mat play

For around one in ten children, being bullied or picked on has been a consistent experience since they were two years old, according to findings of a longitudinal study - Growing Up in New Zealand reports released in May 2017.

Bullying therefore starts young and it can be experienced from a young age.

However, should a young child be called a bully?  No. At a young age behaviour is developing and labelling any child as a bully should not be done.

Behaviours that resemble bullying should not be seen to be okay. It's important to know what to look out for and ways to respond to a child who is starting to show behaviour that looks like bullying and to the child who is affected by it.

Here’s some examples of bullying:

At kindy a slightly older boy is hassling my 4 year old son. If he wants what my son has - he grabs it. I’ve seen him hit my son who was only walking past him at the time. The other day when I picked him up from kindy he had badly grazed knees. I asked him what had happened and he said he had been pushed over by this boy. I’m wondering what else has happened that I don’t know about. What should the teachers be doing about this?

Sophie told me last night that another child bit her at Montessori. I told her to bite back and teach that girl a lesson.  When I picked her up today the teachers said they wanted to talk with me about Sophie's behaviour. 

My daughter is constantly dominated by a mean girl who is only a few months older.  What ever toy she has the other girl wants and she'll just grab it off her. The other day I arrived at the educator's house and my daughter was happily playing on a trike. The next thing I know is that the girl is on the trike and smiling in pleasure after pushing my daughter off.  

We shape and influence the environment children live in and so we play a critical role in determining whether bullying develops in the first place.  It is also largely up to us whether pre-bullying behaviours turn into actual bullying and whether bullying escalates or whether it decreases and stops.  

The above picture shows two children working on a puzzle together.  They can do this because they are relating well with each other in a supportive early childhood education environment.  

Bullying occurs when one child holds power over another child - it may take the form of grabbing, hitting, saying hurtful things and excluding.

Bullying usually (but not always) takes the form of targeting the same child or children repeatedly with the intention to hurt (and/or scare). 


Normal social interaction and the responsibility of adults to stop bullying from developing

Children are social beings. When we place children with other children some social juggling and positioning will go on. They are learning to engage and play alongside others.  It's an emotional time of both independence and needing support and guidance especially during moments of tension.

Small group sizes are important and children shouldn't be with more than 8 or 10 other children at any one time if possible. When in smaller groups with an adult bullying behaviours are less likely to develop.  

Small group sizes increase the likelihood of adults noticing behaviours early that are likely to develop into bullying and effectively address the behaviours before harm is done. 

Children will try different behaviours and depending on what responses they get from adults and other children they will then use the same behaviour again and guidance or intervention may be needed if experimentation starts to develop into bullying.

Adults have a responsibility to give children lots of one-to-one time, getting to know them, modelling appropriate behaviour, helping children to develop language to express their feelings, teaching children to be kind and respectful, to consider the feelings of others, to be inclusive and to take turns.  

Bullying is preventable and if the adults are alert to this it can be prevented from developing and stopped before it escalates.

When a child is being bullied we can help the child to develop skills and have confidence to stand up to the child who is bullying without resorting to bullying behaviour themselves.

It is not helpful to tell a child to bite, hit, push or snatch back as this then teaches the child that the adult thinks such negative behaviour is acceptable - and it never is.  


Common strategies used by early childhood teachers and carers

  1. Providing activities that help children to develop caring and problem-solving skills so they do not bully or become bullied
  2. Guiding children to practise positive social skills
  3. Intervening immediately when a child is being bullied to ensure safety and also to provide guidance and support to the children who bully and the children who have observed it
  4. Talking with children about bullying and why 'our place' has a no-bullying rule
  5. Making use of teachable moments as they arise to guide, talk about, or help children to be aware of pre-bullying and bullying behaviours.  (For example, a stray cat may wonder into the grounds and attack your pet cat and this is a natural teachable moment for discussing bullying and for teaching empathy for your pet cat and for the stray cat that doesn't have a home) 
  6. Engaging with parents and children's caregivers on how the service prevents and stops bullying from escalating
  7. Sharing with parents and caregivers effective approaches they could use with their child

Parents - What you can do if you think there is bullying going on

When you suspect or become aware of bullying make sure all adults responsible for your child know. If you don’t say anything you are not helping your child and the behaviour of the child who is doing the bullying will not change. 

The normal procedure at an early childhood service when a child has been hurt - and this includes if a child hurts another child - is for the teachers or carers to tell the parents.

It is a problem if you are not informed about what happened.  The teachers or carers should be noticing what is going on and establishing good communication about this with the families of the children involved.  

The teachers or carers should be able to tell you as the child's parent: 

  • what strategies will be put into place to help the child who is bullying learn that his/ her behaviour is not acceptable and to develop his/ her appropriate interaction and sharing skills
  • how they will reduce opportunities for the child who has bullied to be alone or have close contact with the hurt or scared child without an adult present to prevent a re-occurrence until there is confidence that it is unlikely that there will be a re-occurrence.

If the teachers dismiss your concern or try to whitewash the problem for example by saying that it's just kid behaviour, talk to the teachers about what you see that they don't. 

The teachers might have other observations and information to share with you that perhaps will lead you to realise that you may be over-thinking your child's or the other child's behaviour. But if it is bullying and the teachers do not take this seriously then talk to the manager about this and/ or consider changing to a different service for your child's sake.

Another solution would be to stay often at the service and be with your child so the child who is hurting your child has less opportunity to do so. However this is not always possible so ideally the teachers and careers at the service will provide good supervision, intervention as necessary and support. 


Helping your child in saying no 

Talk with your child and demonstrate strategies he/ she can use, for example

  • tell a teacher or adult what happened
  • walk over and stand or sit beside a teacher or adult
  • say in a big loud voice “no” when the child who is hurting tries to do it again;
  • put hand up and say in a loud voice: "stop.”


Questions are welcome and please share your experiences and thoughts about bullying by adding a comment below