Preventing Bullying

Two girls hugging on the playground

By Sangeeta Parikshak

A group of 3- and 4-year-olds are lining up to spend some time outside on the playground at a Head Start program. As they walk outside, many of the kids head toward a cluster of available tricycles. As one of the little girls puts on a helmet and prepares to get on, she is told by a little boy in her classroom, "That’s mine!" He then jumps on the tricycle and pedals away. Disappointed, the little girl goes to join a group of kids near the slide. As she is waiting to go down the slide, the same little boy, now having gotten off the tricycle, is also heading to the slide. He cuts in front of her in line and says, "You can’t play here."

When reading the above example, you may think to yourself, "Is this bullying?" Surprisingly, pre-bullying behaviors can first be recognized in the early childhood years. Bullying is:

  • A form of emotional and physical abuse
  • Deliberately done to hurt someone
  • Often repeated in a targeted fashion to the same victim
  • Usually based on a power imbalance

Bullying is also linked to mental health issues for the bullies as well as the victims. The Office of Head Start is committed to promoting the mental health and social and emotional well-being of the children and families that we serve. Often, bullying is discussed in the context of children in grade school or higher. However, Head Start programs have a unique opportunity to identify and address pre-bullying behaviors in the early stages of life and, hopefully, decrease this trend in the future. The example above provides some ideas of what pre-bullying behaviors look like in the early childhood years. Many of these behaviors can be identified as early as 3 years of age.

It is important to remember that these behaviors in isolation may not mean that the child is a bully, but that these behaviors, when allowed to repeat, can lead to bullying over time. If an educator or parent allows a child to claim that things are "mine," this can lead to verbal and physical aggression. Similarly, if a child is allowed to exclude other children from playing in their space or with them, this can lead to the types of aggression toward others and social exclusion that is often observed in the middle school years. Other types of pre-bullying behaviors that can be observed in young children include whispering secrets, calling each other silly names, and taking charge of other children's imaginative play.

Adults, including educators and parents, can prevent pre-bullying behaviors from progressing to bullying in the school-age years by paying attention to the types of behaviors described above and intervening when they observe them. It is also important for adults to teach young children social skills. Three of the most important social skills linked to bullying prevention include: empathy, assertiveness, and problem solving. The adults in a child's life can teach social skills through modeling, storytelling, puppet play, games, and other activities. The most important thing is to provide children with a foundation in these skills by providing concrete examples they can understand, use, and practice in their everyday lives.

Keeping our eyes and ears open as parents and educators of young children, while also being aware of what skills and behaviors we want to promote in our youth, will set children up for success both in school as well as in life.


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Sangeeta Parikshak, Ph.D., is a Social Science Analyst and Licensed Clinical Child Psychologist with the Office of Head Start.