Much Ado about Preschool Bullying

When I was in school, both as a student and an educator, no one really talked about bullying until children were middle and high school aged.  Even then, the focus was on physical bullying.  No one wanted to believe that snide remarks and evil glances could constitute bullying.  This was all before Columbine.  Columbine was a wake-up call.  It showed us that bad things can happen when we allow young people to non-verbally and psychologically torture their peers.

Recently, bullying  has been back in the news and the new focus is on younger children–as in preschool age children. At first glance, you might think, “Seriously? No way!”  But yes way.  The research that’s been done in the past decade clearly indicates that bullies learn to bully early on, though not necessarily in the way you might think.  The research also indicates that parents and educators can do a lot to help children.
Let’s take a look at a few of the resources online.


Jamie M. Ostrov, out of the University of Buffalo, has appeared on Sesame Street (note to self/parents: he gives high praise for how they address bullying on the show).  This article summarizes his Sesame Street experience and gives a brief glimpse into his work.
From the article: “His research addresses what Ostrov calls “forms and functions” of aggressive behavior. “Forms” of aggression are ways aggression is displayed. “Functions” are the reasons why children behave in aggressive ways.  Distinguishing between the various forms and functions of aggression has important implications for understanding the development of aggression and bullying in children,” Ostrov says.   Ostrov’s research also examines the developmental origins, processes and outcomes of physical and relational aggression (e.g., social exclusion) in children and adolescents. Some of this work has documented the processes or mechanisms by which aggression and peer victimization are linked across development.  Previous studies in the UB Social Development Laboratory, which Ostrov directs, have shown that children who are victimized by their peers become the aggressors over time, and that the type of victimization that they experience predicts the type of aggression that they display with their peers over time.  Thus, children are likely learning from peer victimization experiences how to become an aggressor,” says Ostrov. Ostrov believes that with UB’s new Jean M. Alberti Center for the Prevention of Bullying Abuse and School Violence, the university is well-positioned to become a leading institution in the field.”

Two things to note in this excerpt.  The first is distinguishing between bullying behavior and bullying intent.  Especially in very young children, ages birth to 2 or 3 years, the intent of aggressive behavior is more often to simply get what they want.  They don’t intend to hurt other children, but they don’t have sufficient language skills to get their needs met in another way.  They also don’t understand that other children actually feel physical and emotional pain.  So we actually have to teach them those skills. The best way to teach them skills is by  modeling them.

So when your 13 month old hits your face, you say something like, “Oh, ouch, that hurts.  We use gentle touches,” and then show baby how to be gentle.  The crux of this? You’ll have to do the same thing over and over again AND you’ll have to catch them being gentle and verbally acknowledge them for it.  As your child gets a little older, you can say things like, “Ouch, that hurts.  Mommy doesn’t like to be hit,” and then offer an alternative item they can hit, “If you want to practice hitting, hit the floor/couch/pillow.”  They’ll stop soon enough because what they really want is YOUR reaction at being hit.  So if you keep it low-key and then re-direct the behavior, you’ve modeled a clear boundary and given then an alternative behavior.

This changes as your child gets older. You can begin building empathy by talking about how other people feel.  And when your child does hit a peer, you can check in with the peer first (taking away the negative attention your child would get otherwise) and model for your child how to resolve the resulting hurt their friend has. “Oh my, so-and-so hit you.  That hurts.  Are you OK?  What can I do to help you?”  Focusing on resolving the hurt the victim feels before then addressing the does a couple of things.  First, you take away any (negative) attention the aggressor would get, which makes it a lot less fun to hit someone. It also gives both children a chance to calm down before then helping them repair their relationship.  The aggressor can be encouraged to ask for forgiveness and ask if the victim would still like to play.  This shifts the power back to the victim–they victim chooses to continue play or not, and either way is fine.  In this way, both children learn that hitting isn’t acceptable and the focus is on the behavior and relationship, not on the aggressor being “bad.”

The second thing this excerpt highlights is that children who are repeatedly made victims are more likely to become bullies in the future. So if we notice that our child is being victimized, we have a lot of work to do to ensure that their experiences don’t translate into bullying in the future.  There are lots of resources, if you do an online search, which talk about how to “bully proof” your child.  The ones I’ve looked at appear to offer sound advice.  My caution in some of the advice is that it’s not appropriate for younger children (birth-3ish) to have to “stick up” for themselves.  When we see younger children experiencing aggressive or bully-type behavior, we need to ensure that their resulting needs are met and they are cared for.  We also need to use the experience to model, for them, how to interact with another child when that child is being aggressive or behaving in a mean way.


