Much of the bullying behavior which takes place in early childhood and elementary school occurs on the playground. It’s the time and place during the school day when children are the least supervised for the longest amount of time. So if you can disrupt playground bullying, you can eliminate a good portion of the bullying that might take place in elementary school. Here are some tips to help you accomplish this:

How to prevent playground bullying

1. Get teachers onto the playground
We understand that recess serves as invaluable set-up time for teachers, but if you can manage to rotate turns so that at least one teacher is on the playground interacting with the kids each recess, it can accomplish a lot. Anyone who’s ever worked with kids this age and watched their heated arguments about who’s the boss of who knows that having the children’s authority is a key part of proper supervision. If the children don’t respect you as someone with authority, they’ll never listen to you.

The problem with classroom aides on the playground is that with the exception of a few who are highly effective, most fail to earn this authoritative respect among their charges. Students tend to view them in the same light as rent-a-cops; not a real teacher who commands real authority or deserves their respect. When children get in scuffles and disregard what an aide says, as they often do, you tend to get a lot of “wait until your teacher finds out that you’re not listening.” The kids rightly see this as passing the buck, which only undermines the authority of all aides in general. Their job duties are more akin to security guards: they stay relatively disinvolved with the kids and focus on maintaining the perimeter. So if you have 200 kids on the playground with 4 or 5 aides standing next to the building watching, the kids are essentially unsupervised. Sure, they’ll handle bloody knees and keep them from running off, but they are otherwise left to their own devices, and without an authority figure who the more difficult or aggressive kids consider someone commanding of respect. This allows bullying to occur.

Having at least one teacher amidst the kids provides an authority presence. Problems can be dealt with as they arise by someone the kids view as a respectable authority, and the more aggressive kids are not given a free pass to do whatever they want so long as it doesn’t draw blood.

2. Keep age groups separated
Try to avoid mixing age groups. This allows for a large power differential to exist among the kids, and power differentials tend to open the door for bullying behavior. If you do mix a whole range of ages together, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this, so long as you accommodate for it with excellent supervision.

3. Organize around conflict avoidance
Organize playground activities so that they are not conflicting with each other. Many conflicts start with an accidental bump or shove or because kids run into each other. This is a safety concern as well. On the same token, make sure you have plenty of supplies – scarcity results in conflict, and can lead to bullying behaviors when kids fight over limited resources. So one way to diminish conflict is simply to make sure you have plenty of balls and other supplies to go around. You also might try having each grade create a set of playground rules and post these on the door so that all students are aware of them.

4. Have a simple plan to address bullying
Make sure all playground staff know what problem signs to look for, such as:

  • A student who is consistently off by themselves,
  • A group of kids restricting other children from playing in a certain area,
  • Pointing & laughing at someone,
  • A child who seems withdrawn and depressed but is reluctant to give you a reason.

Create a clear and easy way for playground supervisors to report problem incidents they see. The more complicated the system, the less likely it is to work. One of the best methods is to keep a playground log for each grade on a clipboard, so that suspect behaviors can be quickly recorded. This allows teachers and aides to identify common culprits or instigators who might have gone unnoticed before. Deal with all incidents of bullying or intimidation swiftly. Never tell kids to sort it out on their own. This will either lead to a fight, or it will hand victory to the bully while teaching the victim that adults will do nothing to protect them.

5. Bust out the camera
This may seem a bit Orwellian, but it often works. Simply having a camera or video recorder around can alter the children’s behavior. No child wants a photo proving they were causing trouble, and it can eliminate problems before they start. This is an especially powerful tool if your school has had problems with playground bullying in the past. Just be sure to use the device both ways: try to catch kids displaying positive behaviors towards each other as well, and share these among the class.

The bigger picture
Remember that the social structure of the playground can have a profound impact on what carries over to the classroom, so there is incentive for teachers to know how their class plays. Make a point of spending time outdoors with the kids so that you’re aware of the social structure that forms during unstructured times of the day.