For many adults, the word bully likely conjures up an image of a large boy stealing lunch money from his smaller peers, or a cruel preteen girl taunting a classmate and excluding her from the “in” group. Seldom does the word bully evoke the image of a small child intentionally taking blocks away from a fellow student in a preschool classroom. And because bullying is not generally associated with young children, early childhood educators can be ill-equipped to talk to parents about the importance of bullying prevention in the preschool years. Yet with the proper tools, early childhood educators and parents can work together to stop bullying before it even starts.
In contrast to the conventional wisdom, bullying can emerge in early childhood settings as young children interact with peers, often for the first time. In fact, research shows that most young children exhibit aggressive behavior and experience conflicts in early childhood settings, as this is generally when they start learning how to express themselves in a social context. Yes, these behaviors are a normal part of childhood development—BUT—when children repeatedly interact in ways that hurt others, these harmful behaviors can lead to bullying.
Since bullying is so often considered to be an older kids’ issue, early childhood educators may face resistance from parents who are told that their child is demonstrating pre-bullying behaviors. Parents may respond, “Boys will be boys,” or “They’re too young to bully” or “My child is just difficult.” While these reactions are understandable, parents may fail to understand that if pre-bullying behaviors are not stopped, they can lead to full-blown bullying.
Gaining parental support is important for early childhood educators when it comes to bullying prevention efforts. During their daily routines at home, parents can help children continue to develop the essential social skills—empathy, assertiveness, and problem solving—that are instilled in the classroom setting. When educators and parents work together to create consistent expectations for behavior across all environments, children receive the message that bullying will not be tolerated, and they can better understand how to respond if and when it does happen.
“Parents need to know that the early childhood staff take bullying and its prevention seriously and that parent cooperation and support are welcome.”
—Kim Storey, EdD, and Ron Slaby, PhD, Eyes on Bullying in Early Childhood
Here are some strategies for educators to engage parents in preventing bullying in early childhood:
- Talk about bullying. Make sure that both your students and their parents understand what bullying is and that it won’t be tolerated.
- Report bullying behaviors to parents when they occur. Despite possible resistance, parents need to know when their child is showing signs of early bullying. Explain the behavior observed, how the teacher intervened, and the follow-up steps taken.
- Foster a reciprocal relationship. Encourage parents to contact program staff if they suspect that an incident of bullying has occurred in the classroom.
- Share activities with parents. Classroom activities used by early childhood educators to build social skills can be modified for parents to use at home with their children. Let parents know what empathy-building, assertiveness, and problem-solving activities you’re doing with the children.
- Provide support when behaviors go beyond bullying. Children with social emotional challenges may require the support of early intervention services to help them acquire the skills they need to thrive. Support parents by referring them to these services and making them aware of their rights.
With the proper tools, classroom interventions, and parental involvement, early childhood educators can effectively prevent the emergence of bullying behaviors. To aid in this cause, bullying prevention experts Kim Storey, EdD, and Ron Slaby, PhD, have created an important new resource, the Eyes on Bullying in Early Childhood toolkit, which is featured on PromotePrevent.org. The toolkit is designed to help educators and other adults who interact with young children understand bullying, learn what they can do to prevent bullying, use activities to build children’s social skills, and develop an action plan for intervention.
What does your early childhood program do to prevent bullying before it starts? How do you involve parents in that process? We want to hear from you. Please share your comments below.