Early Intervention for Bullying in Preschool: Why It Matters and What Works

Bullying often comes to mind as something that happens in the middle school lunchroom or in the form of playground taunting in elementary school. Though those scenarios are common, some may not realize that even bullying in preschool is a reality for some children.

A study published by Pediatrics found that 20 percent of kids ages 2 to 5 years old have experienced physical bullying in their lifetime. More than 14 percent have been bullied emotionally or mentally, according to that study.

At ChildCare Education Institute (CCEI), we’ve supported educators looking for answers on how to deal with bullying in the classroom. With the help of expert-led training and research-based resources, we’ve helped teachers and caregivers identify, prevent, and learn how to deal with bullying in preschool.

Whether a child has the potential of being bullied or bullying other classmates, it’s important to be prepared to address the problem sooner rather than later. Below, we’ve broken down how to explain bullying to a child and, ultimately, help prevent bullying in preschool.

Understand the How and Why of Bullying

Teasing, taunting, hitting, and other forms of bodily injury are more obvious signs of bullying in a preschool setting. Bullying is defined as unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived imbalance of power where a child uses their physical strength, knowledge, or popularity to control or harm others, and that’s repeated or has the potential to happen more than once. Teachers often note that pushing, shoving, and making faces are quite common in preschool. In some cases, classroom bullies might even isolate another child from social time by not playing with them or refusing to share their toys.

Forms of Bullying in Preschool:

  • Physical: Using physical force by hitting, tripping, kicking, pushing, blocking, or touching the victim inappropriately.
  • Verbal/Emotional: Written or verbal communication that uses cruel words to disrespect or demean a child’s appearance, ethnicity, disability, etc.
  • Relational: Hurting the reputation and relationships of the target by ignoring them or preventing students from interacting with others.

These various forms of bullying in preschool can have detrimental effects on children, Katelyn Holt RN, BSN, BC, explained to the “Moms Love Best” blog.  An example she shared is bullying a child with food allergies. If that child responds to bullying by eating something that could cause a reaction just to fit in, the harm and repercussions of bullying go from lowered self-esteem to a potential hospital visit.

Having an understanding of how to detect harmful behavior can help parents and teachers understand how to explain bullying to a child.

It can be challenging to explain because, in many cases, adults have a hard time understanding why bullying happens. There are many reasons, but bullying often stems from a lack of social skills and immaturity. Bullies can have their own hurt or deal with their own challenges that they cannot express.

Another reason could lie in simply wanting attention or acceptance from classmates. In some instances, the reasoning goes deeper. According to Fran Walfish, Psy.D., a California child and family psychotherapist and author of “The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child,” some children dealing with abuse or neglect at home act out in harmful ways at school.

In those circumstances, “the child who’s the victim in their own family can’t contain the hostility, and their rage leads them to become a bully,” Walfish says. “They go to school or out into the world and look for an easy target. Then, they expel their hostilities onto another innocent victim.”

Often, preschool-aged kids cannot understand how their mischanneled pain affects their bullying victim. Having conversations to determine the root cause of bullying can ease the issue in preschool and beyond.

Be Open to Talking + Listening

Research shows that children seek support from their teachers and parents when dealing with challenging situations, and the issue of how to deal with bullying in preschool is no different.

Taking some classroom time to check on how students are feeling can give you a better idea of whether there’s aggressive behavior during recess or other times of the day. Spark up the chat about daily life and feelings that include questions like:

  • What was something good that happened at school today?
  • How was recess? Did everyone play nice?
  • What do you like best about yourself?
  • What do your friends tell you they like about you?

Keeping the lines of communication open is critical. Checking in with students in the classroom can provide a starting point on how to explain bullying to a child.

Listening to children as they share openly will help ease into the conversation about what bullying looks like.  At such a young age, it may not be apparent why they’re experiencing such things or what bullying is. Only about 40 percent of children report bullying to adults due to fear and lack of understanding.

Look for Unspoken Signs

While listening and conversation is essential, social listening must occur when a child does not outwardly share. Going beyond the initial conversations with students entails looking out for the following unspoken signs:

  • Injuries that can’t be explained
  • Destroyed or lost personal belongings
  • Faking illness or regular stomach aches
  • Eating habits change
  • A decrease in self-esteem
  • Behaviors like self-harming

When you notice these alarming signs and behaviors, it’s time to ensure your students have the tools to cope with bullying and avoid it.

Help Kids Dealing with Bullies Understand and Cope

Assisting your students on how to deal with bullying in preschool can help shift the power from the bully to the victim. Several tactics will increase the child’s confidence, disarm a preschool bully, and diffuse what could become a fight.

Some of those response tactics include:

  • Walk away: Ignoring a bully and avoiding engaging takes power away from their actions.
  • Tell them to stop: Bullies pick on people they think they can get away with pushing around – physically and mentally. Confidently responding with “stop” or “leave me alone” conveys that behavior won’t be tolerated.
  • Have a buddy: Bullies will often pick on someone when they’re alone. Encourage your students to stick with their friends and classmates that support them when facing aggressive behavior.
  • Ask for help: There is no shame in telling an adult about bullying. Encourage your students to speak to you, their parents, or other adults they trust if bullying occurs.

Model and Reinforce Anti-Bullying Behavior

Children look to adults to set the tone for how they speak, act, and treat other children. Simple gestures like hearing you say “thank you” or “excuse me” can be respectful, friendly habits that children mimic.

Observing positive behavior can help encourage anti-bullying behavior. It can also be helpful to encourage the preschool bully to develop better, more appropriate ways to be social. Advise a child that tends to display bullying behavior to make friends, share with others, and help their classmates in need. You can say things like “Make sure you let John have a turn” or “Share your toy with Jane.”

Leading by example is always encouraged, but there’s also a place for consequences. If a child has been given the opportunity to correct their behavior and apologize, but the bullying continues, the response from adults must go a step further. Natural and appropriate consequences are the next approach once the behavior continues. Pulling the child away from preferred activities can encourage them to change their attitude toward others.

The shift will gradually begin when it’s clear that behavior is not accepted or tolerated. Above all, keeping the conversation going about what bullying is and better ways to channel energy can alleviate the issue in the classroom.

CCEI offers several courses that provide guidance on dealing with bullying, from conflict resolution to reinforcing positive behavior. Click here to learn more about these offerings as well as CCEI’s entire catalog of 200+ online courses.