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Using Children's Literature to Increase Empathy and Help Students Cope with Bullying

  1. Overview and History of Bibliotherapy
  2. Benefits of Bibliotherapy
  3. Overview of Bullying in U.S. Schools
  4. Selecting Children's Literature that Addresses Bullying
  5. Using Children's Literature to Address Bullying
  6. Endnotes

"Come, and take choice of all my library, And so beguile thy sorrow…"
-- William Shakespeare, from Titus Andronicus

Overview and History of Bibliotherapy

In ancient Greece, the door of the library at Thebes bore the inscription, "The Healing Place of the Soul." For millennia, people have recognized the therapeutic value of literature. It is only over the last century, however, that an explicit practice has developed for using directed reading in the solution of personal problems. In a 1916 article in Atlantic Monthly, Samuel Crothers coined the term bibliotherapy when he combined the Greek words for book and healing to describe the "new science" of treating illnesses through literature. At that time, bibliotherapy was limited to hospital library services, where it was used to treat the mentally ill, help soldiers cope with wartime traumas, and to aid in the healing of disabled veterans. In 1946, Sister Mary Agnes published the first study on using bibliotherapy with children, and soon teachers began to use the technique as part of classroom instruction.

While bibliotherapy is often used as a clinical treatment, its principles can be effectively adapted by educators in a preventive or developmental rather than curative capacity, such as to address a community problem or to increase empathy and compassion among students. In her ground-breaking work during the 1950s, Caroline Shrodes defined bibliotherapy as an activity "…that lies within the province of every teacher of literature in working with every child in a group. It does not assume that the teacher must be a skilled therapist. . . Rather, it conveys the idea that all teachers must be aware of the effects of reading upon children and must realize that, through literature, most children can be helped."i

Benefits of Bibliotherapy

The use of literature to address a problem or issue, or stimulate thinking about values has a variety of benefits for students of all ages. Stories that are realistic, developmentally appropriate, and relevant to students' lives can provide emotional support by letting children know that they are not alone in their feelings or the first to encounter a particular problem or challenge. By talking about characters rather than themselves, students can discuss sensitive issues openly and take comfort in group expressions of compassion without exposing their private fears or troubles. Such facilitated dialogue can help improve students' ability to understand and cope with problems, to generate constructive resolutions, and to develop personal and social judgment. Examining multidimensional problems and issues can also stimulate critical thinking in ways that increase social sensitivity, respect for others, and the ability to take a variety of perspectives.

Click here to see a detailed chart of the Benefits of Bibliotherapy.

Overview of Bullying in U.S. Schools

Children's literature can be an effective tool for addressing the growing concerns about physical, verbal, and relational bullying in schools. Though bullying has been traditionally dismissed by some as "just a part of growing up," most educators today understand that it is a pervasive problem in school communities. A 2001 study funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of over 15,000 public, private, and parochial school students reported that almost a third of 6th to 10th graders-5.7 million children nationwide-have experienced some kind of bullying.ii In another survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, more eight to fifteen year-olds picked teasing and bullying as "big problems" than those who picked drugs or alcohol, racism, AIDS, or pressure to have sex. More African Americans saw bullying as a big problem for people their age than those who identified racism as a big problem. iii

It is no surprise that students who regularly experience bullying suffer from low self-esteem, depression, isolation, fear, feelings of helplessness, poor academic achievement, and high rates of absenteeism. iv According to the Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) and Counseling and Student Services (CSS), as many as 160,000 children skip school each day because of intimidation by their peers. v

Those who are bystanders to bullying may also suffer from feelings of helplessness and may develop poor coping and problem solving skills. vi Some studies show that even students who bully may demonstrate poor social and emotional adjustment, social isolation, lack of success in school, and involvement in other problem behaviors, such as drinking alcohol and smoking. vii

In school communities where bullying goes unchecked, students learn that survival requires aggression or silence, and that acts of kindness invite torment. In such environments, many despair in the perception that bullies can behave with impunity while there is no one to stand up for the vulnerable. In a survey conducted by Widmeyer Communications for the Health, Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, students aged 9-13 reported their belief that teachers and principals are unsympathetic or apathetic to the plight of those who are bullied, and that it is not worth the effort to tell an adult about bullying. viii

Notwithstanding these perceptions, research on the impact of anti-bullying programs demonstrates that school-based interventions can result in significant reductions in bullying when they include changes to school and classroom climate to increase awareness about bullying, increase teacher and family involvement, provide support to those who are bullied, and form strong social norms against bullying. ix Khosropour and Walsh found that, in response to the question, "What do you think should be done about bullying in schools?," the most frequently mentioned strategy among students was "education/discussion." x

Click here to see the fact sheet, Statistics and Studies on Bullying.

