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"Bullying" behavior

  • 1.  "Bullying" behavior

    Posted 05-17-2021 06:58 PM
    I've got a kid this year that's got me at my wits end.  She's a bright, strong, and often super sweet and caring.  At the same time, I'm sure she has some social delays.  She doesn't seem to read social cues well and ends up in physical conflicts frequently.  We've been working all year at helping her develop those skills and showed some progress.  We've also been  trying to get the family to recognize the need for additional support, and they have thankfully gotten the ball rolling on that and she has just started seeing an OT.  Which is of course fantastic.
       The big problem for me at this point, is that a couple weeks ago, a new/old student joined the class. A kid who opted out for most of the year because of the pandemic and whose parents decided to send him back for the last  couple months.  And the girl I'm mentioned who is being seen by the OT has become obsessed with this new kid, and is being what can't be described as anything other than physically and verbally abusive to him.  She takes his things and moves them.  She says how much she doesn't like him, with him right next to her. She goes out of her way to run into him, push him etc.
       I know she's doing it because there's something else going on....probably a need to feel in control. And I know there's really no such thing as a preschool bully.  That said, the other kid is now constantly looking over his shoulder.  He's a quiet, sweet kid.  His parents know what's going on and tell him to avoid her.  They're being very tolerant of the situation, though I'm sure they'd love to see her removed from the school.  They know we're not that kind of school though.
      So, given that I'm already working on developing her skills, the help I'm looking for is how to handle those situations when I see her target him.  I'll see her make eye contact with him, run over to where he is and bump him aside.  He'll look up dejectedly and walk away.  I've tried the "Is something bothering you?" She says "nothing".  I've tried "Why did you bump him?"  She answers either "I don't know" or "I was just walking".   I'll say "I see his body says he didn't like that" and she'll just stare at me.  I know the OT will help and it takes time.  It's killing me seeing this go on though!
      Any advise or experience you can share is welcome. Or empathy....I'll take empathy too!

    Scott Mitchell
    Silver Spring Nursery School

  • 2.  RE: "Bullying" behavior

    Posted 05-18-2021 06:25 AM
    Hi Scott!  First I want to celebrate your positive reframing of this child's hurtful behavior.  You recognize that the behavior is a result of missing skills, which will take time to develop.  How fortunate for all the families involved!

    In Conscious Discipline, we say "What you focus on, you get more of."  When it comes to peer-to-peer conflict, we coach "victim first." So when you see the girl's hurtful behavior, coach the little boy first.*  For example, she pushes him out of the way.  Notice: "Woah - she just pushed you out of the way.  Did you like that?"  Now the answer might be obvious, but that important question is helping us to assess his assertive energy.  If he passively shakes his head, then you know he needs more coaching to speak assertively.  He might make eye contact with you and say "No."  Coach him to say, "Tell X "I don't like it when you push me. Leave me alone.  or ask me to move." Focus on what you behavior you want the girl to do rather than just stopping the hurtful behavior.  After he has the opportunity to stand up for himself, then coach the girl.  Start with positive intent as you've been doing.  It might sound something like this, "You wanted to play with him, so you pushed him.  Pushing hurts.  We use safe hands in this classroom.  When you want to play, ask "How can I play?"
    Or "You wanted him to move so you pushed him. ...   When you want him to move say, "Move please."
    Or "You wanted to get my attention so you pushed him. ... When you want my attention you can call out my name or raise your hand and I'll come to you."
    She could respond with "No, I just wanted to push him."  Then you have a teaching moment anyway to confirm the behavior expectation.

    You can find more information about conflict resolution on the Conscious Discipline website.

    Your gifts of patience and positive intent are making a difference.  How you choose to see and interact with this hurting child teaches all the children (and parents) in the class how to treat others who are hurtful.  Wishing you well!

    Mandy Lloyd
    Conscious Discipline Certified Instructor
    Annandale, VA

  • 3.  RE: "Bullying" behavior

    Posted 05-18-2021 08:51 AM
    Hi Scott,
    I've got lots of empathy!!  I so know how you feel, where you can see the behaviors and can't change them because it just takes time, and in the meantime there are consequences that continue to complicate the situation.

