Conversation Starters

Educators often see incidents of bullying in school hallways, classrooms, cafeterias, and on the bus. These sample stories of bullying and conversation starters can help break the silence and give teachers, administrators and support staff a guide to talking to bullies and their targets. Most bullying ends when conversations like these happen, so educators have the unique position of being at the front line with the ability to make real and lasting change in the lives of all children involved. 


Story 1 - Josie

Josie is a 15-year-old high school student with hearing loss, and many of the boys in her class say they would like to go out with her. Robert overhears some boys talking about Josie and the next time he sees her in the hallway – knowing the teen can’t hear – he makes a sexually inappropriate comment about Josie to his friends. 

Josie notices that Robert’s friends are giving her uncomfortable looks and laughing but, because she is unaware of his behavior, she has no idea why. Robert continues acting this way every time he sees Josie. Eventually, one of the boys shares with Josie what’s going on and she is left feeling humiliated and angry.

Conversation starter:**

Josie, I am sorry that this happened to you. What Robert did was inappropriate. Comments about sexuality in this manner are considered bullying – or harassment – and he will have consequences. What is most important is that we want to support you so you don’t have to experience this again. We are going to work out a plan and we would like to include your ideas. Would you like to be a part of the planning?

Story 2 - Jack

Jack is a high school student diagnosed with autism. At one time he was a good student but lately Jack’s grades have been slipping. He is refusing to eat lunch at school and is avoiding going to science class. During the lunch hour, a number of teachers have reported seeing Jack pacing back and forth outside the lunchroom. Asked by a teacher why he isn’t eating, Jack says he’s not hungry and the teacher doesn’t press the issue. This routine continues for several days.

Eventually, Jack is informed that he must be in the lunchroom at that time or he will face disciplinary action. Jack has also been skipping science class, which eventually lands him in the principal’s office. By questioning Jack about his behavior, the principal discovers that Jack is afraid to go in the lunchroom because there is a group of boys who swipe his tray and eat his food. They also tell him he is worthless and everyone hates him. The principal also learns that every day in science class, the teacher tells the students to “pair up.” When this happens – including where there is an even number of students – Jack is left out of the mix as the kids purposely form groups of three to exclude him. They tell Jack he is a “loser,” that he doesn’t deserve to have any friends, and ask him why he even bothers coming to school.

Conversation Starter:

Jack, we want you to know that no one ever deserves to be bullied, and that all students have a right to be safe at school. We are going to work with your IEP team and make some changes to your schedule. We’ll help develop a network of students who can support you, and create a plan (with your input) to make sure this behavior stops and doesn’t happen again.


Story 3 - Lauren

Lauren is a middle school student with cerebral palsy. She and her neighbor Kaylee are life-long friends and the two girls have been inseparable since preschool. At the beginning of seventh grade, Kaylee decides to try out for the dance team, which many students view as something only the “popular” girls are part of. Kaylee is excited to learn she has been chosen for the squad and Lauren is happy for her because she knows how important it is to her friend. Kaylee asks Lauren to come to the first practice and then to have dinner at her house afterward. 

The day after practice, the captain of the dance team stops Kaylee in the hallway and wants to know why her friend moves the way she does. Kaylee explains what she knows about cerebral palsy but the captain is unimpressed. She tells Kaylee the other girls are not comfortable having Lauren around. “We have ‘standards’ on our team,” the captain says. “If you want to be part of the squad, you need to choose your friends more carefully.”

Conversation starter

Kaylee, what is happening to you and Lauren is bullying – it’s called “exclusion” and “social manipulation.” This happens to a lot of students and we want you to know that this form of bullying is written into our school district policy and is not acceptable at our school. There will be consequences for the team captain. With your consent, we would like you and Lauren to share your ideas about how this issue can be addressed, both for you and other students it might happen to.


