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Can citizenship programs help to solve the bullying problem?

Jessica-Russo.jpgBullying is in the news again. It may have contributed to yet another school shooting in Chardon, Ohio this week. Bullying is not a product of a modern age, but has been increasingly scrutinized in the past decade. After the Columbine High School massacre U.S. Secret Service officials found that bullying "in terms that approached torment," played a part in two-thirds of the 37 premeditated school shootings they analyzed.

The effects and causes of bullying are complex. According to Limber, individual, familial, societal and community factors play roles, and the impacts can be physical, emotional and psychological for victims, perpetrators, and witnesses.

With such a complex topic, how can the field of youth development make an impact? I believe that an emphasis on citizenship in out-of-school time youth programs can contribute to a solution.

In 2010, National 4-H began to shape a 4-H Citizenship Mission Mandate to ensure that the 4-H Youth Development Program can provide the best opportunities for young people to become engaged and make a difference in their communities.

In Minnesota 4-H, we are working to define what constitutes solid citizenship programming for our youth and adults, not only to help youth acquire personal skills for success, but to help them acquire interpersonal skills that benefit society. This is where the anti-bullying effort comes into play.

Sherrod, Flanagan, and Youniss point out that in the context of youth development, "Citizenship ... has to involve multiple components if we are to understand its development in diverse populations in this country." A definition of global citizenship, offered by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, is "a continuum going from being aware of the interdependent nature of our world, to understanding how local and global issues affect the well-being of people around the world, to committing or taking actions to create a more equitable world." Taking this point of view into account, these components effectively describe what we hope our youth will gain through participation in Minnesota 4-H Citizenship Programs:
  • The ability to move beyond self-interest to expressing concern for others

  • A sense of connectedness to a group (including the nation and world)

  • The ability to respectfully listen to and consider differing experiences and opinions

  • The ability to compromise

  • Understanding of the rights and responsibilities of a citizen in a democracy and how action or inaction contributes to one's nation state, as well as to the world

  • Commitment to creating a more equitable world

The teaching of empathy is a common element in violence prevention, and youth programs focused on developing citizenship provide a natural platform for helping young people understand how they connect with others. Foundational research on resiliency has found that the opportunity for meaningful involvement and responsibility can be an important protective factor for youth by helping them connect to society. Perhaps this feeling of connectedness, coupled with the ability to empathize, is the key to combating bullying as a cultural phenomenon. And what better way to do strengthen this ability than by showing young people how they are and can be, now, responsible, positively contributing citizens.

Could an emphasis on citizenship help to create an environment in which young people consider several points of view (victim, perpetrator, witness) in a bullying scenario? What strategies have you used to encourage youth to reflect and act on their values?

-- Jessica Russo, assistant Extension professor and director, Urban Youth Development Office

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  1. Hello Jessica –
    I think you are really on to something here with the focus on citizenship. In his literature, James Garbarino writes about the importance of young people connecting to something larger than themselves. This connection can help young people to create a sense of purpose; expand one’s worldview; build relationships among people, ideas, forces and events; strengthen self and more. He also writes about raising children in a social toxic environment. As I read your blog, I see some of those ideas reflected in your words as you discuss global citizenship. Also, I am particularly drawn to your point about teaching empathy and framing as a part of citizenship. How have you introduced or taught empathy to youth? I am interested in your approach.

  2. Hi, Jennifer. James Garbarino is a wonderful source for these ideas, and I think it's that sense of purpose that is the key--how can we foster a sense of purpose that helps youth see tangibly their connection to others? And empathy plays a major role in this because it involves the ability to see varying points of view and have a desire to find answers when those points of view don't make sense.
    One of the ways that 4-H and other youth-serving organizations go about nurturing this sense of empathy through connection is by providing opportunities for service learning as a fundamental method for helping youth acquire both personal and interpersonal leadership and citizenship skills. The National Youth Leadership Council describes it as “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.”
    Another way we nurture empathy is through youth engagement. With this approach, adults invite youth to authentically participate in driving their own learning. This participation can occur incrementally--from providing choices, to involving them in planning and leading activities or projects. Above all, youth engagement as an approach is about seeing young people as resources and providing meaningful opportunities for them to immerse themselves in their own progress as learners.
    What are some ways that others find useful in nurturing empathy and helping youth tangibly see positive connection with others?

