8 Tips to Protect ELLs from Bullying in Your Classroom and School

A woman talking to a sad boy in front of a school bus.

ELLs and immigrant students can be an easy target for school bullies. Language Lizard, a publisher of multilingual books and classroom materials, offers these tips for addressing bullying problems (including cyberbullying) that may affect ELLs.

For related information, bilingual parents tips, and strategies from other educators about bullying, see the recommended resources and comments at the end of the article — and feel free to share your experiences!

As schools open their doors each fall, students from all walks of life enter. Each has the opportunity to share with other students in the amazing experience of education. Wide-eyed and anxious, children slowly lower their guard and allow themselves to get comfortable with their teachers, fellow students and surroundings. The hope is that this experience will be filled with joy and comfort for each and every student.

See more: Cyberbullying

For bilingual information about cyberbullying for teachers and parents, visit our Technology Safety section.

For many English Language Learners (ELLs), school is a place of laughter, fun and expansion. Bit by bit language and cultural elements are learned, shared and savored. For other ELLs it is a place of fear, humiliation and intimidation.

As we know from reports and studies which have been coming out over the past few years, bullying has become a serious issue in schools around the country. In addition, many educators across the country are reporting an increase in the bullying of immigrant students and ELLs, often with immigration-related taunts (Gándara & Ee, 2018a). What used to be limited to verbal attacks has turned into something more subtle and fierce — cyber-bullying being one clear example of how today's technology can be used to intimidate others in far-reaching ways.

Unfortunately, ELLs are often easy targets for bullies in the school setting. Foreign accents and different cultural mannerisms are often mimicked and made fun of in school, which can cause ELLs to question their most basic identity and heritage. Helping to prevent the bullying of ELLs can be a little more tricky than protecting again general bullying, primarily because attempts to be helpful can end up causing even more discomfort to ELLs.

Tips for Grown-Ups

Below are some tips for teachers and parents to utilize in the classroom and at home:

  • Set ground rules: Make sure that all students (and their parents) are clear of what your rules are on bullying. These should be general rules that apply to every student in the classroom/school. Post these rules on the door of the classroom and school so that students can see them when they enter and leave. Ask each student to take a look at it each day/week so that they will be reminded of what is expected of them. Make sure that the general rules include things that may apply specifically to ELLs, such as making fun of the way someone talks, dresses or acts.
  • Give clear examples: Share with students examples of what you consider bullying (without specifying anyone in particular or using actual events). Do not give examples that specifically include ELLs being bullied! This can make things even worse for ELLs! Some excellent examples would be from your own life experiences or examples of children from American moving abroad and the difficulties of learning the language and culture. The point is to shed light on what it feels like to be in new surroundings without a solid base of support.
  • Set consequences: Make sure that students understand that bullying, on any level, will not be tolerated and that the consequences will apply across the board. These consequences should be agreed upon throughout the school and be clearly posted. An ELL who knows that there are clear consequences for bullying can feel a sense of relief that his teachers and school are supporting him by creating a healthy environment.
  • Be informed: Make sure that you and the parents of your students know what the signs of bullying are. Keep an eye on changes in your ELLs' attitudes and personalities. Remember that subtle changes may or may not indicate big problems under the surface. It is important to not overreact to a given situation but instead to be cautious and to carefully flesh out possible issues.
  • Take them seriously: Anything that your students share about their own experiences with bullying or what they have witnessed when others were bullied is to be taken seriously. An ELL who sees other ELLs being bullied can become just as frightened as if it happened to him or her personally. Anytime an ELL opens up to a teacher or parent about such episodes should be taken seriously and be given the support needed.
  • Inform parents: Parents of ELLs need to be reminded not to tell their children that bullying is something to be expected when living in a new country, even though the parents may believe this. Not only can this make a child feel even more frightened and helpless, it can cause a child to feel resentment and bitterness toward the country and its citizens in general. ELLs need to feel that they belong here, not part of a subset that is tolerated.
  • Inform administrators: It is important that teachers remind school administrators of the additional risk that ELLs face from bullying. Give administrators clear examples of what ELLs experience from bullies: mimicking their accents, making fun of their racial differences, laughing at their mannerisms and cultural idiosyncrasies, and more. Help administrators understand what it would feel like if they were to enter a school in another country without being able to communicate well, and then having other students making fun of their every effort.
  • Write down what you see: If you believe that a student in class is bullying an ELL but you aren’t sure, write down what you see or believe is happening. This way you will have a record of incidents which all together may form a picture when seen over the long term. You will also have some examples to talk about one-on-one with students when the opportunity arises, or during parent-teacher meetings.

