4. Bullies, Victims, and Bystanders

Preventing bullying in early childhood settings involves more than focusing only on the child who is doing the bullying.

The emergence of bullying is based on the formation of specific relationships among children who bully, children who are bullied, and children who observe the bullying—the bully, the victim, and the bystander.

A child who bullies selects from his or her group of classmates a potentially vulnerable child to target for bullying. If the targeted child responds submissively by silently yielding, crying, or running away, the bullying child has achieved “success,” and the targeted child is likely to become a victim again and again.

In group situations, other children are often watching the bullying unfold. These bystanders to bullying learn who’s involved and which behaviors are permitted and rewarded. They may become fearful of the bullying child, rejecting of the victimized child, and passively accepting of a climate where bullying behaviors are permitted. They may also be enticed to join in or try out the bullying themselves.

Early childhood educators need to understand the dynamics of these three roles and to recognize when individual children begin to step into a particular role. Early intervention and guidance can prepare children to prevent or stop the bullying behaviors and establish an atmosphere in which bullying is not permitted.


Young children bully in a variety of ways in early childhood settings. Most children who bully use direct physical aggression (e.g., hitting, shoving, pinching, or throwing objects) or direct verbal aggression (e.g., yelling, threatening) to take away a toy, make someone do something against his or her will, or just to intimidate. They may also use more subtle or indirect forms of physical aggression, such as hiding a favorite toy, taking someone’s winter jacket, or destroying someone’s artwork. They may use relational aggression to ignore or exclude a child by whispering, spreading rumors, or saying, “You can’t play.” They may isolate a target by running away from him or her and encouraging others to join in the excluding. Young children who bully become adept at identifying easy targets, often choosing children who lack friends and who respond to the bullying with passive acceptance or uncontrolled outbursts. Bullies know how to hide their bullying behavior from adults or to quickly blame the victim in response to an adult’s inquiry.

Who’s at risk?

Children who bully tend to be friends with other children who bully or to encourage other children to join in their bullying game. They may be leaders in their social group, though they also tend to be less cooperative and to engage in fewer prosocial skills, such as helping behaviors.

Effects of bullying on bullies

Children who bully can easily become involved in fighting and disruptive behavior that may lead to trouble with classmates and even removal from the school. If not stopped, they may develop strong and persistent patterns of bullying behaviors that carry over into elementary, middle, and high school and beyond.

Learning needs

Children who bully need to develop social skills, such as cooperation and empathy. Children who engage in cooperative behaviors are more likely to include other children in their activities. Children who can empathize understand that bullying hurts; they are less likely to bully and more likely to help children who are bullied. (See 8. Empathy Activities.)


When adults watch a child engaged in bullying and don’t intervene to stop the bullying, that child is likely to continue to bully in subsequent play sessions. Intervention will prevent the bullying behavior from continuing and escalating. Intervention also lets children know that bullying is not allowed and will not be tolerated. (See 12. Teachable Moments.)


Some children passively accept a bully’s provocations, whereas others respond by fighting back.

Passive victims tend to be shy and less socially experienced than other children. They may have a strong desire to fit in but have difficulty making friends and entering social groups. They may feel that they are treated badly or excluded by their peers, but they don’t know how to improve the situation. They tend to be submissive and lack the assertiveness to say “No” or “Stop that.” They may be unsure of the best ways to react to bullying and are reluctant to retaliate. Some young victims may not even recognize that they are being bullied. Young children who are bullied often prefer to play alone—they have not yet discovered the benefits of being part of a social group. Although victims may possess specific social skills, such as cooperative behaviors, they often lack the skills needed for making friends and being a leader.

In contrast, more aggressive children who are victimized tend to fight back, both verbally and physically. These children often form friendships with more aggressive children and alliances with other children who bully. These children are sometimes referred to as “bully-victims.”

Once children become repeated victims of bullying, other children often show a dislike for them and don’t want to be their friend. Children avoid or exclude victimized children because they want to maintain their position in the social hierarchy and fear becoming targets themselves. Victims of repeated bullying often become withdrawn, isolated, and reluctant to join social groups.

