Bully. The Bully might also speak to the Bystander. As they plan ask the following:
    • How close is the Bystander standing to the Bully?
    • How is the Bully feeling? The Bystander?
    • What is the event that is taking place?
    • What are the words the Bystander speaks?
    • How do they want to end their scene?
    • Use ideas from our Bystander on the Wall!
  1. (An alternate idea to use: Give each pair of partners three random sticky notes on which to base their scene.)
  2. Have the partners switch roles and plan a second scene. If time permits, have the students share their scenes.
  3. Continue the class discussion about the role and responsibility of the Bystander.

The above activities give students distance and a framework in which to express their ideas. You, as the teacher, will learn about their thoughts on Bullies and Bystanders. This also provides material to move deeper into longer scenes regarding bullying incidents and how Bystanders can become Heroes.

by Karen Erickson

Karen Erickson

Related Posts

Using Drama to Address Bullying Behaviors

Some of you requested more help with addressing bullying behaviors in your classrooms and wondered what choices you might make in selecting and devising drama work. 

Drama is a powerful tool in addressing bullying.  It must be used consistently and over time to be effective.  A onetime experience is not enough to provide the outcome we all desire.  This is the first in a series of articles that explains steps you might take, safely, to move your classroom, school, community group, or program to a bully free zone through the experiences of dramatic play.

Here are some ideas for classroom practice.  Please, as always, share with me any of your ideas, activities, and questions!

Why Drama?

Research shows that young people need:

  •   – A way to practice anti-bullying behaviors.
  •   – Ways to step out of themselves, in a safe environment, and look at the problem from a distance.
  •   – To develop a common vocabulary and language among peers to discuss and create an anti-bullying culture.

Drama provides a safe place for young people to practice anti-bullying behaviors.  They take on roles that are different from themselves and can speak “in role” about their feelings and thoughts.  This simple act of taking on a role, sets a young person outside of themselves and provides a safe distance to explore proper language and actions that might be used in a bullying situation. As they work through dramatic experiences, they gain a shared vocabulary which provides a confidence in speaking about bullying behaviors with their peers. This sharing of ideas and having the right words to speak can carry over into experiences outside of the classroom where they might need to draw upon their own internal strength to confront a bully, support a target, or stand up against inappropriate behavior in others.  It is best to remember that this dramatic impact happens when drama is taught in a sequence and it is NOT a singular event.

Why is a Sequential Approach Necessary?

Judith Kase-Polinsini in her book The Creative Drama Book: Three Approaches explains that

“….many teacher curriculum guides suggest that the teacher ‘have the children act out the story’ as though by simply telling a group to get up and act it out, something will happen and have educational value.”   

Often we see Character Education Curricula include role playing situations where the participants are asked to improvise scenes involving bullying.  When teachers are asked how effective these scenes were, they often answer that the students were silly, didn’t take the situations seriously, and/or created scenes with little focus on the topic.  If participants have little background in drama, they don’t know the protocols of the art form, they don’t know the proper way to approach improvisational scene work, they cannot “read or write” with the aesthetics of the art form:  body language, emotional communication, and language choice. So, of course, they don’t know what to do with the task at hand. This is why the following drama content/protocols are recommended integrated with or leading up to a bullying curriculum where drama is used as an exploration tool:

  •   – set a routine for beginning and ending drama, scenes, and planning sessions.
  •   – set a signal for gaining attention when needed,
  •   – introduce grade level appropriate drama vocabulary and practice, (i.e. concentration, imitation, transformation, collaboration, and imagination)
  •   – share beginning classroom protocols and expectations, and
  •   – introduce the notion that your classroom will be a creative place where content will be introduced through active learning and smiles.

Ideas to begin your work

I recommend starting with a bullying topic you would like to discuss with the participants.  Let’s look at the following myth and reality about bullying.


You can spot a bully by the way he looks, her background, or home life.


Bullying is learned and is best recognized by the behavior. Bullies come from all walks of life and have no certain “look.”


Bullies look like us.  They are us. They come in all shapes, sizes, ages, genders, etc.  Participants often think they have a stereotypical look. 

Idea:    Begin with a photo of a “normal” person who turns out to be a bully.   In “The Daydreamer” by Ian MacEwan on page 97 (in the chapter titled “The Bully“) there is a fabulous picture of a young man who looks clean cut and studious but who is actually the school bully.   Without revealing the truth behind the picture, share it with the students and have them infer what they think the author or illustrator is telling them about the person through the image on the page.  Have them get up and become the person:  what is his posture, facial expression, walk, gestures?  Have them random walk around the room imitating actions you might suggest, i.e. walk down a street looking for an address, walk up a hill carrying a bucket of water, etc.