As we know, bullying can happen in any environment. It is not specifically tied to ELLs. However, being that they are seen as different, ELLs become easy targets for a bully. The hope is that the more we stand together against bullying the more ELLs will feel comfortable coming forward and reporting their experiences.

In a recent article in the Boston Globe titled, Schools Seeing Shift on Bullying, it was reported that bullying in Massachusetts has seen a shift due to students taking a more direct role in reporting bullying incidents and showing a united support against bullying. There is only so much a teacher and parent can do to help prevent the kind of physical and emotional attacks caused by bullying. Supporting students in their own efforts to stand up against bullying may be just the solution needed to help ELLs find a more comfortable atmosphere in school.

Discussion Questions

  • Have you ever had to confront bullying in your classroom?
  • What are your tips on helping English Language Learners deal with bullying?
  • Where have you found the most support in helping to prevent bullying in your classroom?

Sesame Street: Elmo Talks About Bullying

This video from Sesame Street features a conversation about bullying between Elmo and actor Chris Colfer.

Bullying at School: What a Family Can Do

These pamphlets from the Washington State Office of Education include information on how to address bullying problems and get help for children who are bullied and bully others. The pamphlets are available in 8 languages.

Bullying Basics

This resource section from Teaching Tolerance provides an overview of the connection between bullying and bias and answers frequently asked questions about school bullying.

Edutopia: Educator Resources to Fight Bullying and Harassment at School

Edutopia offers a guide for educators to online information about combatting bullying.

KidsHealth: Bullying Resources for Kids, Teens, Parents, and Educators

These toolkits from KidsHealth offer activities that will help students identify, understand, and deal with bullying and cyberbullying.

Additional bilingual articles are available from KidsHealth:


This federal website includes information on bullying and cyberbullying for parents, educators, community members, teens, and children. It is also available in Spanish. It includes:

Bullying and Bias

Videos: Bullying and Bias in Schools

Hena Khan Talks about what young American Muslims experience on a regular basis

What it felt like to be bullied

Principal Tam recalls his experiences being bullied as a young Chinese immigrant in the United States.

How school leaders can respond to anti-Asian bullying and violence

Principal Victor Tam urges school leaders to consider how the rise in anti-AAPI violence during COVID-19 impacts their students and families — and how to respond as a leader in the community.


This article was originally published by Language Lizard on 9/17/11. Reprinted with permission. Retrieved 1/4/13 from http://blog.languagelizard.com/2011/09/19/protecting-ells-against-bullying/


Gándara, P., & Ee, J. (2018a). Working paper: U.S. Immigration Enforcement Policy and Its Impact on Teaching and Learning in the Nation's Schools. University of California – Los Angeles: The Civil Rights Project. Retrieved from: https://www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/u.s.-immigration-enforcement-policy-and-its-impact-on-teaching-and-learning-in-the-nations-schools


For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.
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I was born in 1987. My older sister was born in 1985. I had some bullies at school. I cried about some mean men. I was in second grade. I am teaching my animal cut-outs how to read. I am teaching them how to read in English and in Spanish. Spanish is one of my favorite subjects. I also like phonics. I also like math.

I had a case of Ell's making fun of each other, which some of my clases I had various degrees of learners. I pointed out that we all or English Language learners and that is why we often repeat difficult or new words. After this explanation and some examples of my own, we all laughed with each other rather than at another person. It really helped that little group feel closer together. Also I haven't had any more problems with that.

I recently saw a bullying of one of my Indian students, the kids were making fun of his lunch, because he brings his lunch everyday and he often does not eat meat, or it is unusual fare of mixed grains. So this one day I asked him about his lunch, then I proceeded to inform his onlookers, that in reality he had a tastier, healthier lunch than they could even imagine getting from the school lunch line. Then the students seemed to have more respect for my student and said things like"sorry man I didn't mean to make fun of your lunch." My student started to smile, then openly ate his lunch with more gusto. He even offered me a tast of what looked to be a wonderful variety of mixed grains.
I have lunch duty everyday, and now my student looks less intimitaded to eat, also the other 5th grade boys around him, have gained new respect, they ask now, where can I buy that, oh that looks good, better than what I bought from the lunch line. It is amazing to me, by just one time of helping these students gain some insight and understanding of another culture, now instead of jeers, my student's lunch is a relaxing, fun time with his peers, rather than a time to hide and crouch away from them.
"It only takes a spark to get a fire going and soon all those around will warm up in it's glowing.......or knowing. Barbie

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