Story 4 - Kyle

Kyle is a high school student with Down syndrome. He is new at the school and spends most of his day in special education classes. During lunch hour, he sometimes sits with a group of younger boys who soon pick up on the fact that Kyle likes Maddie, one of the more popular girls in school. Thinking it would be funny, the boys tell Kyle that Maddie likes him, too, and Kyle is pleased when he hears this. The boys encourage Kyle to talk to Maddie which he eventually does, and she is very gracious and kind about it. At the urging of the boys, Kyle talks to Maddie every day but she eventually becomes uncomfortable with the situation and asks Kyle to stop. “She’s just playing hard to get. That’s what girls do,’” the boys tell Kyle. “Go talk to her again. Send her an e-mail and call her, too!” 

Kyle follows their advice but the next day he is called to the principal’s office and informed that Maddie does not want to have any more contact with him. Kyle is confused. He tells the boys what happened and they urge him to “Go talk to Maddie right now. She doesn’t really mean that.” So the next day, Kyle talks to Maddie again and is summoned to the principal’s office once more. This time, the principal calls Kyle’s mother to inform her that Kyle has been “harassing” the girl and that she is considering filing a restraining order. He also informs Kyle’s mother that the school is conducting an investigation to determine if the harassment is sexual in nature.

 Conversation starter

Kyle, what we have been told about your behavior with Maddie is very serious. We have been hearing different stories but, before we take any action, we’d like to know more. As part of our investigation, it is important that we hear what you have to say and we want to give you the opportunity to tell us what happened.  Would you feel more comfortable having this conversation with one or both of your parents here? What would be the most comfortable way for you to share any concerns you have about this situation? We want to develop a plan so that every student in our school – including you – feels comfortable. 


Story 5 - Ann

Ann, an 11-year-old with Aspergers, has been asking her mom to drive her to school lately. This is difficult because it causes her mom to be late for work. Ann is so upset about the situation that her mom agrees to drive her to school for two weeks but she insists that Ann ride the bus home. Eventually, Ann refuses to go to school altogether. 

Frustrated, Ann’s mother talks to her friend next door about the situation and the friend tells the mother about something her daughter shared. The daughter said there was a group of kids on the bus who were making fun of Ann. Two days ago, as she walked down the aisle, Ann was tripped and pushed. She fell awkwardly and her books were strewn across the bus floor. The neighbor’s daughter said many of the children laughed about what had happened. She wanted to help but was too afraid to act. Ann’s mother immediately called the school to discuss the situation. “Don’t worry about it,” she was told. “These kinds of things happen on the bus every day. It’s just kids playing around.”

Conversation starter

Ann, we are sorry that your mom was told that this is just “kids playing around.” What has been happening to you on the school bus is bullying and no one deserves to be bullied.  You have the right to be safe at school and that includes your bus ride. We are going to talk with your mom again, then take steps to make sure that your bus ride is safe. When we develop a plan – with your permission – we would like to include your ideas. Would you like to be involved? Remember, you are not alone. None of this was your fault, and we are going to help.


** The students involved in a bullying situation should always be spoken to individually, not as a group. 


©2012, PACER Center | National Bullying Prevention Center


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Showing 4 reactions

commented 2016-09-24 09:43:15 -0400 · Flag
I started conversing with them using that topic as a heads up, they openely shared their interests, hobbies, and things they’re passionate about. I was able to respond to them enthusiastically and relate to them, even if not to the extent of it. Like for example, one of the boys loves to play video games. I’m not that in to it, but I played a video game before so just by gauging their interest and probing more, we sustained a conversation just all about it. I tried doing it to all 7 of them with different topics of interest.
commented 2013-09-15 05:22:12 -0400 · Flag
Please add stories about kids that do not have “special needs” because they get bullied too. Don’t let people think that it’s only the “special kids” that get bullied. All kinds of kids deal with this on a daily basis. There doesn’t have to be “a reason.”
@azuleito tweeted link to this page. 2012-04-07 13:15:37 -0400
If you know a child being bullied or a parent who has one please pass this link on to them!
published this page in Educator Resources 2012-03-30 18:20:05 -0400