 Next, partner the students and have them create a dialogue between the person and one of his classmates, between the person and his teacher, between the person and his parents. (Be sure to give the partners actions to perform as they create their dialogue, e.g. the person and his classmate shoot baskets as they have a conversation; the person and his mom build a city with Legos as they dialogue; etc. You might also give them a topic but, rather, let them plan their own topic.)  Have participants share their scenes and discuss the internal characteristics of the person.  Then you might reveal that he/she is a bully and yet looks so “normal.” 

(If using The Daydreamer, you might want to block out the image of the monster that is reflected in the boy’s shadow or discuss that shadow as well. A conversation between the boy and the shadow following him is another great idea for a scene.)   

All partners work simultaneously in planning and practicing their scenes.  You can then use one of the strategies to view student work that you can find in a resource on my site titled, “Techniques for Viewing Classroom Drama.”

Lastly, have participants again create the walk, posture, gestures, etc. of the person as they move about the room and imitate different actions.  Then discuss changes they made to their characterization and ask them why as… there should have been no changes.  Bullies are normal and are often invisible. 

Any photo, actually, will do as the participants explore a seemingly normal character that you later reveal is a bully in a story….a story you create, or they create, or that you find. 

The take away here is that a bully looks like a normal person, like you and me. 

We must remember that when people harm others, often the people closest to them say they had no idea the person was violent or that the person would take such action.  They are surprised as the person looked so normal.    

This is an easy start before you move into larger, longer scene work. 

I will be moving through other ideas and next steps in blog articles to come up next.

by Karen Erickson

Karen Erickson

Related Posts

Toward a Peaceful, Anti-Bullying Classroom


Many educators have requested some deeper thinking about Character Education and Anti-Bullying in regards to drama teaching.  I want to start a discussion here.  Please add your thoughts to the conversation

Toward a Peaceful, Anti-Bullying Classroom

Building character and working toward peaceful, harmonious classrooms, void of bullying and negativity toward others is a goal we all strive for in education.  Drama is a powerful tool to make this a reality because it deals with human conflict and resolution, understanding the impact of emotions and empathy on events, and the morality and ethics of human behavioral choices.  Dorothy Heathcote used to say, “Drama is about real man in a mess.”  The three areas on which I like to focus drama work when planning for character education and social/emotional learning are:

Developing Personal Character Traits where students practice empathy for others and demonstrate respect through word and action.  During this practice students analyze emotions and actions that cause emotional reactions.  They discuss consequences of choices and “try on” character traits that are different from themselves.  In addition it is about having students study the lives of real people who have displayed character traits to be emulated and playing out scenes from the lives of those individuals.

Handling Conflict and Teamwork where students analyze the nature of conflict through identifying the types of conflict, discussing stereotyping, exploring alternative courses of action, discussing the causes of conflict, and analyzing conflict in literature. Here they also have a chance to predict consequences, practice negotiation strategies, demonstrate group dynamics, listening and brainstorming. Lastly, there is also a focus on emotion management where students identify emotions and physical reactions to those emotions while uncovering actions that cause them to feel certain ways.

Self Esteem and Self-Care where students learn to like and care for the self. This area is about developing trust for others; taking risks in doing something outside of their comfort area, and building pride in one’s own skills while acquiring self- knowledge.

I have included a chart below that illustrates how these three areas work with drama and with lessons you will find online at OneStopDRAMAShop.com.  Classrooms can reflect cohesion and camaraderie. Bullying can be eliminated and replaced with empathy.  Drama is one anti-bullying tool that can move that process quickly along.

Drama Lessons & Character Education Chart

Download this chart that links drama lessons to support character education. 

by Karen Erickson

Karen Erickson

Related Posts

The Bystander

the bystander

This being a month that focuses on the subject of bullying, I wanted to address a sometimes forgotten role in a bullying situation: the bystander.  In speaking with a group of middle schoolers recently, I was reminded by them of some of the reasons they do not get involved in bullying situations:  worries about becoming the next target, not being believed, being criticized by other peers for tattling, not trusting adults to take care of the situation properly, or lacking inner courage.  Listening to their personal stories touched me deeply.

