Beyond bullying prevention: Addressing bullying through positive youth development

Youth development experts say prevention is not enough; learn about other measures that must be considered.

Bullying is widespread in the U.S. and of great concern to many families, educators, youth workers and other community members. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bullying is a form of youth violence that can cause physical injury, social and emotional distress, and even death. Bullying has serious consequences that put youth at risk for substance abuse, academic problems, mental health issues and violence in late adolescence and adulthood.

While these concerns are valid, a focus on “preventing” bullying is not enough. Too many programs come from a deficit approach and focus on bullying as a set of problem behaviors to be eliminated and prevented. In addition, these prevention efforts often frame the issue as a “youth problem,” rather than examining the complex issues surrounding bullying through larger institutional, cultural and societal influences that impact young peoples’ development. According to Karen Pittman of the Forum for Youth Investment, prevention is an important but inadequate goal. Pittman says, “Problem-free is not fully prepared,” and adds that “Fully prepared is not fully engaged.”

Several youth development experts have built a framework for Positive Youth Development out of what has become known as the “Five Cs”: competence, confidence, connection, character and caring. Some stress that a “Sixth C” – contribution – is essential to the kind of youth engagement necessary for positive youth development and positive community change.

Using the Six Cs as a guide, here are suggestions for taking a positive youth development approach to anti-bullying efforts:


Includes cognitive, academic, social and emotional competencies. Engage young people as full partners in your efforts. Tap their wisdom, assets and strengths and provide opportunities for them to practice decision-making and problem-solving skills, and engage in dialogue around the complex issues of bullying. Provide opportunities to develop social and emotional intelligence and help kids learn to address bullying from “the inside out.”


Refers to an internal sense of positive self-worth and self-efficacy. Developing a positive identity can be challenging when young people beginning at early ages hear biased remarks that target them and others based on differences and other aspects of who they are. Unfortunately, kids (and adults) get a steady diet of shame-based messages that say they are not okay or “not enough,” which can undermine healthy development. Learn more about the role shame plays in bullying and help kids develop shame resiliency. Nurture healthy individual and group identity development across race, gender, class and other differences.


Young people need to feel a sense of belonging and establish positive bonds with peers, families, schools, communities and the earth. Help youth develop sustained, caring, healthy relationships and become allies to each other to address bullying. Work with youth to create safe, affirming and fair environments across community settings.


Includes a commitment to shared values such as integrity, respect, trustworthiness, fairness, responsibility, compassion, freedom and unity. Instead of simply working to “prevent bullying” and other problem behaviors, adults need to model these important character traits – and nurture young people’s natural inclination and development toward these values throughout their lives.


Developing compassion, caring and empathy is one of the most important aspects of positive youth development. Provide opportunities for young people to develop caring relationships – particularly across differences. Young people report that people are often targets of bullying behavior because of real or perceived “differences.” Adults have an important role to play in helping kids learn about differences in healthy ways.


Young people need and want to be full participants in the life of organizations and communities to which they belong. Children are not “the future.” They are thepresent – and they long to be engaged in meaningful ways around important issues that impact their lives. The contributions they make enhance their own development – and their engagement is essential if we want to make significant positive changes around issues of bullying in our communities. Create opportunities for young people to put the other Cs of Positive Youth Development (competence, confidence, connection, character and caring) to work through purposeful and meaningful contribution to your bullying efforts.

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