HOW WE HANDLED BULLYING IN PRESCHOOL
“Mommy, please don’t leave yet! I’m scared that I’m going to have nightmares about kids at school!”
It was after 8pm on a balmy evening in May, and James was tucked into bed with all his favorite stuffed animals. We’d read books, sang songs, and even chatted for a few minutes while we snuggled, but I could feel his little heart pounding inside his chest. He wasn’t trying to delay bedtime, he was visibly, viscerally troubled.
It turns out there were two kids in his group who had taken a game too far, and James had been knocked to the ground and not allowed to get up. He yelled at them to stop, and they didn’t listen. James described his hurt and confusion with tears streaming down his face, terrified that he’d have to relive the experience in his dreams.
He told me a teacher had quickly intervened and disciplined the other kids, but I was still furious. Does bullying really start as early as four years old? How would this impact my already shy child’s sense of confidence that he could speak up and be heard?
I laid my head on the pillow, facing him and put my forehead against his as I held him tight. How could I make my son feel safe without being a helicopter parent? And how could I teach James to stand his ground effectively, even when other kids didn’t listen?
I finally soothed James to sleep by promising to talk to the head of the school to make sure this never happened again. But making good on that promise presented a challenge. I was livid about what James had experienced, but I also knew I needed to approach the conversation strategically. I didn’t want to downplay the seriousness of what happened, but I wouldn’t be heard if I overreacted.
Can Preschoolers Be Bullies?
The word “bullying” has become stigmatized over the last decade – and rightfully so. But I was hesitant to label the behavior James described in his fellow four-year-olds as bullying because these kids were just so young. Did they really understand what they were doing?
It turns out that bullying behavior can start as young as three, but experts disagree on whether this is “real” bullying. There is no real consensus on whether kids that young actually wish to cause harm, or if they’re exhibiting normal, negative relational behavior that they’ll outgrow as they learn what’s acceptable.
Three Tips For Handling Preschool Bullies
I knew I needed to talk to someone from the school – preferably the director, who is very hands on. But I also understood that wasn’t enough to bolster James’ self-esteem and keep that kind of nonsense from going on behind teachers’ backs. That evening, I talked to family and friends with older kids, and developed a strategy for nipping the bullying behavior in the bud:
Talk to school officials rationally. It turns out I was right to be strategic. Multiple friends and family members told me how schools are not receptive to parental input on personality combinations in the classroom, even when bullying is involved. Instead, describe the incident and your child’s distress to school officials, name the behavior as bullying, and tell them you need it to stop. End of story. When I approached the director of our school in this way, she was very understanding. She followed up with a phone call that evening to outline what teachers would do to change the group dynamic, and provided suggestions as to how I could help James take charge of uncomfortable situations more effectively. That was exactly the outcome I’d hoped for.
Role play appropriate self-defense. James’ teacher told me how they teach kids to interrupt unwanted behaviors by holding a hand up in front of them and saying “stop” in a loud voice. This creates physical space and makes the child feel grounded and secure in a defensive stance. I began practicing this at home with James by turning it into a game where we were police stopping crooks from stealing toys.
Rely on strength in numbers. One parent I spoke to said she successfully stopped her child from being bullied by hosting more group playdates with other, friendlier kids from the class. This enabled her to watch how her child interacted with other kids from class, and parent him accordingly. She also found that more aggressive kids didn’t have the guts to approach a larger group, which kept her child from being singled out.
James is on the shy side, so we also enrolled him in an age-appropriate martial arts class to help him develop more self-confidence. Between the role playing and the karate classes, I’ve seen a big difference in how he handles negative social behaviors in other kids. He’s more likely to handle the problem himself, and to do it from a place of strength and security. And if he can’t, it gives me peace that he knows I’ve always got his back.