  3. Thank you for your article Jessica. As caring adults, we need to continue discussing this problem until it ceases to exist. As school policy debates reveal (such as the recent incidents in the Anoka-Hennepin district), adults often ignore the effects of bullying on everyday lives of youth-the victims, bullies and witnesses-in favor of promoting social or political agendas. These agendas have forced teachers to ignore bullying or be silent of issues that have the ability to create caring and connected youth. Fortunately, Anoka-Hennepin has changed their policy. Unfortunately, it was at a high cost to the students, families and teachers in the district (
    I have seen the effects of fostering connectedness with young people on bullying. Understanding peers, neighbors and the community on a deeper level (as in citizenship and service learning programs) goes a long way towards preventing and eliminating such harmful behavior. Partnered with adults who have a no-tolerance policy and an openness to discussion, the power of connection can have a dramatic impact on how young people treat and think about their relationships with other people, places and world-views. Citizenship and service learning, with it's emphasis on personal responsibility, provides an opportunity for youth to reflect on their fundamental values, shared ideals for our world, and how their actions affect others in many different contexts.

  4. This is a good point, Jess--it's important for youth-related policies to reflect positive youth development. Studies on bullying reveal "ignoring" as a common practice that experts say actually reinforces the bullying behavior. How closely do policy-makers pay attention to these studies?
    Your point about the power of youth-adult partnerships is also a good one. It's important for young people to be able to talk openly with adults--this allows them a way to explore and develop their own views, feel that their ideas count (no matter how well they are formed), and hopefully be challenged to think in new ways. And if this adult is paying attention, they are offering plenty of opportunity to help the young person understand their community "on a deeper level," as you say.

  5. Empathy is such a key word and focal point to anti-bullying programs and when I think about the idea of teaching empathy to youth, I agree that it’s all about building connections and the importance of belonging. I have experienced and seen empathy occur through transformative experiences where people are able to really put themselves in another person’s shoes and connect to their worlds. Authentic empathy is hard to teach because so much of it is learned through experiences and conversations with people.
    The idea of citizenship programs fostering empathy reminds me of my experience bringing a group of youth to the National 4-H Citizenship Washington Focus experience, an intensive citizenship experience. Although the curricula and activities youth participated in cultivated their leadership and citizenship skills, the more impactful learning happened organically. In this experience, youth learned empathy by building relationships and seeing the world from their friend’s perspectives during the 20 hour bus ride and in emotional side conversations in rooms during breaks. This demonstrates how setting up that safe and supportive environment can be just as important as the citizenship activities youth workers plan.

  6. Thanks, Erica. I agree! Without that safe and supportive environment, any activity you try in order to foster citizenship can seem insincere. That safe environment creates its own culture that naturally weeds out bullying behavior. You mentioned that some of the most meaningful time is that informal time that youth have to connect with one another--what are some ways you've found helpful in structuring programs where this time can occur?

  7. Youth service programs can most certainly improve young people's (and older people's) sense of empathy and efficacy if done well, with the right preparation and education about the topic or issue (whether homelessness, hunger, bullying, immigration, etc.). Without proper learning before the experience and useful reflection after, however, they can unwittingly have the opposite effect.
    I once evaluated a youth service program in a wealthy western suburb in which the young people were doing charity-type of service, as opposed to social change-type of service, at a women and children's shelter. Many felt sorry for the shelter inhabitants--certainly a far stretch from empathy--but even more blamed the victims and couldn't understand why these women didn't just "pick themselves up by their bootstraps and get a job," or thought that "these women are just losers!" I'll never forget that experience--of seeing the difference between charity work and social change work.
    Having said this, I do agree with your assertion that empathy and role-taking ability is the antithesis of bullying and that any good service or citizenship program should have this as a goal. Noteworthy is that one of the reasons we see a spike in interest in altruism and service at about 7th grade is that developmentally, role-taking or perspective-taking ability reaches maturity in early adolescence. Thanks for the insights Jessica! best, beki

  8. Beki, I completely agree. There is definitely a difference between "service" projects and "service learning." The important component of service learning, of course, is the learning! I love how the National Youth Leadership Council ( describes service learning--they list nine essential elements of service learning, among which are
    ● Partnerships. Making sure partnerships are collaborative, mutually beneficial and addressing community needs,
    ● Reflection. Providing multiple challenging reflection activities that are ongoing and that prompt deep thinking and analysis about oneself and one’s relationship to society,
    ● Meaningful Service. Engaging participants in meaningful and personally relevant service activities, and
    ● Diversity. Promoting understanding of diversity and mutual respect among all participants
    I think the element of reflection is particularly important to counteracting prejudice and ensuring that the service people are providing becomes a true learning rather than mis-educative experience.
    The assertion that altruism and service reaches maturity around 7th grade is important to consider--all the more reason to start early in cultivating empathy and a sense of connection.
    Culture is one of many factors that result in the condoning of bullying. Studies have attempted, with varying levels of success, to link individualism vs. collectivism to attitudes towards bullying. What does your experience tell you about this linkage?

  9. Bullying is a result of kids feeling disconnected, marginalized and dealing with low self esteem. I agree whole heartedly that being civically minded and involved in character building clubs is a huge combatant to our bullying issues.
    -Mike Hall
    Charlotte, NC

  10. Thank you for your comments, Mike. What are some successful strategies that you find most useful?


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