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  • 1.  Bullying

    Posted 06-18-2017 08:38 PM
    Recently, I was asked if I thought 4 and 5 year old children could be bullies. I am interested to know how others would respond to this question.

    Robert Gundling, Ed.D.
    Sense of Wonder, LLC
    Alexandria VA

  • 2.  RE: Bullying

    Posted 06-19-2017 06:06 AM
    ​Interesting question. I think it depends on your definition of bullying.  I think the imbalance of power that is created by bullying definitely exists as early as 4 and 5 and even in the 3's program, as do bullying behaviors such as teasing and social exclusion.  At this age though, the intent to hurt others is usually not there yet.  As a society and definitely as parents, we are very much on alert for bullying behaviors, I would not define what happens at this age as "bullying".

    Erin Dutton
    Mount Tom Day School
    New Rochelle NY

  • 3.  RE: Bullying

    Posted 06-19-2017 06:59 AM
    In my experience, especially recently, bullying happens in 4 &5's and even 3's when teased by older siblings and parents or other family members. They learn to overpower others quickly, trying to imitate their bullies. They may not understand that it hurts, but the don't stop when that is pointed out. I have two bullies this year with bullying parents. One just turned 4, one is 4.5. Both began this aggressive, teasing behavior with each other and with peers at 3.  It is very frustrating because I have witnessed the modeling from dad and siblings or neighborhood friends. It is worse after a weekend.

    School is out and they move on to Pre-K in two weeks. I fear for their ability to control themselves- and their smirks at another's pain next year. The 5.5 year old who was bulling earilier in the year has become more empathic unless home for extended time with sibling and uncle. So I guess there is some hope.

    When end an incident occurs, we sit down together and talk it out with the victim. We encourage the victim to speak up to the bully and they work out a way to resolve it together. Over time, this works. Maybe the bullies learn to speak up to their home bullies this way, too.

    Lynn Manfredi Petitt
    Lynn''''''''s NET :)
    Decatur GA

  • 4.  RE: Bullying

    Posted 06-19-2017 09:26 AM

    Thank you for bringing up this important discussion question. I remember how saddened I was to have a child pulled out of my classroom because his parents claimed he was being bullied by another child. The children were only two years old at the time. It's true, this other child was aggressive and used force to get his way, but I think it was harmful to label him as a "bully" at such a young age. Was the behavior inappropriate? Yes. Did it need gentle redirection? Absolutely. But I would avoid naming the action as bullying, simply in order to avoid labeling a child as a bully. Labels hurt everyone, especially at such a tender, vulnerable age. I know you mentioned 4 and 5 year old children specifically, but I think under 7 years old is where I would give a grace period. I believe that if the harmful behavior continues at 7, it will need to be addressed more assertively.


    Cassandra Caffee
    Abingdon VA

  • 5.  RE: Bullying

    Posted 06-19-2017 10:30 AM

    I do not believe we should characterize any preschool-aged child as engaging in bullying--which implies a degree of self-awareness about the power one holds and one's ability to use it to dominate another (who holds less) not just once or occasionally but in a systematic, repeated pattern.  I think we are way too quick to pin that label even on older children and adolescents. Even where it applies, research shows there is a large overlap between children who feel they have been victimized by "bullies" and children who acknowledge they have victimized or "bullied" others.

     In our early childhood settings, let's not rush toward the labeling and instead deal with the specifics of each situation that arises--and of each person.  Many children have a lot to learn about becoming socially competent, just as they have a lot to learn about literacy, numeracy, and science.  We don't punish or label them due to their deficits in literacy.  And we should avoid punishing or labeling them due to not having been offered good models and good instruction in socially competent interactions.  A good way to start is with the Pyramid of Social Competence as laid out (in numerous publications) by Lise Fox and her co-authors. 

    Dale Borman Fink, Ph.D.
    Education Department
    Associate Professor, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts
    Campus telephone (413) 662-5546

  • 6.  RE: Bullying

    Posted 06-19-2017 10:43 AM
    This raises the question of whether one is considering the behavior or the person. Preschool age children can certainly perform bullying behaviors, but labeling them bullies would be a terrible idea. They just have yet to learn that such behaviors have negative consequences for both them and their victim.