Here’s one of the articles, from Building Blocks for a Better Future, which provides some insight into what bullying is, who bullies, who gets bullied, and what you can do about it.  What I like about this site is that it offers several links to other resources, including activities you can do with your child or ask your child’s teacher to consider doing in the classroom.

From the article: “Research has shown that children who bully often suffer from psychosocial problems and may have difficulties adjusting to social situations. Some studies have even indicated that bullies may suffer from depression, which may cause them to engage in aggressive behaviors, especially towards their peers. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some bullies are often seen as popular at school and may suffer from too much self-confidence, which often leads to choosing bullying victims that suffer from isolation and low self-esteem.  The general theme that lies within bullying behavior is the lack of ability in dealing with problem-solving and social situations. This may stem from developmental and adjustment issues with the child and it is important to address this issue early on.”

This excerpt is referencing a wide body of research.  What I appreciate about this particular excerpt is it’s insistence that “dealing” with a bullying problem requires we address the inherent reasons a bully is bullying other children.  Many of the sites I’ve encountered focus on dealing with the victim’s needs–which is absolutely the first priority–but the responsibility of addressing bullying behavior extends to assessing the bully as well. Bullies got that way for a reason and punitive measures (while sometimes appropriate and necessary) aren’t going to stop the bully from engaging in bullying in the future. Parents and educators would do themselves a huge favor to ensure that anytime a victim reports being bullied, that victim’s report is taken seriously and the bully is fully assessed to uncover why s/he is doing what s/he is doing.  Once we know the why we can begin to take steps to help the bully heal.  Imagine how differently some of the very sad incidents in our schools would play out if bullying behavior was taken seriously from the get-go, when children were young, and addressed fully.  We’d live in an entirely different society.


Another way adults can re-frame this issue of bullying is to consider what they are doing, vis-a-vis their actions and how they set-up the physical environments in which children live and play, to either encourage or impeded bullying.  In this article, Dr. Vicki Folds provides some insights.

From the article: “So what does an engaging playground look like? Dr. Vicki Folds, Ed.D, Director of Curriculum Development for childcare provider Children of America, agrees with Learning Through Landscapes that the focus should be on providing space for collaborative, active play. “Instead of purchasing expensive stationary playground equipment think physical activities and what portable elements you need to accomplish those activities,” she says. “Organize at least two different daily choices of activities to do that teachers take to the playground such as ball bouncing, chasing bubbles, bean bag toss, hula hoops, shoot the hoop, jump ropes, etc.”

This excerpt focuses on schools, but I think the general gist is applicable to homes and public play spaces as well. It challenges educators, specifically, to re-think how they are using outside space and (what’s left of) recess time.  If we can make some simple changes to how this space and time is used, changes which will discourage bullying and encourage exploration and empathy, then what are we waiting for?  Even with very young children, having more than one of a certain kind of toy is all it takes to stem the tide of aggressive behavior.  If you’re touring a preschool and they only have one trike or one ball, you ought to look elsewhere.


These links scratch the surface of what is available online.  Certainly, some resources are more reputable than others.  I would encourage anyone looking at these resources to consider where any advice is coming from before implementing it.  Research-based ideas are likely to be more effective.  Vetting how often you see a certain kind of advice is helpful too.  If you only see one resource suggesting something, you might want to think twice about the suggestion.  That said, sometimes “group think” can be incorrect, so mindfulness is important.

For me, this issue is an important one.  As an educator, I saw far too much bullying in schools.  The most insidious are the non-verbal and psychological  attacks which leave children and young people feeling “less than” the full human beings they are. These type of attacks fly below the adult-radar–catching a bully utilizing this approach is next to impossible. So when a young person tells you they are being bullied, it’s important to take their report seriously.  Yes, you may need to start watching to see if you can catch the bully in the act, but do so knowing that it will be very difficult indeed.  For the victim, it’s essential to be heard and trusted.  For the bully, it’s essential to be confronted in a caring way.  I’ve taught thousands of kids and very, very few were “ugly on the inside”–most were just trying to get by whatever way they could and they sometimes lost the path of empathy.  Our charge, then, is to help guide our children towards empathy and compassion.


About freethinkingparent

I am a mom. I am an atheist. I value education, critical thinking, independence, respect, and wine (not necessarily in that order).
This entry was posted in Childrearing, Education, Introduction/New Topics, Parenting and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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