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Are preschoolers really capable of bullying?

We hear the words “bully” and “bullying” being used all the time. We have never known as much about the act of bullying as we do now (e.g. see here, here, and here). As teachers, parents, and caregivers, we are concerned that our children are being bullied or will become bullies and we’re even more conscious of these behaviours because we hear so much about the negative consequences resulting from bullying behaviour. This post draws on recent NZ research into parents’ and educators’ attitudes towards “bullying”-type behaviours in early childhood.

Defining bullying
Researchers understand bullying to be: “aggressive behaviour or intentional ‘harm doing,’ which is carried out repeatedly and over time in an interpersonal relationship characterised by an imbalance of power” (Olweus, 1993, p. 8-9). This definition means that each aggressive behaviour must meet three main criteria to be labelled bullying:
1. The behaviour must be carried out with the intention to cause harm. Accidental harm is not considered bullying.
2. The behaviour must be repetitive. A one-off aggressive act is not considered bullying
3. There must be some evidence of an imbalance of power. This could be an imbalance in age, physical size, relationship roles, popularity, ‘belonging’ (e.g. at school, in a friend group) etc. Behaviour that causes harm but occurs between equals is not considered bullying.

Recently, researchers have started to question whether pre-schoolers are capable of engaging in aggressive behaviours that met all three criteria. Is it appropriate to label such young children as bullies? During the early years, children are developing social skills and friendships. They are learning how to regulate their emotions and develop self-control, and it can take them a while to process others’ perspectives. While these skills and abilities are developing rapidly during early childhood, this is still an immature period in a young child’s development. This means it can be very difficult (and dangerous!) to label young children’s aggressive and bullying-like behaviours as intentional behaviour used to cause harm. These behaviours may in fact reflect poor self-regulation, reactivity, or experimenting with behaviours observed in their environment, rather than having the malicious intent required for being categorised as bullying.

A real challenge in understanding early childhood bullying relates to how we define bullying at such a young age. Bullying behaviour is subjective in nature and the definition and criteria used by researchers to define bullying may not be applied (or known) consistently by educators, parents, and caregivers. This is not a criticism of those educators, parents, or caregivers: Very rarely do we actually discuss the definition and criteria used to label aggressive behaviours as bullying.

What do parents and educators think about “bullying” among pre-schoolers?
In my most recent study, I was interested in speaking to early childhood educators and parents about whether they thought pre-schoolers were capable of bullying, and the types of behaviours that these educators and parents believed constituted bullying among this age group.

The majority of early childhood educators (76%) and parents/caregivers (72%) in this study believed that pre-schoolers were capable of bullying. However, these behaviours were referred to as “mostly unintentional bullying” [emphasis added] and comments were made that preschool-age children do not understand what they’re doing and the impact their behaviour may have on others. For instance, a parent stated: “I don’t think they intentionally bully others but act in a way that they think is ordinary” and an early childhood educator noted: “Yes [young children are capable of bullying] but I don’t believe they realise what they are doing. They know they are upsetting the child but don’t understand the impact this has on the other child.”

An interesting finding out of this study was that what early childhood educators and parents/caregivers classify as bullying behaviours changes at different ages of the child. Participants made comments such as “I don’t think they can bully in the same way as an older child does” and “Yes, young children can act as bullies but not comparable to the way a tween or teen or adult may bully.”

It seems that early childhood educators’ and parents’ expectations of pre-schooler’s aggressive behaviours differ from their expectations of older children. This may reflect the types of behaviours we label as bullying during the early years.

Common bullying behaviours reported by educators and parents
While we could create a long list of the different negative behaviours that pre-schoolers can use, the educators and parents who participated in this study indicated that physical forms of aggression (e.g. hitting, kicking, punching etc.) were the most common form of bullying they observe in pre-schoolers. This was followed by relational (e.g. social exclusion) and verbal (e.g. threats) forms of bullying. While it is difficult to determine whether young children do engage in more physical bullying compared to relational and verbal bullying (because no observation data has been collected on these behaviours), we do know that early childhood educators and parents still perceive physical aggression as being much more serious than relational aggression. These adults are also more likely to intervene immediately in cases of physical aggression, whereas adult intervention is more likely to be delayed or not occur at all after relationally aggressive behaviours are observed.

So, are pre-schoolers capable of “bullying”?
Although my research indicated that a majority of educators and parents believe that pre-schoolers are capable of bullying, many raised serious concerns about labelling such young children as ‘bullies’ because it was difficult to discriminate between typical social behavioural development and intentional aggressive behaviour. The inconsistent understanding of what constitutes bullying during early childhood is another reason that labelling can be dangerous.

