“Bullying takes place more in elementary and middle or junior high schools than in high schools, but bullying actually can begin in the preschool years.”
– Alison Seale (2004, p. 14)
Bullying behavior in early childhood (preschool and kindergarten) is of an entirely different nature than that which comes later, and we must be careful about grouping it under the same terms. Kids this age can certainly be mean and cruel to each other at times, and will even conspire to exclude another child from the group or gang up on them, but it generally doesn’t rise to the level of conspiring to be mean just for the sake of it. It’s seldom consistent, thought-out aggression. It’s more about situational aggression or tit-for tat feuds.
However, some of the personality characteristics associated with bullying can emerge at this age. Some psychologists note that highly aggressive kids may start to actively target others in kindergarten, when social power first starts to blossom. And studies have shown that seven to twenty percent of preschool and early school-age children have levels of disruptive, aggressive behaviors that are severe enough to qualify for a mental health diagnosis. (Fox et al., 2003) When these disruptive or aggressive behaviors go by uncorrected, they often serve as a precursor to more severe bullying problems down the road.
The profile of a preschool bully: How bullying behavior begins in young kids
“Bobby” (not his real name) was a very eccentric child who, from a young age, had a superior physique and an analytic intelligence that was offset by emotional problems. As a toddler, he was as big as a 4-year-old, towering over the other kids in his class. The difference between him and the other 1-year-olds was so pronounced that state inspectors once demanded to see his birth certificate because they couldn’t believe he belonged in that age group. This size differential meant that Bobby could get his way if he really wanted it, and this may have served to aggravate some of the problems that followed.
As he got older, the uniqueness of his personality really started to show. He was a crazy genius. He could recite the scientific names for many dinosaurs, and was deeply curious about the way things worked in the world. By this time his classmates had caught up to him somewhat on physical terms, but he was still bigger than the other kids. He could be very loving and caring at times, yet he was also an emotional time bomb who always seemed to find his way into time out. I remember one occasion in particular when he was sitting in my office after being removed from the classroom, crying and repeating the phrase “I wish I were an orphan…” over and over again. (These are some of the things your child’s teachers deal with all day, by the way, so cut them some slack.) Then on a dime, as if someone had flipped a light switch, a thought popped into his head, and he went from a sad, contorted child looking miserable in a chair crying about how he wished he were an orphan to an inquisitive look and a normal voice saying, hey, Josie, did you know that…” and then carried on about the behavior of some obscure dinosaur I can’t remember, as if the last 45 minutes of screaming and throwing things had never happened. That was Bobby; a youngster who always kept us on our toes and was sure to make life colorful.
To say Bobby was a difficult child would be like saying the Pacific ocean is a puddle on the West coast. He would constantly do things that would exasperate the teachers and irritate his peers. One time he ran down the hallway and launched himself into “Lisa” (not a real name) – a rather small, petite little girl – sending her head first into the wall. When I furiously confronted Bobby on why he would do such a thing, (he considered Lisa one of his friends, after all, and they played together all the time), he looked confused and responded: “I wanted to see if she could fly.” And he wasn’t trying to be funny, judging by the horrified look on his face. He literally thought that perhaps she might take off in flight if only given the right push. It was the kind of stupefying behavior Bobby had become famous for.
To many of his classmates, Bobby was a bully – someone who occasionally hurt them and was always getting in trouble with the teachers. He could also be a wonderful friend. The problem was not that he was mean-spirited; it was that he was different and too unstable. He eventually graduated from our program and went on to elementary school, where in a new environment with different teachers who hadn’t had years of practice containing him, he lasted a whopping half-a-day in kindergarten. That was enough for the principle to kick him out, saying “I’ve never seen a child act like that before.” They told his mother they would only take him back after he had a psych evaluation and was on some form of medication.
How patterns towards bullying can develop in preschool & kindergarten
When a child has conflicts with their environment for whatever reason, as Bobby did, it can lead to aggressive behavior that might resemble bullying. It can also start a regressive feedback loop, wherein a child’s inability to live in harmony with their surroundings causes frustration and conflicts with other kids, which can worsen aggressive tendencies. When such antisocial behavior carries on it begins to form a pattern, starting a process in motion that turns a child into a bully by habit.
Most of the conflicts that arise in preschool and kindergarten are conflicts over possessions or privileges: “That’s mine!; I was playing with that first; It’s my turn!; I was here first,” etc. Sometimes larger or more aggressive children discover that they can get their way more often through intimidation or by using their physical superiority to overpower other children. This can give rise to bullying type behaviors. At its core it’s fundamentally different from bullying which comes later, because seldom is it a matter of finding satisfaction in the torment of others. Rather, it’s simply about a child using their unique advantages to try and get what they want – something all kids will do.
Adult intervention is crucial in these cases. If a child is allowed to get away with such aggression or somehow learns that it works, they’ll resort to such behaviors more often. In the same way a kid learns that crying and throwing tantrums will cause his mother to cave in and give him what he wants, thus rewarding the child for throwing a tantrum, allowing a small child to get away with using aggression or defiance to get what he wants serves to reinforce the negative behavior.
Warning signs that a child could develop a bully mentality:
- A child’s actions are often misunderstood by his classmates.
- He or she gets in trouble often at school.
- He or she is significantly taller or stronger than the other kids their age and regularly uses this to their advantage.
- When upset or frustrated they tend to resort to hitting or destroying things.
- Other children routinely volunteer information about ways your child was mean to them when you pick him up. Occasional feuds are to be expected, but too many could be a sign that your child is initiating conflict.
If your child is the target of a preschool or kindergarten bully:
- Talk with the teachers and make sure they know what is going on.
- Talk with your child and inform them that he or she is to tell the teacher immediately when the bully does something to hurt them. This reduces the incentives if the reward for bullying (getting that toy they wanted) is taken away since they know they will get in trouble.
- Follow up with teachers to ensure that they are immediately responding to all classroom incidents that come to their attention.