Empowering students to lead the fight against discrimination

Empowering students to lead the fight against discrimination

Research shows training is often more effective at reducing discrimination in schools than teacher-led initiatives alone. Put simply, young people are less likely to change behaviours when it comes to anti-bullying training because adults can find it difficult to understand the complex set of cultural factors that contribute to their experiences.

The Stand-Up Project (SUP), founded in 2019, is a training program for primary and secondary school students that responds to how young people experience and respond to discrimination, harassment, and bullying at school.

The training is based on peer-reviewed research and was refined through practice. In the training, students learn about the bystander effect (Latane and Darley, 1969) and the drivers and impacts of discrimination. Through the program, students identify the most age-appropriate ways to support victims and address poor behaviours. Supported by teachers and SUP staff, students then design class plans which they teach to younger students.

The program – now delivered to thousands of students across Australia and internationally – frames poor behaviour as a cultural problem that all students are responsible for addressing – it addresses behaviours, not individuals, and frames discrimination, harassment, and bullying as a collective responsibility. The training also builds a sense of agency and belonging amongst students, which means students own the program and feel responsible for its outcomes.

Below, The Educator speaks the founder and CEO of the Stand-Up Project, Dr Zach Greig, who brings nearly 20 years of experience researching and working with vulnerable community members. Holding a PhD in empowerment, Dr Greig has dedicated years to studying how upstanders can enhance community well-being and has collaborated with young people to co-design collective solutions aimed at addressing social challenges.

TE: I understand that you founded The Stand-Up Project while working at a Melbourne Secondary School in 2019 Looking back at your work during this time, what were some of the contributing factors that led to the inception of the program?

My students were incredibly capable, willing, and eager to foster change. I valued their perspectives and insights into the issues they were encountering and believed they are the solution. I saw an opportunity to develop an Upstander program that changed the narrative and drew upon my own research and other evidence, recognising that true cultural change comes from below and that students are the main stakeholders in improving school behaviour.

I aimed to create a program students could be proud of - a legacy that helped them, and their teachers and parents, navigate the complex issues of school behaviour. This program would ensure that students actively participated in identifying and addressing the unique issues they faced, fostering a positive and lasting impact on the school community.

TE: Drawing from your 20 years of experience researching and working with vulnerable community members, what are some limitations/pitfalls when it comes to existing approaches by schools to address discrimination, harassment, and bullying at school, and what makes The Stand Up Project’s strategies so successful?

The Stand-Up Project (SUP) was developed to address the limitations in existing programs. For example, in SUP, we empower students, build leadership capacity, and engage student voice in a truly authentic way. We build meaningful partnerships with schools and by virtue of the program embracing a bottom-up model, are able to focus on each school’s unique challenges, issues, and strengths.

We take this approach because research shows that students engage more with content aimed at reducing discrimination, harassment, and bullying when it is delivered by their peers rather than by adults. Adults can find it challenging to understand the complex set of social arrangements that make up a student’s culture. Students, on the other hand, have firsthand experience and often know the best ways to respond.

TE: Can you share a particularly uplifting/inspirational story that stands out and where the program has made a meaningful difference to a young person’s school experience?

97% of teachers and families report that they would recommend SUP to another school. A few student stories stand out. One student, who had never spoken in front of a crowd, confidently addressed 60 families about supporting neuro-diverse students through SUP. Another memorable moment was when a student told our facilitator it was the best program he had ever participated in.

One particularly inspiring story is about a group of students who created a hashtag to promote being Upstanders online, which went viral throughout the school. This led to a significant increase in students standing up against poor behaviour. Additionally, a principal remarked that the program had a substantial impact on student behaviour and how excited the leaders were to participate.

TE: Looking forward, are there any ways in which The Stand-Up Project will be scaling up/building on its success to help make school a place where kids love to go?

We are currently developing a suite of additional support resources. One of which includes a free webinar series for our partner schools. Our first webinar identifies the challenges principals and teachers encounter when engaging with families whose child may have been the target of poor behaviour or has exhibited poor behaviour. The aim of the webinar is to provide families with valuable insights on bullying in Australia, including practical strategies to support their children in preventing and responding. Additionally, the webinar will offer recommendations for empowering strategies to engage with teaching staff over these issues.

We are also looking to expand our other resources, too, including support kits for families, online learning module, bullying policy support, and collaborating with other professionals in the field of bullying prevention, including child psychologists and academics.