Who’s at risk?

Although all children are potential targets of bullying, some children are more likely to be targeted because they appear small, weak, insecure, sensitive, or “different” from their peers. Early childhood educators need to look out for young children who are most at risk for becoming involved in bullying. It’s important to pay attention to the following signs: children who are withdrawn, sad, or upset or who don’t want to participate in activities; children who have trouble making friends or entering social groups; and children who get excluded from social groups or who are the targets of other children’s hurtful behaviors.

Effects of bullying on victims

Children who are bullied may have physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomachaches; they may feel sad or depressed; and they may refuse to go to school or to stay in school once they are there. They may develop patterns of aggressive or submissive behaviors that persist as they get older, resulting in low self-esteem and difficulties with social relationships.

Learning needs

Young children who are bullied often need help making friends and joining social groups. They also need to develop, practice, and use assertiveness skills. Children who are assertive know how to respond to a bully in effective, non-aggressive ways and are less likely to be targeted by bullies in the first place. (See 9. Assertiveness Activities.)


When victims ask for help, teachers need to respond in ways that support the victim. Victims need to know that adults care about their situation and that they can help. They need to know that bullying is not allowed and will not be tolerated. They also need adult guidance to respond assertively and effectively to the child who is bullying, such as by standing tall, looking the bully in the eye, and calmly saying, “No, it’s my turn to play with this toy.” (See 12. Teachable Moments.)


When bullying occurs in early childhood settings, all the children watching become bystanders to bullying. Bystanders learn about bullying from observing the behaviors of the children who bully and the children who are victims. Often bullying is intentionally displayed in front of others to get their attention and solicit their support.  

Who’s at risk?

Depending on the circumstances, all children have the potential to be bystanders who contribute to bullying. Young children who observe an incident of bullying simply may not know what to do to help, or they may do nothing out of fear that they will be the next victim. In addition, some children may have become desensitized to bullying, based on their experiences with violent media and their home environment. They may passively accept bullying, or they may think it is none of their business.  

Effects of bullying on bystanders

Children who do nothing to help the victim may feel bad or guilty about it later. Bystanders who laugh or join in the bullying are at risk for becoming bullies themselves.

Learning needs

Children who are bystanders need to understand that they have the power to stop the bullying. They need help in developing and practicing the problem-solving and assertiveness skills they need to stand up for their peers and feel safe. Children who learn how to solve problems constructively will know how to help their peers without responding aggressively. (See 10. Problem-Solving Activities.) Once children have learned how to help stop bullying, they will feel proud of themselves for helping another child in need.


Children who watch bullying happen may think that bullying is an acceptable behavior and a good way of getting what they want. This is especially true if adults or other children don’t express disapproval or step in to stop the bullying. Sometimes the best way to prevent bullying or to intervene when it occurs is to involve the bystanders—all the children who are not directly involved in bullying but who are available to help stop it. (See 12. Teachable Moments.)

Bullies, Victims, and Bystanders: What Educators Can Do

Early childhood educators need to be prepared to identify and help all three players in a bullying situation—the bully, the victim, and the bystanders. The behaviors underlying each role can be modified through prevention, immediate intervention, and continued support. (See 5. Take Charge.) In addition, all children need to develop the social skills necessary to prevent and respond to bullying. Repeated bullying occurs only in early childhood settings that tolerate bullying behaviors and fail to teach social skills:

  • Children who bully need to learn to stop bullying, engage in more cooperative behaviors, and develop empathy and social problem-solving skills.
  • Children who are targets of bullying need to learn how to respond to bullying with assertiveness, rather than by submitting or counter-attacking.
  • Bystanders need to learn that they have the power to stop bullying and how to use problem-solving strategies to help prevent and stop bullying.

(See Activities for Building Children’s Skills: 7.Teaching Social Skills, 8. Empathy Activities, 9. Assertiveness Activities, 10. Problem-Solving Activities.)