Surprisingly little research has been done on early childhood bullying. Yet preschool teachers regularly report bullying, but often label it as “inappropriate” or “unacceptable” behavior when it is observed in preschool-aged children. Early childhood studies conducted abroad have found evidence of both relational and physical aggression in the preschool years (Russell et al. 2003). Similarly, Kids Help Line (www.kidshelp.com.au) in Queensland, Australia, set up to identify young victims of physical or verbal aggression, received 19 calls from children younger than age five in just one year. All of these 19 callers, despite their young age, reported being victims of bullying behaviors.
The Problem: Bullying in Early Childhood
In the United States, observational studies have started to appear on the existence and impact of hostility in preschool classrooms. Ostrov et al. (2004) observed 60 preschool-aged children working together on a task with limited resources. When the children realized there were not enough materials for everyone, hostile interactions quickly began. The study reported that both boys and girls used aggression to gain access to resources. The majority of boys used physical aggression, whereas girls in the study engaged in relational aggression. Surprising to the researchers was the finding that the preschool-aged girls employed tactics commonly identified with later elementary and middle school bullying, such as spreading rumors, telling secrets, and gossiping. In another study, Ostrov and Keating (2004) not only documented aggression as early as age two and a half, but found such behavior to be relatively stable and to grow more serious as children move into the elementary years.
Finally, anecdotal reports from parents, teachers, and even students themselves reveal that bullying behavior is occurring. Moreover, if aggressive behavior remains stable and often grows more serious, as Ostrov and his colleagues suggest, why is the issue not being addressed in preschools? Indeed, the underpinnings of aggressive behavior multiply when not addressed.
Based on his 2004 studies, Ostrov strongly urged educators to address bullying and peer-directed aggression early in a child’s life. The suggestion makes sense. Preschool is often a child’s first experience in a social environment with others. It sets the tone for the child’s future perception of school, one that can persist throughout the child’s entire school career. For many children, preschool is a safe and caring place—one that allows them to interact and learn free from fear or distraction. Yet, for too many others, the climate is one of name-calling, teasing, ridicule, and even physical aggression such as hitting, pushing, and shoving. Some children report that “teachers don’t do anything and the kids won’t stop until the teacher makes them” (Sprung et al. 2005). This is not surprising. As our culture has not fully accepted that bullying behavior can begin as early as three or four years of age, preschool teachers may not be well equipped to deal with the disruptive and hurtful behaviors.
Aggravating the problem is the disconnect that sometimes occurs between home and school. Some teachers report that children come into their classrooms with difficult behaviors. Where the problem begins should not be the issue. When one environment blames the other, the problem persists. A more positive outcome for children will be achieved when families and teachers work to build trusted collaborations.
Solution: A Caring Community
Children make better progress in learning necessary “life skills” when they experience such skills being practiced in more than one setting (Gresham, 1995). Positive support and modeling of appropriate skills at home encourage children to acquire and maintain friendships—a critical foundation for future social, emotional, and educational success. A caring classroom community free from bullying teaches children the skills of respect, empathy, and cooperation so necessary for a successful future.
When teachers and parents (or caregivers) come together to solve a problem, they model the very behavior they wish to see from the children—working together to create a culture of connectedness and caring. Therefore, when home and school (or childcare programs) join hands, they create a caring classroom community that helps children become compassionate problem-solvers and caring members of society—the very environment that prevents bullying, violence, and fear.
Childcare providers and teachers looking to prevent bullying would be wise to first create a proactive curriculum that collaborates effectively with families. The following three steps are adapted from Bully-proofing in early childhood (McCarnes et al., 2005) and lay the foundation needed to create a caring classroom:
STEP 1: Establish Positive Relationships with Families
• Be Proactive: First, take the lead and introduce yourself to families. Do not be cautious about sharing your hopes, dreams, and expectations for the class (or program) and for each child individually.
• Be Collaborative: Work together with families. Ultimately, your goals and theirs are the same—to provide a safe, caring environment in which their children will flourish.
• Be Positive: If you are attentive and aware, you can spot positive behavior or improvement in a child’s life. Encouragement may provide the necessary support to facilitate positive change.
• Be Direct: Keep families informed about the child’s positive behavior, but be direct when concerns arise—immediately and in a straightforward manner. When presented to them honestly yet empathetically, parents can accept reports of problems or missteps. If you have a serious matter to share, request a face-to-face meeting. Writing a “laundry list” of concerns might put a family on the defensive and prevent a positive and immediate resolution to the problem.
• Be Open to Communication: Try to provide information to families on a regularly scheduled basis. Let families know how and when to best reach you. An “open door” policy will encourage collaboration and positive problem solving with families.