    You mentioned that you know there is something going on for this girl that has set her off against this new addition to the classroom.  In the world of sensory processing overload, which it is possible she has as that often accompanies delays in social skills (and is often one potential explanation for those delays), any change in the scenery can be a source of irritation.  It changes the dynamic of the room, and she may be sensitive to that.

    So here's a radical thought though, and it may make no sense at all, or may be something you already tried, but it is what jumped into my head as I was reading your post: what about playing with the two of them together, facilitating a relationship, kind of an immersion therapy for her.  He may not want to go anywhere near her at this point of course, but it might be something that can move this particular dynamic to a different place.

    Also just relating to what you said that there is no such thing as a preschool bully...I used to say that as well, and I know that is what most of the research still says, but I think a more accurate statement is that behavior which sure looks like bullying is being caused by a different internal trigger than bullying at older ages.  But it is still being experience as bullying by the recipient.  And it is still behavior that our job is to redirect so that the perpetrator doesn't develop that habit of interaction.  It sounds like you are totally relating to both ends of the picture from that viewpoint anyway, but it is just something that I have been mulling over in many of my workshops.

    Good luck!  The school, the children and the families are extremely lucky to have such a thoughtful observant teacher in this situation.

    Joanie Calem
    Music and Inclusion Specialist
    Sing Along
    Columbus, OH

  • 4.  RE: "Bullying" behavior

    Posted 05-22-2021 02:02 PM

    Hi Joanie,
    I wanted to comment on your question as to whether "preschool age bullies" exist. 

    I think some of the confusion in this topic comes from the rightful avoidance of discussing "bullies" vs. the discussion of "bullying behavior." While many researchers who study the development of aggression, exclusion & prosocial behavior shy away from using a label of "bully" to describe children & adults who bully, this does not mean bullying does not happen in preschool!! To the contrary- many researchers in this area point to experiences DURING preschool age as the beginning of bullying in later childhood. However, the research is sparse, and fir obvious reasons, this is a very difficult area to conduct long term developmental studies.
    That said, there IS a lot we do know about aggression, bullying and prosocial development in preschool.
    This is an excellent source from Childtrends on the topic:

    One last source of confusion on bullying & it's preschool roots is the developmental  difference between 1-3 year olds, & 4-6 year olds. While the children age 1-3 do lack the basic cognitive skills or self & other awareness to bully,  most  4-6 are quite capable of bullying, and pretty much we aALL do it at during early childhood some times. Researchers make a distinction between "instrumental aggression" & aggression intended to hurt." Often 1-3 year olds AND 4-6 year olds are exhibiting "instrumental aggression"- that is aggression used to get a object or objective, NOT meant to hurt or retaliate. For example, Fred buds in line & pushes Sasha away from the slide: here Fred might hurt Sasha, but his focus is all about getting a turn on the slide first. 

    Another important thing to remember when looking at aggression in early childhood is that it is not a straight developmental pathway- just because you get into a lot of squabbles during the toddler years does not mean you will be an aggressive or violelent child, teen or adult. In fact, high levels of conflict with peers in toddlers is actually more related to sociability than aggression! ( if you combine peer conflict AND disregulation the correlation with later aggression is stronger, especially if it is combined with exposure to abusive or neglectful parenting).
    Peer conflict in toddlers is really driven by the desire for peer interaction, and because more experience leads to greater mastery, these toddlers who are drawn to peer play might start out as "problems" in a preschool class, but with the right scaffolding, they blossom into "social super stars" and sought after playmate pretty quickly!
    This is why not labeling young children as bullies is so important- once you get that bad reputation it quickly spreads through the whole classroom & can easily lead to being left out or picked on by peers. This is also why paying close attention to bullying during preschool is so critical: it is the right time to gently shape prosocial behavior & make aggressive or mean behavior ineffective is getting young children what they want whether that is a turn on the slide first, a toy truck or just the experience of power we all get from being mean or excluding others from play.
    Hope this helps clear up some of the confusion,
    Margro Purple
    Rockville, MD

    Margro Purple
    Rockville MD

  • 5.  RE: "Bullying" behavior

    Posted 05-22-2021 02:58 PM
    Hi Margro,
    Great explanation.  Thank you for all of those details.
    That is exactly what I was talking about when I said that while people don't think of preschoolers as bullies, they do exhibit behavior which looks like bullying, though it is often motivated by something very different than your "older bully".  You make an interesting point about being careful not to label. When we as the educator label a child we've cemented a dynamic that is still so fluid.  I think that is true for all ages really.