Selecting Children's Literature that Addresses Bullying

Students want their teachers to discuss the issue of bullying and to demonstrate concern and support for those who are impacted. Children's literature can be an effective and non-threatening way to initiate dialogue on this topic, to promote constructive resolutions, and to change social attitudes.

The last decade has seen the emergence of a body of children's literature on bullying and a variety of social issues, so it is possible for educators to find materials that speak to the particular needs of their students. Great care must be taken, however, in selecting and presenting literature that deals with the issue of bullying. As noted in the ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication Digest, "a poorly written novel with stereotyped characters and simplistic answers to complex questions is probably worse than not reading anything at all..."xi Burnettxii, Huck, Helper, & Hickmanxiii, Ouztsxiv, and Rudman xvrecommend that literature to help children cope with problems should have the following features:

  • Be well written and appropriate to the child's developmental level
  • Provide stories using language familiar to children that is realistic in terms of their life experience
  • Honestly portray the condition and future possibilities for the characters
  • Present multidimensional characters experiencing legitimate and relatable emotions
  • Explore the process of working out problems
  • Demonstrate clear channels of communication and responses to children's questions
  • Offer situations which generate genuine enthusiasm in the reader

Literature that addresses bullying will be most helpful to children when it portrays fully developed characters along all parts of the social spectrum rather than one-dimensional or clichéd personas. Books, for example, that depict all targets of bullying as "brainy nerds" and all aggressors as "dim jocks" help to perpetuate stereotypical archetypes and make it difficult for the majority of students between those margins to see themselves in the stories' characters.

Similarly, bullying occurs in a variety of social contexts and in many forms, including physical harassment, verbal intimidation, exclusion, ostracism, gossip, and rumors. Educators who employ literature to address the problem of bullying may wish to present a range of books that explore these different contexts and avoid formulaic storylines that are irrelevant to students' lives.

The way in which bullying is managed and resolved is a critical and often problematic component in many children's books. The following types of solutions represent common themes that may satisfy children's fantasies about retribution or happy endings, but which in reality are ineffective or unlikely to occur.

  • Vengeance: Though most people imagine themselves exacting revenge at some time in their lives, stories that focus on retaliation undermine community values-such as non-violence-and ignore the power dynamics that exist in most schools (which make it unlikely that socially isolated students would stand up to more popular or aggressive peers).
  • Suspension or Expulsion: Studies show that as many as one in five students admit to bullying their peers periodically, which makes severe punishments such as suspension or expulsion unrealistic. According to the Stop Bullying Now! project of the Health, Resources and Services Administration, the threat of such punishments may actually discourage children from reporting bullying that they observe. The project also reports that children who frequently bully their peers are at risk of engaging in other problem behaviors and are more likely to be helped by exposure to pro-social role models at school rather than by removal or exclusion.xvi
  • Peer Mediation or Conflict Resolution: Mediation situations in which students are brought together to work out a problem are helpful to friends who have had a playground spat or disagreement, but may be traumatic for children who are forced to face their tormentors. Bullying is a form of victimization, not conflict. Mediating a bullying incident may send the inappropriate message that neither party is right or wrong, and may further victimize rather than help the target. xvii

Since some of the above themes are common in children's literature, television, and movies, educators may wish to discuss with students the ways in which these responses to bullying are gratifying to imagine, but ineffective in reality. Such discussions can be followed up with presentations of literature that offer interventions and resolutions that can be safely emulated by children.

Click here to view examples of Constructive Responses to Bullying.

Using Children's Literature to Address Bullying

Stories that offer empowering and realistic ways to cope with and respond to bullying can activate a process of dynamic interaction between readers and literature that take students through the following stages:xvi

  • Identification: Students identify with characters and/or events in the story.
  • Catharsis: Students become emotionally involved in the story and express their feelings in a safe and structured setting, through discussion, writing, artwork, or other activities
  • Insight: Students imagine possible solutions to the issues presented in the story, and become aware of ways that their own problems might be addressed or solved

Early childhood education professor, Susan Miller, proposes the following guidelines for taking students through these stages and for developing constructive solutions to community problems:xvi

  • Identify: Determine and discuss the problem. It should be meaningful, interesting, and appropriate for children.
  • Brainstorm: Encourage children to think about possible solutions. Listen to and respect all of their ideas. Keep a record of the solutions suggested in case the children want to try more than one.
  • Select: Help children examine the advantages and disadvantages of various solutions and then choose one that seems workable.
  • Explore and Implement: Let children gather the necessary materials and resources and then, if it is feasible, implement the solution they select.
  • Evaluate: With the children, observe and discuss whether the solution to the problem was successful. If appropriate, help the children think of changes in the solution implemented, or encourage them to explore new solutions.

