Young children need to learn how to respond in bullying situations by standing up for themselves and others in non-aggressive and respectful ways. Assertiveness represents the desirable middle ground between the undesirable extremes of aggression (where the feelings and rights of others are violated) and submission (where one’s own feelings and rights are violated).
Learning assertiveness skills involves learning how to express one’s own feelings and defend one’s own rights in ways that also respect the feelings and rights of others.
Assertiveness skills can help young children (a) achieve their goals without bullying, (b) avoid becoming a target of bullying, (c) respond effectively if they are bullied (without counter-attacking or submitting), and (d) support other children who are targets of bullying. Both boys and girls need to be taught assertiveness skills as an alternative to accepting aggressive behavior in boys and submissive behavior in girls.
Educators should explain to children that assertive behaviors can be appropriate and effective responses to others who are provoking them. However, children should consider safety first.
If children don’t feel safe, they should always seek help from an adult.
Early childhood educators can use the following activities to help young children develop and practice the assertiveness skills they need to help prevent and stop bullying.
Activities for Teaching Assertiveness Skills
Activity 1: Keeping Cool
Teaching assertiveness begins with teaching simple relaxation and self-calming techniques to deal with strong negative feelings. First, discuss with the children how people may feel in a bullying situation, such as angry, fearful, sad, upset, embarrassed, or confused. Then ask the group what kinds of things people want to do when they feel this way, such as yell, throw something, hit something, hide, cry, or try to make someone else feel as bad as they feel. Ask if they think these are good or helpful things to do. Explain that at times everyone has strong negative feelings. These feelings are important because they often tell us that something is wrong or needs to be fixed. But strong feelings can also lead us to do the wrong thing, unless we learn how to calm ourselves, keep a cool head, and do the right thing to fix the situation. Ask children to describe and demonstrate the things they can do to keep calm and cool-headed if they feel angry, fearful, or upset in a bullying situation. For example:
- Close your eyes and take several slow deep breaths
- Count to 10
- Stand tall
- Relax the muscles in your face and body
- Talk silently to yourself and repeat a soothing phrase, such as “Keep calm” or “I control my feelings”
- Get a drink of water
- Go sit by a person you trust
Have the group choose what they think are the best techniques and then practice using them together.
Activity 2: Ignoring
Children who attempt to bully other children are often seeking a reaction. If children learn how to actively ignore minor bullying-related behaviors, potential bullies may lose interest. Explain to the group that when another child is doing small things that annoy you but are not yet bullying behaviors that hurt you, you can often get the child to stop simply by keeping cool and actively ignoring him or her. Generate a list of ways to actively ignore a child who is attempting to provoke or annoy you. For example:
- Stop playing
- Walk away
- Turn your body away
- Turn your eyes away
- Don’t answer a question
- Keep talking to the other person you’re with
Role-play some of these situations, with the teacher playing the potential bully. Show them how the provoking child often loses interest after one or more attempts have been ignored.
Activity 3: “Yes” or “No”
Early childhood educators can teach children to respect their own right and the right of others to decline a bullying demand, as opposed to a polite request. In this activity, children practice deciding to politely say no or yes to a request or a demand, as well as to accept either a no or a yes from others.
Begin by asking the children what they would like to say to a child who is demanding a particular toy. If the children say they would like to say no, ask what they think they should say. Children may well think that they’re supposed to say yes. Explain the difference between a bullying demand and a polite request by using a rude voice to say “Give me that!” and then a pleasant voice to say, “May I have that toy, please?” Assure them that it is always okay to refuse a bullying request, but when a child is politely asking, they can choose whether to say yes or no.
Have the children form pairs, and give a toy to one child in each pair. Have the child without the toy demand the toy. Have the other child keep cool and assertively say, “No, I’m playing with it now. You can have it when I’m done.” Next, ask the child without the toy to politely ask for the toy. The other child can choose to politely say either, “No, I’m playing with it now, but you can have it as soon as I’m done” or “Yes, you can play with it now.” Have the child without the toy respond by saying, “Okay, I’ll wait until you’re done” or “Okay, thanks for letting me play with it.”
Conduct the role-play again, with each child playing the opposite part.
Activity 4: Standing Up to Bullying
It is important for children to learn an assertive style of responding to bullying situations. Knowing how to stand up for themselves and to speak up assertively on another’s behalf gives children a sense of control and an air of self-confidence that can deter others from bullying them. Early childhood educators can teach children who are being bullied and children who are bystanders to stop the bullying by responding assertively and/or by asking an adult for help.
Begin this activity by talking about the best way to respond to a bullying situation. Ask the children what they think will happen if they provoke the bullying child by retaliating, or if they reward the bullying child by submitting. Elicit that the bullying is likely to continue. Explain to the children that the best way to get the bullying behavior to stop is to respond assertively to bullying by standing up and speaking up, whether you are the one being bullied or whether you see it happening to someone else. Remind them that they can also ask for help from an adult.
A note about tattling: Children may have been told not to be a tattle-tale or that it’s wrong to “tell on” somebody else. Remind children of the difference between bullying (involving a power imbalance) and conflict (involving disagreement among children of equal power). Explain that it is never wrong to ask for adult help in a situation that involves bullying.
Make up some short bullying situations to role-play, or select a few from the Bullying Actions and Victim Responses chart [Eyes on Bullying Toolkit, p. 19]. Have children generate and practice various ways for a victim or a bystander to stand up and speak up assertively, rather than to respond aggressively or submissively, to the bullying provocations of a child (role-played by the teacher). Be sure that some of the role-played responses include asking an adult for help.
Conclude the activity by reminding children how important it is to stop bullying by standing up, speaking up assertively, and/or asking an adult for help in bullying situations.