    Joanie Calem
    Music and Inclusion Specialist
    Sing Along
    Columbus, OH

  • 6.  RE: "Bullying" behavior

    Posted 05-18-2021 08:52 AM
    Oh my! Empathy first, that is so hard to watch. We know change will be gradual, but in the meantime I child is being hurt!
    Have you tried a social story with her? Take photos of her doing the right thing and include short sentences. Make 2 copies, one for school and one for home. Can you give her jobs at school to provide the sense of control she needs? Praise her often when she is being caring; remove her from the situation when she is bullying.
    The boy she is bullying needs help standing up for himself. Intervene and help him say, "STOP! I don't like that!" His feelings need to be valued. You will empower him forever!

    Trudy Eby
    Early Literacy Specialist
    School District of Lancaster

  • 7.  RE: "Bullying" behavior

    Posted 05-18-2021 09:10 AM
    I agree with the responses you have already received.  I will add that I would consider trying to be intentional in building a relationship between the two children by trying to set up some small group experiences with the two children and a supportive adult.  Sometimes with children who are demonstrating a social delay as you have shared, the physical behaviors are an attempt to connect to the other child.

    Laura Pearce

  • 8.  RE: "Bullying" behavior

    Posted 05-18-2021 11:17 AM
    I have had somewhat similar situations and it can be hard, especially when you are in it and you are indeed making progress, to realize when a child needs a shadow for the protection of the other children. That issue may have been less stark when the behaviors were directed at many children and so each individual child had time to recover/reset before the next act. It is stark now. The returning child, who is already wary, needs to see that he is safe, needs to see effective means of addressing aggression. The other children in the class probably need to see it as well. If there is truly no one to pay for a shadow and no parent who would be appropriate and available in that role, you may need a plan to remove the child for the remainder of a day in which these acts happen. That removal can happen with love and kindness, but still a firm boundary. The child with inappropriate behaviors will ultimately benefit from recognition of this firm but loving boundary. Best of luck.

    Jeanne deMarrais
    The Mulberry Tree

  • 9.  RE: "Bullying" behavior

    Posted 05-18-2021 11:33 AM
    Hi Scott,
    I really do empathize with your dilemma!  It is so frustrating to see bullying behavior manifesting at this age.  I am sure she doesn't know why she is responding like this, and you and her parents are doing everything you can to support her physical development. I think that reading books like "Lucy and the Bully", "Stick ad Stone" and "One" might help grow awareness of what it means to be a friend. A group discussion after reading the books might help grow all children's consciousness. of the importance of being kind. You could build on this in all your activities, making it a focus of your teaching for all the children. Create a Kindness Tree, and give children stars or leaves to hand to their friends when they are being kind.  These get placed on the tree. Make a big deal of how the tree is "blooming" or bursting with kindness. Keep an eye on your "bully" and re-direct her when you sense her approaching her "victim". If she does act out, bring them together for a conversation, so that you can give him words to use when she behaves or speaks to hurt his feelings. He needs this support as much as she does. Give her special praise if she starts acting more kindly to her victim.

    Changing behaviors like these takes time and focus, and most important: consistency. If your children know that this is important to you, they will all strive to please you.  It is much more effective and appropriate to address this issue with all the children, rather than just the two who are involved.

    I hope this helps a little. You are not alone in experiencing this!
    Good luck!