    Jack Wright
    Success With Children
    St. Ignatius MT

  • 7.  RE: Bullying

    Posted 06-19-2017 11:27 AM
    ​While I lack the formal qualifications to speak clinically on this topic, I will share my opinion.  Fist, I think using the term "bully" to describe any child is destructive.  Children who display the characteristics of a "bully", are often victims of abusive behavior themselves, and characterizing them as "bullies" is surely doing more harm to their self perception, as well as societal perception than good.  As for 4-5 year olds, nearly all of them display some type of aggressive behavior from time to time, especially when overwhelmed physically or  emotionally.  If a child is displaying aggressive behavior, the majority of the time  though, and doesn't seem to be able to grasp onto more effective social and emotional tools, then there is most likely some type of underlying cause to the behavior, such as trouble at home, or some type of undiagnosed physical/mental issue.  A "bully" is simply an aggressive  child in need of intervention and help, not a label.

    James Mitchell
    Takoma Park MD

  • 8.  RE: Bullying

    Posted 06-19-2017 01:55 PM
    I found that gives good information, and tend to refer people to it for more information.

    Julie Ehle
    Mid Michigan Community College
    Harrison MI

  • 9.  RE: Bullying

    Posted 06-20-2017 10:41 AM
    There are no bullies in preschool, but there are warning signs that will lead to a child becoming a bully later in life if no one intervenes and provides the necessary help.  Check out this PSA video from Conscious Discipline, "How to Make a Bully": Conscious Discipline Videos - Conscious Discipline

    There are also videos explaining the critical interventions necessary to help children at each stage of development, as well as a PDF of the research that is referenced in the video.

    Mandy Lloyd, Conscious Discipline Certified Instructor
    Annandale VA

  • 10.  RE: Bullying

    Posted 06-20-2017 10:19 PM
    I'm interested in your comment "there are no bullies in preschool."  Why do you say that?  Do you think children are too young at that age to be affected by bullying?  I could see how young children could be intimidated by others or made to feel inferior or even frightened....wouldn't this constitute bullying behavior?

    Ludmila Battista
    Flanders NJ

  • 11.  RE: Bullying

    Posted 06-21-2017 06:45 AM
    I don't think preschoolers are capable of being bullies. Most of their behavior is imitation, experimentation, and exploration. They imitate others' behaviors-so if they see older children behaving like bullies they might  try it to see if it works. They are continually trying to figure out what is acceptable and what is not. They are also figuring out what works and what doesn't when they want something, as well as exploring their effect on others-such as what happens when I hit? Do I get what I want? Do I make someone cry? What happens when I hug? Can I make someone happy? I don't think they have enough life experience to be labeled a bully. That being said, I do believe that preschool behaviors/habits can lead to bullying, so it needs to be handled properly so it doesn't lead to it.

    Catherine Roach
    Milwaukee WI

  • 12.  RE: Bullying

    Posted 06-22-2017 01:32 PM
    Bullying in ECE is so interesting isn't it?  On the one hand- kids are experimenting with everything and behaviors that would clearly be considered bullying in the later grades, are often innocent mistakes at age 3 or 4.  On the other hand, bullying behavior is a habit, and kids who get stuck in the rut of bullying past age 8 or so are at risk for some pretty negative outcomes (as are kids who are frequent targets of bullying behavior).  And when hurtful behavior gets reinforced- because the child gets what he or she wants, or gets attention or a strong reaction (including laughter)- kids often repeat it.  When we add to this the fact that we are not seeing a lot of what we might call pre-bullying because kids take most of their exploration of societal biases out of sight and earshot of adults it becomes clear that we need to be thinking about bullying in early childhood.   I could go on and on about this - the research in this area is fascinating- but I think there are three main points.
    1.  Supportive intervention every time.  When children do anything that is hurtful to other children or reflects societal biases, they need our help to figure out another way to do things.  Anytime we decide to ignore the behavior because we are busy or don't know just how to address it, we risk kids getting stuck in  the habit of doing things  that hurt other people.
    2.  Stretch empathy across differences.  Children are born with empathy.  Babies are so empathetic that they often know what adults are feeling before we know ourselves.  But if they don't get help to stretch that empathy to include people who are different from them, then the empathy can make them more biased, rather than less.  So we need to be having lots of interesting, enthusiastic conversations about all sorts of similarities and differences.
    3.  Help kids learn to understand and reject stereotypes.  Pre-schoolers are tremendously vulnerable to stereotypes because they are primed to categorize things and stereotypes are a form of categorization. They are exposed to them all over their daily lives. If we aren't talking about stereotypes, the only way children can figure them out is to experiment with them - usually where we can't see or hear them.  After about age 8 stereotypes become much harder to eliminate- so the ECE years are an important time to address them.

    [Meg] [Thomas]
    [Early childhood program manager]
    [St Paul ] [MN]

  • 13.  RE: Bullying

    Posted 06-21-2017 12:50 PM
    ​Great Resource!  Conscious Discipline is often the answer for many problems!

