Preschool Bullying

Bullying is a hot topic in the news with social media becoming a new avenue for assaults upon teenage victims, but what about our youngest students? While it is unlikely that preschoolers are relinquishing their lunch money to playground bullies, they may be experiencing other troublesome social interactions. October is National Bullying Prevention Month. By increasing awareness of this important issue, we hope to dispel misunderstandings about preschool bullying.

There are some exceptions, but generally speaking, we do not label acts of aggression or unkind words as “bullying” in the preschool years. When considering ages and stages of development, children, two-to-five years of age, are still acquiring pro-social problem-solving skills to resolve conflict. Many preschoolers are in the process of mastering the ability to “use their words.” Frustration may build as they struggle to draw from their limited vocabulary bank. Consequently, they may choose unkind words or regress back to instant gratification tactics that delivered quick results in their toddler years, such as hitting, pushing, or even biting.

Likewise, you can’t have an offender without a victim. Youth who are faced with conflict that has been handled inappropriately by other children, may fall into patterns of tantrums or tattling. While reporting aggressive or offensive behavior to an adult certainly is the first step to conflict resolution, it should not remain the final step. The victim must also be empowered to use their language skills in order to be heard. Many times, children who are victims of unkind interactions will break down in tears or anger. It is critical that they learn to attach their emotions to “feelings words.” Once they have been given an opportunity to regain their composure, they too should, with adult assistance, re-enter the conflict armed with new language skills. Ultimately, the goal is to facilitate reconciliation to develop and foster empathy, self-control and confidence for both parties.

Ten Tips for Fostering Healthy Interactions with Peers

  1. Supervise preschoolers in their social settings. Pay particular attention to engagements with friends, neighbors, classmates or siblings, which resulted in prior unhealthy interactions.
  2. Remember that offenders and victims both need help. Either situation can be equally distressing!
  3. Provide assistance to the victim first. Many times adults are so shocked by a behavior, which evokes strong emotion (such as biting) that they forget to set aside the lecture and first give their full attention to the child in immediate emotional or physical need. If it is safe, consider involving the offender in the after-care (such as retrieving a comfort item or assisting with ice if needed). This will help them to understand the consequences of their actions and instill empathy for the victim. Bad patterns of negative-seeking behavior will also be averted.
  4. Model the desired behavior. It is helpful to keep this strategy in mind when enforcing logical consequences. Regardless of your views on corporal punishment, spanking your child for hitting another child most likely will not make sense to a preschooler.
  5. Use conflict as a teachable opportunity. Time out or separation is a great temporary consequence. It provides time for strong emotions to subside and allows an opportunity for the supervising adult to formulate a well-constructed plan. When developing a behavior intervention plan, keep the end goals in mind such as empathy, self-control, and language development.
  6. Foster language development in children. Many adults step in and tell children to “use their words.” Unfortunately, this usually does not work. If children knew which words to use, they wouldn’t be in trouble in the first place. Provide assistance by arming them with appropriate words including “I statements.” i.e. I felt (insert feeling) sad when you (insert offense) took my toy, followed by a proposed adult solution, such as utilizing a timer for taking turns.
  7. See the conflict through to reconciliation. Character is developed when children are given opportunities for resolution, reconciliation and forgiveness.
  8. Communicate with the other involved adults. Regardless of whether your child is the victim or the offender, remember that this can be an emotional process.
  9. Get assistance when needed. Speak to your child’s teacher or administrator about any reported, potentially unhealthy interactions at school.
  10. Don’t be a grown-up bully. There are strong emotions involved with protecting our children. Use caution and sensitivity to avoid labeling or spreading gossip that may cause a child to have a bad reputation by age five!

There are many complex factors involved in why children become bullies. There certainly are exceptions, but proper supervision and appropriate behavior modification techniques in the early childhood years will help prevent bad habits from forming. As children master conflict resolution techniques, they develop the confidence and character that will carry them through their school years, into adulthood. We all have encountered adults who have not mastered these skills, so tackling this challenge in the early childhood years will positively impact the future of our youth.

Cindy Hartwig,
Preschool Director,
All Aboard Preschool