    Sue Hepker
    Jacksonville FL

  • 10.  RE: "Bullying" behavior

    Posted 05-18-2021 01:40 PM
    Scott, if this behavior can be stopped right away you won't need compassion. Someone, perhaps even one of her parents or a relative, needs to be close to the situation and stop it before it starts. I believe it needs to be treated like you would a child who bites or physically hurts other children. This girl's offenses to the other student are pyschologically dangerous. Further, the intervener needs to develop a safe and powerful relationship with the girl. A synchronistic relationship would not tell her how to be, but would listen to her about her behavior and share a concern that the behavior won't work well in life. I would hope your school would have a synchronous extra person on staff to deal with dangerous conditions.

    Jack Wright
    Child Development Consultant
    Success With Children
    St Ignatius MT

  • 11.  RE: "Bullying" behavior

    Posted 05-19-2021 04:57 AM

    Hi everyone,
    I'm not sure if we have one important piece of information that we need to really understand & solve this problem: Scott, did you tell us the child's age? She sounds pretty verbal, so I'm thinking she is 4 or 5?
    Many of the people who have already replied stressed empathy & relationship building between the children - I am actually going to suggest a very different tactic - this is NOT a problem BETWEEN two children! The child who is being insulted, isolated & harassed by the first child is NOT the problem.
    The more attention that is placed on the other child, the more likely you are to actually reinforce this child being labeled as a "misfit" by the other children in the class.
    Instead, the attention needs to be pinpointed on the bullying behavior. I definitely agree that you need extra vigilance with this child- hopefully, most adult interactions with this child in your classroom are overwhelmingly positive ( noticing & reinforcing prosocial behavior & rule following). This is critical to changing the child's behavior- if you follow her around with the mindset of "catching her" doing the wrong thing & punishing her for the behavior, you will likely she an increase in unwanted behavior. This is because:
    1. children treat other kids the way they are being treated by adults. When "Catching" unwanted behavior, you model a "bossy" style.
    2. You create a pattern were the unwanted behavior becomes a mechanism for attracting adult interaction ( not that the child is consciously aware that they act out to get attention).
    3. You are likely to erode the positive relationship/feelings between the child & teachers; where you really need a warm & friendly relationship to best shape prosocial behavior & compliance.

    So about 12 positive interactions to each single punitive or disapproving interaction- definitely easier said than done!
    That in mind, redirecting BEFORE a harassing behavior occurs is great.
    When the bullying behavior IS exhibited, respond to the BEHAVIOR, not the children. For example, "Sarah, in our classroom " hurtful words" are not allowed. You need to stop saying those things right away." "Daniel! Pushy is not okay in our classroom- you must stop pushing right now."  Sarah, our class rules say you need to ASK for a turn before taking a toy that some else is using- I can help you ask for a turn, & then we can play together while you wait for your turn."

    Engineering a friendship between the two children sounds like a great idea - it always works in the movies, right? But in real life, it often creates more problems than it fixes.
    Definitely ease the new child's entry into the classroom: set up play dryads with your most prosocial & popular kids, frequently play with the new child & invite a couple other classmates to join the game.
    This intentional "play partnering" is also a great thing for the child who is acting out against her classmate: pairing her with more mature & socially skilled, patience classmates will give her great social experience that will foster & strengthen her social development.
    I'm afraid if you partner two students who lack prosocial play skills, you will create peer interactions that are bound to implode & teach unwanted social behaviors.
    Certainly go over & re-post you collectively created classroom rules. Also, this a great time to choose books that reinforce prosocial behaviors!
    And additionally, TEACH/MODEL not only how to join/enter an ongoing play group, but also TEACH/MODEL how to invite new comers into ongoing play!
    One last thing on young children's friendships: peer friendships are critically important to social development, best friendships & other close friendships provide young children with invaluable & unique social experiences that lead to future, fundamental social skills!!
    Even young children are aware of being talked down too, so forcing a bad fit friendship rarely works. Instead, we need to treat children & their friends with honesty & respect. Please don't separate best friends in preschool! Yes, they can introduce a lot of bickering & craziness in classrooms, but they are critical pathways for resilience!! It's a good idea to have "you can't say you can't play" at school-it's tricky- but worth it. Let best friends play together, but remind them everyone can play at school, exclusive one on one playtime is for play dates outside of the classroom.
    Thanks for giving my thoughts your time,
    Margro Purple
    Rockville, MD

    Margro Purple

  • 12.  RE: "Bullying" behavior

    Posted 05-19-2021 03:56 PM

    I don't know everything you have already tried, but you have clearly invested a lot of thought, research and effort in helping both children. I think I taught in a similar type of preschool, with a lot of emphasis on inclusion and developing social skills. After some similarly stressful situations, we received training in managing high need children in a mainstream setting. I think some elements of it apply here.