    Juanita Springate
    Essentials for Greatness
    Lees Summit MO

  • 14.  RE: Bullying

    Posted 06-20-2017 11:43 AM
    As with all social creatures, we humans develop dominance hierarchies in ALL our social contexts (families, workplaces, preschool classrooms, etc.). I have documented dominance hierarchies in toddler classrooms where some children will use their position of power (whether it is being physically more dominant than other children, having control of classroom resources, or being a "favorite" of the teachers or other peers) to "convince" other children to yield resources and privileges to them.  Anecdotally, I have noticed that many situations that look like "bullying" in the preschool years often occur when two children are competing for higher dominance. While it is inappropriate to label the children using social power to vie for dominance as "bullies," recognizing and educating children about the inappropriate use of power differences to control others, as well as the benefits of developing more egalitarian relationships, is important for reducing later bullying.

    Jared Lisonbee
    Salt Lake City UT

  • 15.  RE: Bullying

    Posted 06-20-2017 01:33 PM
    Great question. I agree with the poster who mentioned that it depends on your definition of "bully." As a classroom teacher, I've seen many children singled out by others, even in toddler rooms. I have never considered the children "bullies" but some guardians have. These discussions are a great opportunity to educate guardians about the cognitive development of young children and form a strong guardian/teacher partnership. We work together to try to determine why their child is being singled out while still protecting the privacy of the "bully" by not discussing their development. In my experience, usually one of three scenarios is playing out.
    • The child has a strong sensory/physical need that is not being fully met, leading them to "crash" into other children.
    • The child is seeking a social connection with another child, but is struggling to communicate and relies on their physical capabilities to communicate.
    • The child is testing their boundaries. 
    Based on the situation, I recommend a combination of things for the guardians and teachers to do to support both the "bully" and the "bullied." As teachers, we do what we can to meet the child's physical needs. Knowing triggers and beginning signs of that crashing behavior is key for teachers to catch the behavior before it is targeted toward others. In the case of one child being targeted, we like to bring the two children together in a small group or area of the classroom to encourage positive interactions with our close supervision to help them work through any conflicts. We also encourage closely supervised playdates outside of school. As for children who are testing boundaries, we often just keep a closer eye on them so that we can step in and assist with conflicts and encourage guardians to do the same. As in any caregiving situation, consistency is one of the most important aspects, so we always try to create and maintain open, clear communication with the guardians with the common goal of doing what is best for the children.

    I'm interested in hearing how others approach this topic with guardians!

    Jennifer Spires
    San Francisco CA

  • 16.  RE: Bullying

    Posted 06-20-2017 08:46 PM
    I want to thank everyone who responded to my question about bullying. I found the responses represent a variety of perspectives and provides valuable information on such an important topic as bullying and behavior that might be perceived as bullying and how to support children to consider better choices when interacting with other children. I appreciated the resources included in some of the posts.

    I find the website of the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) has so many resources to support a comprehensive professional development program for staff interested in providing a learning environment that includes intentional interactions with young children to support their social and emotional development.

    I find more educational journals include articles about the social and emotional development of children and youth. An article I read in the past few days, took the position that the social and emotional development of children and youth is invaluable to the success of the person throughout their life. With this in mind, I think it is incumbent upon those of us who are passionate about providing young children with the foundation they need to succeed in school and life to include opportunities for children to think about and be exposed to skills and ideas designed to promote prosocial behavior.

    Again, thank you to everyone who responded to my question. I really appreciate it.

    Robert Gundling, Ed.D.
    Sense of Wonder, LLC
    Alexandria VA

  • 17.  RE: Bullying

    Posted 06-22-2017 01:02 PM
    I like the term "Power dominance." I think it accurately describes what is happening in the pre-school classroom. Children are stretching their social and emotional wings through their interactions with their peers to see where they fit, how relationships work and what is socially acceptable in a group setting. "Bully" is another label that is too quickly placed on a child experimenting with where they fit in with their classmates and teachers. If the teacher can unravel the behavior they see to understand what needs the child has in this complicated dance they can direct, guide, lead and support a child exploring "Power dominance" into appropriate interactions with their peers. We can't, however, forget how this child's peers are feeling when they are experiencing this dynamic. Those children need direction, guidance, and support with how to react and maintain their own power during a conflict so that they are not feeling victimized by their classmate. It is important to acknowledge that a child may feel "bullied" whether or not the other child understands that this is how the behavior is being interpreted, and those feelings are just as valid.

    Debbie Hasbrook M.Ed
    Tacoma WA