• Be Sensitive: Demonstrate respect, sensitivity, and understanding toward all family compositions and cultures. Activities at school or within a program should reflect this attitude. For example, an alternative to making Mother’s Day or Father’s Day cards might be to have children design “Family Day Cards”. It is vital to help children understand their own families or cultures of origin. Validating each child’s own situation is critical for the child’s positive development.
• Be a Problem Solver: A child’s family will typically hold the most helpful information regarding the child. Asking how to calm the child when he or she is upset or asking about the things that motivate the child may prove helpful when planning for that child’s success.
STEP 2: Help Families Understand and Deal with “Normal Conflict”
Parents or guardians often have unrealistic expectations for their children. They may not understand what behaviors are developmentally appropriate for their children. The following are “normal” social behaviors among three-year-olds:
• Three-year-old children will typically play beside each other, but not in a give-and-take fashion.
• Asking, sharing, and compromising are not options that a three-year-old understands.
• Conflict between children is inevitable.
• Having positive relationships involves learning how to share and work together cooperatively.
When conflict does occur, teachers and parents can institute effective intervention. Give clear messages that hurting others is not okay and follow these guidelines:
• State that there are consequences for biting, hitting, throwing objects, or hurting a friend with unkind comments.
• Offer a fair solution. For example, say, “Hitting will not get you a turn on the tricycle. After [other child’s name] rides around the playground one time, then it will be your turn.”
• Help to put the solution into action.
It is important to recognize the typical conflict that the younger child engages in and the possible resolution styles that are most effective when intervening.
STEP 3: “Bully-Proof” Each Child
If a child is reporting bullying behavior, parents may not be aware of their options with the school or childcare center. As role models, teachers and childcare providers should make parents aware of these options to curb bullying.
• Practice with your child the protective strategies of “TALK, then WALK, then GO FOR HELP”.
• Encourage your child to “tell” or “report” bullying behavior. Reassure the child that it is not considered “tattling” if he or she feels unsafe.
• Let the school or childcare provider know about any concerns immediately.
• Keep a record of times, dates, names, and circumstances to show a pattern of concern.
• Urge your school or childcare program to adopt a clear conduct code that enforces a unified approach to consequences paired with positive, respectful, inclusive expectations.
At home, the family should work with the child to increase his or her self-confidence:
• Be specific about your child’s strengths (e.g., kind, caring, good artist, hard working, helpful, good athlete).
• Teach and encourage your child to share feelings and express anger appropriately.
• Build social skills early.
• Encourage friendships. Even one good friend helps a child feel included.
• Arrange well-supervised “play dates” to promote friendships.
Whether bullying behavior will remain unidentified in preschool classrooms remains to be seen. However, these steps will allow teachers and families to model the very behavior they wish to see from their children—working together to create a culture of connectedness and caring.
It is a positive step when a “caring community” of families and schools can join together to take advantage of this critical window of opportunity—to stop the cycle of bullying before it begins. Such collaboration should result in a safe, inclusive, and respectful environment in which teachers can teach, students can learn, and families can feel confident and comfortable.
Gresham, F. M. 1995. Best practices in social skills training. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.). Best practices in school psychology III. Washington, DC: National Association of School Psychologists.
McCarnes, K., K. Nelson, & N. Sager. 2005. Bully-proofing in early childhood: Building a caring community. Longmont, CO: Sopris West Educational Services.
Ostrov, J.M., K.E. Woods, E.A. Jansen, J.F. Casas, & N.R. Crick. 2004. An observational study of delivered and received aggression, gender and social-psychological adjustment in preschool: “This White Crayon Doesn’t Work…” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 19: 355-371.
Ostrov, J.M., & C.F. Keating. 2004. Gender differences in preschool aggression during free play and structured interactions: An observational study. Social Development 13: 255-277.
Russell, A., C.H. Hart, C. Robinson, & S.F. Olsen. 2003. Children’s sociable and aggressive behavior with peers: A comparison of the U.S. and Australia, and contributions of temperament and parenting styles. International Journal of Behavioral Development 27: 74-86.
Sprung, B., M. Froschl, & B. Hinitz. 2005. The anti-bullying and teasing book for preschool classrooms. Beltsville, MD: Gryphon House, Inc.
Carla Garrity, Ph.D., is a child psychologist in Denver, CO. She practices with a multi disciplinary group and is co-author of two of the Bully-Proofing Your School books: The Elementary Years and The Parent's Guide.
Nancy W. Sager, M.A., is a behavior consultant in Denver, CO. She is a consultant and trainer and co-author of two of the Bully-Proofing Your School books: The Early Childhood Curriculum and The Elementary Years.
For more information, check out www.sopriswest.com/bully-proofing.