    I'd like to piggyback on Jack's comments. Whenever a child was endangering another, we had a protocol for managing the behavior to keep all children safe. As Jack mentioned, the aggressive child is going to need complete shadowing by an adult in very close proximity, so that the adult can intercept before another child gets hurt. This is not a punitive action, simply a necessary procedure to make sure she is not able to make physical contact with the new boy (or any other child she may focus on.) We had to stand between the aggressor and the other child and redirect. Hopefully, as Jack pointed out, the adults can be her ally, though it is understandable that she could get aggressive towards them because they are thwarting her.

    The purpose here is about safety, and it is separate from other kinds of intervention. I know from experience, this shadowing is physically and mentally exhausting for the adult. If you don't have extra staff, good communication between the co-teachers helps, so you can trade off responsibilities.

    If you haven't spent a few days with a time chart, dividing the day into 20 minute increments, try tracking the incidents or intercepted incidents. Don't describe the incident, simply mark that there was one in that time period. The reason to track closely is to see if there are any patterns to the incidents that reveal what time periods are most vulnerable. In this way, you can look for issues that can be corrected such as transition times that allow the child more unsupervised access than at other times in the day. This understanding helps to know when to allocate extra staff, if available. It also may help to identify antecedents (what was happening before the incident) or other environmental triggers like extra noise or activity, in case that applies.

    I think Jack was indicating another reason the behavior should be intercepted as thoroughly as you are able. All brains pick up patterns and inscribe them as habits. Young children have quick learning brains, and the less this child is able to satisfy this behavioral urge, the better chance that the behavior will fade away and not become habitual.

    Good luck, this is really difficult. I hope that in 6 months you will look back at the skills you have been forced to gain, and be really proud of yourself!

    Karen Lefkovitz
    Independent Consultant
    Philadelphia PA

  • 13.  RE: "Bullying" behavior

    Posted 05-20-2021 08:01 AM
    Hi Scott, first I must commend you on your working with a defense child in your environment. I think this little girl is having issue sharing her space or environment with others and this result in her trigger of behaviors. Now, you have to implement a strategy to let this girl fell welcome and inviting to work with other kids. I would reinforce my small rules each day in large group especially at morning meeting. These rules could be how we take care of our friends, how to play with others, keeping our hands to ourselves, sharing, trading toys with friends, ask politely etc. Based on her behavior i would model appropriate classroom behavior for her using myself and another child or child-to-child. She feels threatened by this new kid and do not want to share space with him so, she demonstrates negative behavior to him. You as the caregiver must keep drawing her attention to the class rules and the consequences that comes with them. Have her working in a peer group with this other kid and in your presence and model how we play with our friends, then have her model the positive behavior with this kid. Behind every negative behavior there is a need to be met. This child need is to share her environment with others in a positive way. So, you must constantly model the positive behavior for her and then use verbal praise or high-five when she demonstrate the positive behavior. Another thing, do not focus on the negative behavior and ask her why she did it. When she push a child use it as a teachable moment to reinforce the class rules (e.g. We keep our hands to ourselves, we use our hands to build things, write, eat etc.) Also, have her apologize to any child that she demonstrate a negative behavior.

    Florence Britton
    Teacher Assistant
    Gilmore Memorial Preschool
    Paterson NJ

  • 14.  RE: "Bullying" behavior

    Posted 05-20-2021 08:32 AM
    Florence I love what you said "behind every negative behavior is a need to be met."  Exactly.

    Joanie Calem
    Music and Inclusion Specialist
    Sing Along
    Columbus, OH