More classroom emphasis on bullying through role playing could provide students with alternative actions and language to use when witnessing a bullying situation.  Drama provides the perfect “practice” opportunity through dialogue and decision making.  Drama also gives students a chance to discuss the bystander role in a group/ensemble situation where they learn what others think and how they might support each other.  Peer learning is powerful in drama.

Another opportunity to consider the importance of the bystander is to look at age appropriate literature and film.  In many stories, we might refer to the antagonist as a bully and the protagonist as a target.  Instead of looking at the main characters, focus on the “bystanders,” those characters that support the protagonist and antagonist.  Who gets involved?  At what risk?  Why do they get involved?  How do they support either side?  What character traits do they exhibit?  Do they change and in what way? 

One example is Abiyoyo by Pete Seeger.  The father in the story bullies people with his magic.  The people in the town stand up to him.  They are bystanders that take action.  The father’s son is also a bystander who ultimately helps his father use his magic for good.  The bystander aspect of this story is often ignored in end-of-lesson reflection.  I recommend finding good stories with bystander action or inaction that you would like to address and allow that to lead to deep discussions about the choices bystanders make.

Also, don’t ignore history.  When studying historical moments and the people involved, take the time to go deeper in discussion.  Focus on the role of bystanders who ultimately came forward in those moments and made a difference.  Again, ask the same questions:  Who gets involved?  At what risk?  Etc.

I have included two poems I wrote for drama lessons that address the different roles in a bullying situation.  Both of the included poems focus on the bystander role.  Groups of students were given a poem and asked to create a drama answering the same questions as above through their devised/improvised story.  These dramas became great conversation starters in which I learned more about student thinking than I ever did in general classroom discussions on bullying. 

Let me know how they work for you.

What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor but the silence of the bystander.
Elie Wiesel, Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor

by Karen Erickson

Karen Erickson

What to Do? 

by Karen L. Erickson


I see the boy

Who forces Frank down.

His head hits hard

Upon the ground.

What should I do?

I don’t know what to say.

Should I help?

Or should I run away?

Who Am I?

by Karen L. Erickson


I thought I was a tattler

When I went to get assistance

For the new boy being pushed.

This was the second instance.

The boy was safe.

The teacher told me I did right.

Someone could have been extremely hurt

If there had been a fight.

So now I’m thinking,

Tattling and telling aren’t the same.

With telling you keep others safe,

Protecting them from pain.

Teaching Character Education

teaching character education

We all like lists.  Everyone is familiar with "top 10" lists, so we thought we'd put one together.  Here you go: Top 10 reasons why drama or theater works for teaching character education:

  1. Establishes a sense of safety.  Young people need a place to experience how the actions of one person might affect the reactions of another person.

  2. Transmits societal values.  Societies survive and thrive by transmitting its values to the present and next generations.  Through plays and stories of people past and present, we transmit the way humans should shape their lives.  Through viewing plays, students see the actions of humans carried out.  Through performance students experience the moments.

  3. Teaches moral lessons through story.  If little time is spent at home in the teaching of moral behavior, drama in the classroom provides the students with an opportunity to experience lessons captured in stories.

  4. Presents universal moral and ethical themes.  Through the enacted stories of people past and present, educators can pave a universal avenue to themes that support ethical and moral choices.  Providing clear dramatic examples, lived through dramatic enactment, set a standard for young people even in our value conflicted society.

  5. Allows students to practice making ethical choices in adult guided situations.  To sustain a democracy, people need to make good moral and ethical choices.  Young people need to practice and discuss these choices in adult guided situations.

  6. Enacting stories has a greater impact than merely reading.  No story is free from communicating values, ethical decisions, or showing moral living.  When the stories are enacted, they have a greater impact because the students are active in problem solving, relating situations to their own lives, and walking for a moment in the shoes of someone else – seeing the world from a different perspective.

  7. The great stories and the great dramas are based on these essential ethical questions: “How shall I live my life?”  “How shall I get along with others?”  “How do I do the right thing in the midst of so much pressure?”  “Why should I lead a good moral life?”

  8. There is growing need for more avenues to teach character education in the schools.

  9. Creates future artists who will communicate values.  The artists of the future, those who will create the stories for the next generations, need to experience how values are shared through story.

  10. The art form is based on characters in conflict with a problem to resolve.  How and why a character does what they do, is fertile ground for the study of good character trait development – it is a deeper study of motivation.

You can download this top ten list as a PDF.

We posted a new lesson series in the DRAMAShop on character education and peaceful problem solving.  These lessons apply techniques from drama to demonstrate what makes each person special and how emotions drive our actions.  These lessons are available to members -- JOIN to download them today!