Who is involved?

On this page:

Bullying incidents generally involve three different roles: initiators (those doing the bullying), targets (those being bullied), and bystanders (those who witness the bullying). 

Bullying Roles


Students who bully others often do so to gain status and recognition from their peers. Their bullying behaviour is reinforced when they intimidate their targets and when the peer group colludes by not challenging the initiator or reporting the bullying to staff.

Bullying can be rewarding, increasing the initiator's social status while lowering the social status of their target. The culture of a school will strongly influence the extent to which this occurs.


Students of all ages can be  at relatively greater risk of being bullied (that is, being targets) for a whole host of reasons, including:

  • being unassertive or withdrawn (for example, isolated students with low self-esteem)
  • differing from the majority culture of a school in terms of ethnicity, cultural or religious background, sexual orientation, gender identity, or socio-economic status; having a disability, special education needs or mental health issues
  • academic achievement (being perceived as a high or low achiever)
  • having recently transitioned into a school (through natural progression through schools, changing to a new school because of behavioural issues at a previous school, or moving to the area from another city or country).

The terms 'initiator' and 'target' are used to refer to bullying behaviour. This is in preference to 'bully' and 'victim' as these terms tend to label individuals.

Importance of focusing on bystander behaviour within schools

Bystanders are students who witness bullying. 

They can be powerful influencers — how they react can either encourage or inhibit those who bully others.

There are three main types of bystander:

  • followers (assistants) - do not initiate, but take an active role in the bullying behaviour
  • supporters (reinforcers) - do not actively attack the target, but give positive feedback to the initiator, providing an audience by laughing and making other encouraging gestures
  • defenders - dislike the bullying and try to help the target by intervening, getting teacher support (using safe telling) or providing direct support to the target
  • outsiders - stay away, do not taking sides with anyone or become actively involved, but allow the bullying to continue by their 'silent approval'.

Bystanders can play a number of different roles:

  • helping students who are bullying and actively joining in
  • encouraging or showing approval to the students who are bullying
  • doing nothing or being passive
  • defending or supporting the student who is being bullied by intervening, getting help or comforting them.

Bystanders who take no action of behave in ways that give silent approval (watching, nodding, turning a blind eye)encourage the bullying behaviour to continue. Teaching bystanders to respond appropriately (by discouraging, intervening in or reporting bullying) can be an effective way to limit and prevent bullying.

St Francis de Sales School, Wellington


Video icon

The fluid nature of bullying

All students have the potential to occupy at least one of these roles (that is, target, initiator, or bystander) at some point in their school life. All students will transition to a new school at least once, placing them at higher risk of being bullied. It is possible that students could be in two categories at once. For example, a student could be both a target and an initiator. This is why it is important to involve all students in bullying prevention strategies and to ensure they are aware of their rights and responsibilities. Everyone has a role to play in preventing bullying behaviour. Bystanders need to know that responding appropriately (by discouraging, intervening in or reporting bullying) can be a very effective way to limit the impacts of, and even prevent, bullying behaviour.

Students can move in and out of the roles of initiator, target and bystander at different times. Therefore, it is important not to label particular students as 'bullies'. Because all students may be initiators, targets or bystanders at some time, they all need to take part in strategies to learn about bullying and how to respond to it.  Whole-school approaches such as PB4L: School-Wide(external link) take this approach and involve all staff and students.

For further information go to whole-school approaches.

Fluid nature of bullying

Video icon

Language Matters

Students can move between the roles of initiator, target and bystander at different times. That’s why it's more helpful to identify the inappropriate behaviour rather than label individual students as ‘bullies’ or ‘victims.’  

Written information and policies should reflect this by referring to 'students who engage in bullying' or 'students who bully others', and 'students who are bullied' or 'students who are the target of bullying'.

Using labels also suggests that bullying is due to something that can't be changed. Unfortunately, labels like 'bully' and 'victim' can stick and make it harder to change. These labels can cause more harm if the student accepts them as part of who they are. But with the right support, students can change the way they behave.