3. How Does Early Bullying Develop?


Bullying does not suddenly and mysteriously appear full-blown among children.

As young children enter early childhood settings, they bring with them a history of experiences with family, media, and other children. These experiences prepare children to be more or less likely to engage in bullying-related behavior.

In some families, children experience or observe family violence, physical punishment, or the use of verbal or physical aggression to control others. These family experiences may lead children to initiate aggressive behaviors and become involved in bullying in early childhood settings. In contrast, when children grow up in less punitive and more caring families and learn positive social skills, they are less likely to initiate bullying in early childhood settings.

Media experiences also influence children’s potential involvement in bullying. Children may learn bullying-related behaviors by watching television and movies that glorify violence and by playing violent video games that reward violent behavior. In contrast, educational media can guide children to initiate helpful behaviors and interact cooperatively with their peers.

Children’s direct and observed experiences with siblings and other children also influence how they will interact in early childhood settings. Those who experience aggression and bullying-related behaviors by siblings or other children in the home or neighborhood may imitate and experiment with these behaviors in their early childhood settings.
In addition to these childhood experiences outside the classroom, bullying may also originate within the early childhood setting as young children observe or interact with other children who are engaged in bullying-related behaviors.


In early childhood classrooms, aggression and bullying-related behaviors emerge and develop in relatively well-defined ways. Young children (ages 2–4) may begin using aggressive or early bullying behaviors to defend their possessions, territory, and friendships. Older children (ages 4–6) begin to use aggressive and bullying-related behaviors to threaten or intimidate other children.

These aggressive and early bullying behaviors develop systematically depending on the response of the target. For example, if a targeted child cries, submits, and yields the toy, the aggressive child is likely to select and target the same child again, and the bullying behaviors will continue. Sometimes, the submission of the targeted child may become rewarding in and of itself, and the aggressive child may smile and take pleasure in hurting another child on purpose. Allowed to continue, these behaviors may lead to full-blown bullying—hurtful behavior that is done repeatedly and deliberately to a selected, less powerful, and vulnerable peer.


When other children in the classroom observe a bullying child’s “successful” display of power and dominance over a victimized child, they may join in––dominating the same victim repeatedly or using similar tactics to target and dominate victims of their own. If these early forms of direct bullying are allowed to continue over several months, power hierarchies may form, with groups of dominant children regularly bullying others who give in to their demands by crying and yielding. As bullying further develops, it can take more varied and sophisticated forms.

Gender-Specific Development

In their efforts to stop and prevent the development of bullying, early childhood educators need to be aware that both girls and boys engage in a wide variety of bullying-related behaviors. However, boys and girls begin to show differences in their primary forms of aggression and bullying-related behaviors by about age 3.

For boys, it is more common to deliver and receive direct forms of physical and verbal aggression related to issues of power and dominance. These behaviors, which demand immediate intervention, are relatively easy to detect and observe.

Girls, in contrast, often begin to deliver and receive more sophisticated, subtle, and indirect forms of relational bullying associated with patterns of affiliation and exclusion. For example, girls begin to manipulate relationships, exclude classmates, spread rumors, tell secrets, and threaten not to play if their demands are not met.

Educators need to be aware of and to look out for young children involved in relational bullying, as it can be more difficult to detect but can hurt as much or even more than more direct forms of bullying.