2. What Is Bullying?

Early childhood educators need to understand bullying within the context of their early childhood settings.
Bullying is a form of emotional or physical abuse that has three defining characteristics:

  • Deliberate—A bully’s intention is to hurt someone
  • Repeated—A bully often targets the same victim again and again
  • Power imbalanced—A bully chooses victims he or she perceives as vulnerable

There are three main types of bullying: (1) physical bullying, such as hitting and pushing, (2) verbal bullying, such as yelling and name-calling, and (3) relational bullying, such as excluding or getting others to hurt someone. Note: A fourth type of bullying—cyberbullying—involves using the Internet, cell phones, or other digital communication devices to post or send hurtful text or images. Although cyberbullying can become an issue for older children, it is not yet a concern for preschoolers.

How does the definition of bullying apply to the wide variety of behaviors that young children show in early childhood settings?

Young children’s bullying often looks different from bullying among older children. Understanding the variety of ways that young children may become involved in bullying in early childhood settings can help educators prevent and stop bullying.

Young children typically experiment with different ways of behaving, and it’s important for early childhood educators to recognize that some of these behaviors may be precursors to bullying. For example, young children may make mean faces, say threatening things, grab objects, push others aside, falsely accuse others, or refuse to play with particular children. These pre-bullying behaviors, while hurtful, are not considered bullying because they are not done to deliberately and repeatedly hurt another less powerful child. However, if they are allowed to continue, these behaviors are likely to turn into a pattern of bullying.

The good news is that such behaviors are easier to stop in the early stages. Young children usually adjust their behavior depending on the responses of their classmates or teachers. If they are re-directed, they change their behaviors and try out new ones. When early childhood educators recognize and stop harmful pre-bullying behavior, they can stop the trajectory of bullying before it escalates. As Dan Olweus, a leading bullying prevention authority, advises, “It’s better to intervene too early rather than too late.”

What particular behaviors should early childhood educators pay attention to?

  • Shouting “Mine!” while grabbing a toy is a typical behavior of young children that is not usually considered bullying. However, if educators allow this behavior to be directed repeatedly and intentionally toward a targeted child without intervention, it can lead to verbal and physical forms of bullying.
  • Young children like to whisper secrets and call each other silly names. But when whispering spreads rumors or private information, when silly names become hurtful name-calling, and when one child repeatedly becomes the target, these childhood games should be considered bullying.
  • Children who say, “You can’t play with me,” may not yet be deliberately excluding selected classmates, but this behavior can easily develop into relational bullying and escalate into the more sophisticated forms of social exclusion used by older children (e.g., “You can’t be my friend if you’re friends with her”). Even five year olds have been observed manipulating their classmates to single out and exclude a vulnerable peer (see “Vicky’s Story”).
  • Children’s make-believe play provides opportunities for some children to manipulate and assert power over their playmates. Children who take charge of assigning the roles of mother, father, baby, and dog in a make-believe family are not yet bullying. But when these children consistently assign one child to play the less desirable roles (e.g., the dog, the baby, or the bad guy), don’t permit playmates to switch roles, and even control the child’s actions (demanding that the child bark, cry, or go to jail), they are deliberately and repeatedly using their power to take advantage of a vulnerable child—a key component of bullying.

With an understanding of the variety of ways that young children engage in different forms of bullying, early childhood educators can be prepared to address bullying through prevention, intervention, and follow-up. (See 5. Take Charge.)

Important Points to Remember

  • Bullying among young children may look different from bullying among older children.
  • Hurtful pre-bullying behaviors may lead to bullying when they become repetitive and intentional and involve an abuse of power.
  • Early intervention can prevent pre-bullying behaviors from developing into bullying.
  • Stopping bullying immediately can prevent it from escalating and spreading.