In order to engage students in this work, it will be necessary to set guidelines for safe and respectful communication, and to promote group norms that encourage students to behave toward one another with support and compassion. In such an atmosphere, students can be engaged through small and large group discussion, writing, role play, art work, and other activities to move from literal interpretations of books to analyses that have personal meaning and real-life applications. In this way literature can serve as a bridge that connects students to new ways of seeing themselves and others; to new coping mechanisms and social possibilities; and to their shared humanity with one another. As James Baldwin wrote, "It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive."


i Russell, D., & Shrodes, C. (1950). Contributions of Research in Bibliotherapy to the Language Arts Program. The School Review, 58, 335-342, 411-420.
ii Nansel, Tonja R., Overpeck, Mary, Pilla, Ramani S, Ruan, W. June, Simons-Morton, Bruce, Scheidt, Peter (2001). Bullying Behaviors Among US Youth: Prevalence and Association With Psychosocial Adjustment, JAMA, 285, 2094-2100.
iiiKaiser Family Foundation & Children Now (2001). Talking With Kids About Tough Issues: A National Survey of Parents and Kids.
iv Widmeyer Communications for the Health, Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2003). National Bullying Prevention Campaign Formative Research Report.
v Coy, Doris Rhea (2001). Bullying, ERIC Clearinghouse on Counseling and Student Services, Greensboro NC.
viNansel, Overpeck, Pilla, Ruan, Simons-Morton, Scheidt.
viiiWidmeyer Communications.
ixOlweus, D. (1994). Bullying at School: Long-Term Outcomes for the Victims and an Effective School-Based Intervention Program. In: Huesmann LR, ed. Aggressive Behavior: Current Perspectives. New York, NY: Plenum Press, 97-130.
Olweus, D. (1991). Bully/Victim Problems Among School Children: Basic Facts and Effects of a School Based Intervention Program. In: Pepler D, Rubin KH, eds. The Development and Treatment of Childhood Aggression. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc., 411-448.
Smith, PK. (1997). Bullying in Schools: The UK Experience and the Sheffield Anti-Bullying Project. Ir J Psychol. 18:191-201.
Sharp, S, & Smith, PK. (1991). Bullying in UK Schools: The DES Sheffield Bullying Project. Early Child Dev Care. 77:47-55.
xKhosropour, Shirin C. & Walsh, James (2001). That's Not Teasing-That's Bullying": A Study of Fifth Graders' Conceptualization of Bullying and Teasing, Paper Presented at the Annual Conference of the American Educational Research Association, Seattle, Washington.
xiAiex, Nola Kortner. Bibliotherapy, ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication Digest #82.
xiiBurnett, J. (1997). Opening the World to Children: Using Books to Develop Problem-Solving Strategies. Portland, OR: Annual International Conference of the Association for Childhood Education.
xiiiHuck, C. S., Hepler, S., & Hickman, J. (1993). Children's Literature in the Elementary School. Forth Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace.
xivOuzts, D. T. (1991). The Emergence of Bibliotherapy as a Discipline. Reading Horizons, 31 (3), 199-206.
xvRudman, M. (1995). Children's Literature: An Issues Approach (3rd Edition). White Plains, NY: Longman.
xviTake a Stand, Lend a Hand, Stop Bullying Now, a project of the Health, Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,
xviiiRussell, D., & Shrodes, C. (1950). Contributions of Research in Bibliotherapy to the Language Arts Program. The School Review, 58, 335-342, 411-420.
xixMiller, S. (1997). Problem Solving Safari - Blocks. Everett, WA: Totline.

  • In This Issue
Using Children's Literature to Increase Empathy and Help Students Cope with Bullying
  • Annotated Bibliography of Children's Fiction on Bullying
  • Statistics and Studies on Bullying
Discussion Guides
  • Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes (grades Pre K-1)
  • Say Something by Peggy Moss (grades 2-4)
  • Nothing Wrong with a Three-Legged Dog by Graham McNamee (grades 3-5)
  • The Revealers by Doug Wilhelm (grades 6-8)
  • The Skin I'm In by Sharon Flake (grades 8 & up)
Extension Activities
  • Social Grouping Game
  • One Person, Many Roles
  • Being an Ally
  • Administer a Bullying Survey
  • Create an Online Forum
  • Sponsor a "Community Read"
  • Shades of Bias
  • Impressions
  • Seeing the World through Different Eyes
  • Using "Anchors" to Remain Grounded
Anti-Bias Study Guide
(Secondary Level)
Echoes and Reflections (Holocaust Curriculum)
A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE® Institute Recommended Multicultural and Anti-Bias Books for Children
A CLASSROOM OF DIFFERENCE™ Programs and Resources
The Miller Early Childhood Initiative of A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE® Institute
Braun Holocaust Institute
Confronting Anti-Semitism
ADL Online Catalog: Resources for Classroom and Community

 Words that Heal ©2005 Anti-Defamation League