6. Talk About Bullying

Talking directly and openly about bullying with children lets them know that the adults who care for them take bullying seriously and will make sure that bullying does not happen in their early childhood classroom. Talking about how adults and children can work together to stop and prevent bullying lets children know they are part of an environment that is safe, cooperative, and inclusive.

Tell children that it’s okay and important to talk about bullying. Encourage children to talk with their teachers if they have any particular concerns about bullying in their classroom. Listen carefully, validate feelings, ask for details, say you can help, talk about solutions, and follow up.

Group meetings, such as morning meetings or circle time, are good times to talk with children about bullying and to ensure that everyone knows the expectations of your setting. Engage all children as active bullying preventers by involving them in setting classroom rules, identifying and solving bullying problems, becoming helpful bystanders, engaging in acts of kindness, and making sure that all children feel safe and included. Encourage all children to participate in the discussions, and make opportunities to talk about bullying throughout the year.

Activities for Talking About Bullying

Activity 1: What is Bullying?

Children who understand what bullying is and the different forms it takes are better able to recognize bullying when they see it or when they become involved in it. Children who understand that bullying hurts and why it's not permitted are more likely to respond appropriately and ask for help in bullying situations.

Use the What is Bullying? chart (Eyes on Bullying Toolkit, p. 9) to help children understand the definition of bullying and the different forms it can take. Help children understand the three characteristics of bullying:

  • It’s on purpose.
  • It happens over and over again.
  • It involves the abuse of power to hurt others.

Help children understand the different ways that bullying can happen:

  • Verbal: Using words to hurt (e.g., name calling, taunting, threatening)
  • Physical: Using actions to hurt (e.g., hitting, kicking, pushing)
  • Relational: Using friendships to hurt (e.g., excluding people, spreading rumors, saying someone can’t be your friend, turning someone’s friends against that person)

Relational bullying may be a new concept for children. Talk to children about how telling a classmate that he or she can’t play or telling other children not to play with you is a form of bullying when it’s done intentionally and repeatedly to hurt someone.

It’s important to clarify that children don’t need to include everyone in their play and activities every single time. There may be instances when it’s really not a good time for someone else to join them. Practice how to say no, kindly and sensitively. For example, they could say, “Sorry, we're right in the middle, but we’re almost done—you can play with us as soon as we finish this.”

Young children may overgeneralize the concept of bullying by applying it to all forms of aggression, conflicts, and unpleasant behaviors. Make sure they know that even if it’s not bullying, hurting others by using words, actions, or relationships is not okay and needs to stop.

Activity 2:Story Swap

Children may be reluctant to talk about bullying for a number of reasons, for example:

  • They don’t have the words and concepts to describe it.
  • They think it isn’t important.
  • They are afraid, embarrassed, or ashamed.
  • They think that no one will care or be able to help.

Story Swap can give them some helpful language, validate their experience, reassure them, and direct them toward help.

Start by sharing a story about when you were bullied or witnessed bullying. Hearing a story about an adult’s bullying experiences may move a child to reveal his or her own experiences.

Ask the children to share some stories about bullying that happened outside the classroom—something that did not involve their own classmates. Ask them not to use real names.

Acknowledge that it’s okay to talk about bullying because it affects everyone, whether we were the bully, whether the bullying happened to us, or whether we watched it happen. Discuss how the stories made them feel—to tell and to hear. Tell children that bullying is always wrong and it should not happen. Using the stories as examples, help children brainstorm suggestions for what can be done to stop bullying.

Activity 3:Teasing or Taunting?

Playful teasing among friends is okay, but teasing that hurts is called taunting—and if it’s repeatedly used to hurt a targeted child, it is a form of bullying. To help children understand the difference between teasing and taunting, talk with them about how nicknames can sometimes be fun and sometimes be used to hurt and bully someone. Present the following examples (or come up with your own) and have the children decide whether each nickname is playful teasing or hurtful taunting:

  • Scott runs very fast, so the kids call him “Rocket Scott.”
  • Jeremy is always last in a race, so the kids call him “Snaily Jerry” or “Slow Poke.”
  • Steve is small and cries a lot, so the kids call him “Baby Stevie.”
  • Maria is strong, so the kids call her “Wonder Girl.”
  • Natalia is smart, so the kids call her “Smarty Pants.”
  • Madeline is the biggest kid in the class, so the kids call her “Big Bad Mad.”

When discussing each nickname, ask the children:

  • How can you tell whether a name is playful or hurtful?
  • What is the intent of the name-caller? (Is the name-caller trying to be nice or mean? What if the name-caller hurt the child’s feelings but didn’t intend to be mean?)
  • How do you think the child with the nickname feels?

Conclude the activity by asking the children for ideas about how to make sure they don’t call classmates hurtful names.

Activity 4: On Purpose?

This activity helps children understand the difference between making a mistake and hurting someone “on purpose.” We all make mistakes—adults and children alike. We bump into someone by accident, for example, or leave our backpacks where someone could trip. But sometimes people do things that are intended to hurt others—things that are done “on purpose” and not by accident. Bullying is an example of an “on purpose” action because it involves intention: A child who bullies is intentionally trying to hurt someone.

Present the following examples (or come up with your own) and ask children to decide if it’s a mistake or if it was done on purpose:

  • Jake steps on Ray’s toe by accident and says, “I’m sorry.”
  • Tony is mad at Robert and stomps hard on his toe.
  • Tanya doesn’t see Eddie’s tower of blocks and knocks it over.
  • Christine doesn’t like Jane, so she scribbles all over her picture.
  • Marco drops his backpack in the hallway and runs out to play. When Anne runs outside to join Marco, she trips over his backpack.

When discussing each example, ask the children:

  • How can you tell whether something is done by accident or on purpose?
  • Is the person trying to be nice or mean?
  • How do you think the other person in the story feels?

Conclude the activity by reminding children that all of our actions, whether we do them by accident or on purpose, can have an effect on others.

Activity 5: “You Can’t Say You Can’t Play”

Talk with the group about how every child deserves to be treated with respect and included in activities. Discuss why the saying “You can’t say you can’t play” (a concept developed by Vivian Gussin Paley)  is important and helps everyone feel included. Explain that sometimes children engage in relational bullying—intentionally and repeatedly excluding certain children from their play groups—and this behavior is unacceptable.

Have the children brainstorm ways they might respond when someone tells them they can’t play or tells others not to let them play. If the children get stuck, you might suggest the following responses:

  • Ask if you can play in a little while.
  • Say that you will feel sad or angry if you can’t play.
  • Get other children or an adult to help.

Have the children role-play different scenarios. With an adult playing the child who says, “You can’t play with us,” have the children practice using the responses they brainstormed.

Then have the children brainstorm and practice things that someone watching the bullying—a bystander—could say or do to help a child who is being excluded. Do the role-playing again, this time focusing on the bystander’s response.

Conclude by explaining that children don’t need to include everyone in their play and activities every single time. However, they do need to be friendly and courteous to all their classmates; for the most part, the whole class should be included in play groups and activities.

Activity 6: Story Time

Reading books out loud to children about bullying provides opportunities to talk about how other children experience and respond to bullying, and how they themselves might respond in similar situations. Here are some questions to get children started talking about a story that involves bullying:

  • What was the story about?
  • Who was doing the bullying?
  • Who was getting bullied?
  • Who was watching the bullying?
  • How did the bullying stop?
  • What else could any character have done to help?
  • What would you have done?
  • Have you ever been in a similar situation?
  • How did you feel? What did you do? What helped or didn’t help?