Bullying: Can It Begin in Preschool?
By Betsy Evans, High Scope Field Consultant and Conflict Resolution Specialist
What Is Bullying?
Bullying is a set of actions that happen when a child who is, or who wants to feel, more powerful targets a weaker and/or smaller person by hurting or frightening that person, and does so repeatedly.
The bullying exists when a power gap between children is tolerated by adults. A hurtful preschool behavior becomes bullying when it is repeated, intense, and targeted. The behavior in this targeted form is potentially the beginning of a pattern of bullying, but only if adults allow it to continue. If done repeatedly and with specific targets, the actions listed in the sidebar on page 3 can result in preschool bullying. It is important to understand that ALL of these actions exist in every preschool and do not by themselves constitute bullying. Without intervention, however, they can become a pattern of intimidation and result in long-term relationship problems for children (Pepler & Craig, 2007).
Actions That Can Result in Bullying:
- Breaking possessions
- Hurting feelings
- Acting superior
- Laughing at others
- Being bossy
- Taking people’s things
- Making fun of people’s appearance or disabilities
Since preschool children are very physically expressive and have rudimentary social skills, all of these behaviors can be observed at some time in preschool classrooms. This by itself is not a reason for concern — in fact, early childhood teachers must expect these behaviors. Instead, adults who work with young children must concern themselves with two challenges. First, they must understand the difference between the behaviors listed above, which children use to express feelings because of their undeveloped skills in self-awareness and communication, and the very same behaviors deliberately and repeatedly used to hurt and/or scare a weaker person. The second challenge is to be willing to take an honest look at the adult-child interaction strategies used in the classroom that may, in fact, be bullying by adults.
What Verbal Bullying by Adults Sounds Like:
• “I don’t care how upset you are…get over here and sit down!”
• “Look at me when I’m talking to you!”
• “Do what I say — or else!”
• “I’ll give you something to cry about!”
• “You are being ridiculous — you are old enough to know better!”
• “You’re being such a cry baby!”
• “Don’t you say a word! Have a time-out and think about what you did!”
How Do Children Learn Bullying Behaviors?
Bullying behaviors become learned behaviors when they work. If a child threatens others and the threat succeeds in getting the child what he or she wants, the behavior is reinforced. Bullying behaviors become a pattern when adults do not intervene or guide the growth of more constructive emotional and social skills at the time the child engages in hurtful behaviors toward others. It is even more important to understand that bullying behaviors are also directly taught by adults who bully children when they yell, threaten, shame, and punish children rather than staying calm, setting limits, problem solving, and following up with positive interactions.
To effectively eliminate bullying by children, we must eliminate bullying by adults. Negative communication patterns can form between children and adults when adults engage only in limit-setting interactions with children. To prevent continuous cycles of constant “No, stop, don’t” interactions with children, adults must follow up limit-setting statements with five positive interactions (Remig, 2009).
Otherwise, hurtful or destructive child behaviors result in constant limit-setting responses, and the adult and child become stuck in a negative loop. In classrooms where bullying exists, it is very important to look at adult behaviors, at home or school, as a possible source, noticing when negative interactions have become the norm, and noticing when adults bullying children is actually the root of the problem. Adults also reinforce bullying when they label a child as a “bully” rather than understanding that bullying is a set of actions, not a person. Once a child is labeled as a bully and is punished, without problem-solving and replacement behaviors and solutions, the behavior becomes more difficult to change. When the adult expects negative or bullying behavior, the child fulfills the expectation. Instead, adults can help the child learn a replacement behavior, such as talking through a problem and agreeing on a solution; for example, to share a toy truck by using a timer or finding a way for the child to play with the truck with another child. This will enable the child to build a repertoire of constructive solutions that replace previous hurtful behaviors, while also experiencing the pleasure, and the power, of being collaborative with another child.
Why Do Children Engage in Bullying and What Can Adults Do?
The list of hurtful actions given also indicates signs of a child experiencing difficulties or challenges in life. Behavior is a means of communication. When adults frequently observe a child engaging in hurtful actions toward others, the child must not be seen as “mean” or “bad” but as experiencing emotional, physical, or social challenges that are overwhelming. Those behaviors will become a pattern if there is no intervention by teachers or parents. Children who express themselves by being repeatedly hurtful, physically or verbally, are crying out for adults to investigate their underlying needs and challenges.
Every behavior has a goal — to get something desired, to get attention, and/or to express frightened, frustrated, or angry feelings that are overwhelming the child and are being ignored by adults.
If children who bully succeed in attaining their goals, however inappropriately, then the bullying behavior will continue. The bullying behavior is a red flag that the child needs limit-setting, followed immediately by problem-solving help, not punishment. If children merely are punished for their behavior, with no attention to the reason for the behavior and no help with other ways to express their feelings, it is likely the behavior will continue, perhaps in a more sneaky, surreptitious way. When children’s behaviors are understood in their developmental context, adults can recognize the hurtful actions as an opportunity to support new, more constructive skills. In this way the behavior is kept from
Strategies for Preventing Bullying by Young Children:
1. Understand the difference between a pattern of bullying and predictable preschool behaviors.
2. Problem-solve when there are conflicts or hurtful comments.
3. Set limits on any intimidating behaviors and follow up with positive interactions.
4. Recognize hurtful behaviors that are intense and repeated as a possible red flag that children need more attention to the reasons behind their behaviors and support as they learn to express their feelings constructively.
5. Eliminate bullying by adults: examine adult behaviors for the use of yelling, shaming, threatening, and/or punishing in interactions with children.
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