So, what should we do when we feel like a child may be exhibiting ‘bullying’ behaviours? When I talk with educators, parents, and caregivers about young children’s aggressive behaviour, I always find myself emphasising the importance of understanding the ‘why’ of behaviour. By understanding the purpose of children’s behaviour, we are better able to understand:
– their intentions
– what they think they will achieve by using the aggressive (or prosocial) behaviour
– whether they believe the behaviour is un/acceptable and
– whether they think there may be consequences associated with the behaviour

Often, we rely on our own observations and knowledge of the child to make judgements about whether their behaviour was aggressive or whether they were bullying. However, this can be dangerous – applying the “bully” label to behaviour and young children incorrectly can lead to stigmatising effects, and there is a need to acknowledge that bullying is distinct from more typical aggression and rough and tumble play. Similarly, attempting to label a child or the behaviour is not likely to be helpful in facilitating healthy social development and relationships. Behaviour is meaningful – as adults involved in caring for and educating children, we must always stay curious in order to understand why children are behaving the way they are.

You can also read this blog here

Another reason why conversations with young children are so important

Young girl smiles up at her mother

Conversations with young children about their behaviour allows us to better understand why they use certain behaviours. Research coming out of Harvard also shows that having conversations with young children improves their literacy skills. Read more about these study here

Latest blog post – Conversations with young children about their negative behaviour – it is just ‘naughty’ behaviour

Understanding whether young children believe aggression to be acceptable or unacceptable is one of the first steps for teachers and parents to better predict their behaviour and understand the feelings and needs that are expressed via these behaviours. As adults, when we see young children using aggression, we are often quick to step in to solve the problem for the child. While we do this with very good intentions in mind, we might be missing critical opportunities to support young children to develop their own social competence and strategies to respond to social situations.

Research has shown that children who view aggression (e.g. social exclusion, rumour spreading, kicking, punching) as acceptable are more likely to use these behaviours to solve social conflict. So if children’s acceptability beliefs predict their behaviour, can we use young children’s social behaviours to better understand the feelings and needs (e.g. frustration or anger) that underlie those behaviours and support children to develop their own appropriate strategies to solve social problems?

Some real scenarios

Consider this scenario …

Sam was playing with blocks on the floor and Riley came over and kicked the blocks over. Sam stood up and said to Riley, “I’m not going to be your friend anymore if you don’t stop it.” Sam then walked away to tell other children not to play with Riley. Riley sat on the floor crying.

Now consider this scenario …

Alex and Bailey were playing in a life-size car. Alex was singing and Bailey said “Stop singing, we won’t hear the sirens” – but Alex continued to sing. Bailey then hit Alex on the head and Alex responded by hitting Bailey on the head but much harder, making Bailey cry.

Both these scenarios are real examples of behaviours that occurred during my research observations of young children playing with their peers in early childhood centres. Teachers and parents often consider these to be common, ‘typical’ behaviours used by 3-5 year olds; however, less is known about what young children think about these behaviours and whether they think they are acceptable. To some extent, one could argue that because the child is using these behaviours, they must believe that they are acceptable – and indeed, research has shown this to be the case for much older children  but what about younger children? As teachers and parents, we are often very quick to make conclusions about why children use aggressive behaviours without providing opportunities for children themselves to explain why they chose to use a particular type of behaviour.

Recall Scenario 1. I asked Sam why he had responded to Riley by saying “I’m not going to be your friend anymore.” Sam’s response was that it was because Riley was

“kicking over my blocks and that’s not nice. I was building a road for everyone to play with. But I’m sorry for making Riley cry.”

Even though Riley’s behaviour was inappropriate, by giving Sam the opportunity to explain and justify why he excluded Riley from the group, I now understand (1) that Sam views kicking over another person’s blocks as “not nice” – but also (2) that he is remorseful and sorry for retaliating with aggression that caused Riley to cry.

Now recall Scenario 2. I asked Alex why she had hit Bailey on the head. Alex’s response was

“Bailey hit me first so it’s okay to hit back.”

Again, while both girls in this scenario used harmful behaviours, this response tells me that Alex views physical aggression as acceptable, particularly if it is in retaliation to another negative behaviour used by a peer.

Scenarios 1 and 2 also show that by seeking information about why children choose to engage in aggression, we can more accurately understand:

  • Whether the behaviour was intentional, and
  • What functional purpose the aggressive behaviour serves for the child.

Like any behaviour, aggression comes from a functional place and young children are not just being ‘naughty’. As teachers and parents, we can take this information and teach children more appropriate ways to respond to their peers when they interact socially and when they are faced with conflict.

From aggression to teaching opportunity

New Zealand’s early childhood curriculum, Te Whāriki, provides a foundation for children to be supported in learning about boundaries of acceptable behaviour and how to respect the rights of others. Teachers and parents play critical roles in encouraging young children’s positive social participation and competence, and this can be facilitated by providing support for behaviour that is socially and individually appropriate. For example, we can encourage children to reflect on the impact of their behaviour and empathise with the situation by asking questions such as:

  • Why did you do that?
  • How do you think (name) is feeling now?
  • How would you feel if that happened to you?
  • What can you do now?

These are all questions that tap into young children’s motives. Questions like this allow teachers and parents to understand more about the function of the child’s behaviour – and, more than that, such questions also encourage young children to reflect on the why of their own behaviour. Generally, no matter how young or old you are, if you don’t know why you’re doing something, it is very hard to change your behaviour.

The ways in which teachers and parents approach young children after the children have engaged in aggression are also important if we want to use these situations as teaching opportunities. For instance, when a child is frustrated and incredibly upset, they may not be in a receptive state to reflect on the situation. Timing is therefore important if we want young children to be receptive to our approaches. Rather than responding reactively and in the heat of the moment, we often need to be patient, allowing the child to cool down and process the situation and their behaviours. However, there is a fine line between allowing a young child sufficient time to cool down and intervening early enough to ensure they make the connection between their actions and the impact of their behaviour on others. The timing of this intervention will differ for each individual child; however, it is important that the approaches that teachers/parents choose to use promote a sense of acceptance and ensure that the child knows they are supported by the teacher/parent rather than being judged and labelled. All approaches to intervention should protect young children’s mana and develop their social and emotional competence – all of which have a significant impact on their peer relationships.

By approaching situations with empathy and openness, teachers and parents can use these social situations as an opportunity to teach appropriate and acceptable social skills. When teachers and parents rely on their own judgements and conclusions about why a child has engaged in aggression, or when little consideration has been given to the context and models of behaviour that children may have around them in the home and community, critical teaching opportunities are lost. While we often assume that young children who engage in aggressive behaviours lack social skills and social competence, we can’t forget that there are a number of children who strategically use aggression to achieve social dominance or other personal goals, usually in the form of proactive relational aggression. These children often are aware of their social status amongst their peers and may have more advanced social skills, as they are better able to predict the behaviours that will more effectively hurt or upset their peers. In some cases, these children could be using these types of sophisticated behaviours for much of their early years without being taught that these behaviours are unacceptable or being given more appropriate and acceptable social skills to use to achieve their underlying personal goals.

Take-home message

If there is one thing I want teachers and parents to take away from these findings it is this – there is value in directly asking children about their intentions and to explain their behaviour. Young children are much more clever than we give them credit for. By giving them a voice, we are proactively engaging them in the conversation about how to develop more acceptable and appropriate social skills before their aggression becomes pervasive.

You can also read it here

What do children think about aggression?

Do 3-5 year olds understand what they’re doing when they engage in aggression?

Do they think aggression is acceptable behaviour?

As part of my research I explored some of these questions to get a better understanding about why young children choose to use aggression in their social relationships. Here were some of the key findings:

  • Relationally aggressive and typically developing children both acknowledged that aggression was serious and unacceptable
  • Younger children were more likely to believe that aggression was more acceptable than older children
  • Relationally aggressive children had higher quality social interactions and relationships with their peers and adults suggesting that they may be more socially skilled than non-aggressive children
  • Non-aggressive children suggested more aggressive behaviours when responding to provocation from peers
  • Some aggressive children can also display higher levels of prosocial behaviour and can use this to more effectively manipulate their peers

If you would like to read more about this research, you can access the publication in the International Journal of Early Childhood here.

Podcast – How to handle social exclusion

I have worked closely with Professor Jamie Ostrov over the years and recently he spoke to Jen Lumanlan from Your Parenting Mojo about some of the research he has conducted on social exclusion and relational aggression.

Listen to the Podcast here

He makes reference to one of my most recent publications on teacher and parent perceptions about young children’s aggression.

It’s a great listen and I hope you enjoy it.