Bullying in early childhood settings

Author: Narelle Smith, 2005

When I wrote this essay in 2005, there were very few articles on bullying prevention and intervention in early childhood settings.

Since writing this essay, I have taught the Second Step programme to preschool, and I have found that the programme supports a prosocial atmosphere in the preschool environment. 


Many parents cite the reason for sending children to daycare or preschool is to learn social skills prior to commencing school. During their time in early childhood settings, children develop their social skills, form and negotiate friendships, fulfil a social role and establish their social status, and form opinions about what social behaviours are acceptable and which are not. They do so within the social context of early childhood teachers/carers and their peers who may be aged between six weeks and six years. Every child has the right to feel valued and safe in these settings, and early childhood settings provide an ideal environment for introducing bullying prevention and intervention strategies.

Bullying is defined as any type of negative action by one or a number of persons towards another, which occurs repeatedly over a period of time and involves an imbalance of power between the bully and the victim (Olweus, 1995). The victim has difficulty defending him or herself due to being outnumbered, being physically smaller or weaker, or being psychologically weaker. Negative actions can be direct or indirect (refer Table1).

Table 1: Common Forms of Bullying

  Direct bullying (Aggressive) Indirect bullying (Relational)
Verbal bullying  Taunting, teasing, name-calling Spreading rumors
Physical bullying Hitting, kicking, shoving, destruction or theft of property Enlisting a friend to assault someone for you
Non-verbal/ Non-physical bullying Threatening, obscene gestures Excluding others from a group, manipulation of friendships, threatening e-mail

Source: Limber 2002

Generally, children are at risk of being victimised if they: are socially unassertive or submissive; are cooperative and prosocial but have low sociability; are lonely children; inclined to withdraw or isolate themselves; have a low self-esteem; reward bullies with resources such as toys and show signs of distress; have behaviours which irritate and provoke bullies; attempt to interact with bullies; are different in some way (for example, children with craniofacial abnormalities, communication difficulties, anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, epilepsy, diabetes, obesity) (Perren & Alsaker, in press; Storch & Ledley, 2005).

Bullies have high levels of physically and verbally aggressive behaviour (Perren & Alsaker, in press) not only towards their peers, but also towards adults (Olweus, 1995). They are less cooperative and prosocial but are very sociable (Perren & Alsaker, in press). Contrary to the stereotypy of a bully who lacks social skills, he or she may possess a high level of social cognition and theory of mind in order to manipulate and organise others coupled with the inability to empathise with the plight of others (Sutton, Smith & Swettenham, 1999). They are assertive and often have leadership roles, and have a strong need to dominate others (Olweus, 1995; Perren & Alsaker, in press).

There are differing views by researchers about whether bullies have an intrinsically insecure nature. Olweus (1995) has found in his research that bullies typically exhibit little anxiety or insecurity. Salmivalli (2001) believes it is unhelpful to view self-esteem on a continuum from high to low, but rather as different types of unhealthy self-esteem from underestimated to overinflated.

The familial and temperament factors that contribute to a child developing an aggressive pattern of behaviour include: insensitive, unresponsive, and uninvolved parenting by the primary carer; permissiveness of aggressive behaviour; coercive and punitive disciplinary methods; exposure to marital conflict or violence; and the temperament of the child (quick to anger, active) (Schwartz, Dodge, Pettit & Bates, 1997; Olweus, 1995).

Bully-victims demonstrate the social behaviour of bullies but also some of the vulnerabilities of children who are victims. The children in this group are: more physically aggressive than bullies and display mainly defensive or reactive aggression ; uncooperative; less prosocial or sociable; able to lead others and set limits; not inclined to withdraw from social situations but more inclined to be isolated from their peers due to their peers reluctance to play with them (Perren & Alsaker, in press). Bullies and bully-victims tend to form social clusters, supporting each other’s behaviour, particularly with boys (Perren & Alsaker, in press).

Behaviour patterns that commence in early childhood and are allowed to continue unabated have been shown to persist through to adolescence (Olweus, 1995). Whilst younger children may achieve social status from their aggressive behaviour, the long-term outcomes indicate that children who bully are at higher risk for dropping out of school, unemployment, criminality and unsatisfactory adult relationships (Olweus, 1993). Bullying interventions with young children have been more effective than interventions with children in middle childhood and adolescence (Olweus, 1995). Victims have an increased risk of mental health problems such as anxiety and depression (Kumpulainen, Räsänen, & Puura, 2001).

Behaviour in early childhood settings is similar to that displayed by older children in the school setting: 6% of children are victimised; 10% are bully-victims; and 11% are bullies (Alsaker & Valkanover, 2001). Boys are twice as likely to be bully-victims or victims than girls, and younger boys are more likely to be physically aggressive than older boys (Perren and Alsaker, in press). Boys deliver and receive (but not significantly) more physical aggression, and girls deliver and receive significantly more relational aggression (Ostrov, Woods, Jansen, Casas, & Crick, 2004). Girls are the perpetrators of, and experience, more physically aggressive behaviours in early childhood than previously thought. There are also similar levels of verbal aggression displayed by boys and girls. Relational aggression is more sophisticated and covert than previously reported, involving rumour, gossip, and secrets.

Children in preschool are more likely to be victimised when engaged in social play (Hanish, Ryan, Martin & Fabes , 2005) and their aggressive interactions are likely to be directed at those children whom they are playing with. Olweus (1995) advises that there is no empirical support for the claim that children are victimised based on difference. Young children judge other children’s behaviour by how they conform to rules and norms (Kalish and Shiverick, 2004), whereas older children, around seven to eight years of age, begin to judge other children’s behaviour on the type of behaviour they have displayed before and the characteristics of the child.

Early childhood settings and schools need to address their structures to limit or eliminate the opportunity for children to engage in bullying behaviour and the rewards for bullies. Whole-school or centre policies need to include all members of the school or centre community to challenge and change a culture which has not previously addressed bullying behaviour (O’Connell, Pepler & Craig, 1999). The Bernese Study (Alsaker & Valkanover, 2001) is one such approach. It was designed to reduce the incidence of bullying in kindergarten through collaboration with teachers, parents, and children by education, awareness, consistent approaches to bullying, and establishing and maintaining clearly communicated rules about the type of behaviour that teachers expect from children.

Young children are more inclined to respond with cooperative behaviour (both verbal and physical) when teachers comment on prosocial verbalisations by children (Slaby and Crowley, 1977). Young children are influenced by a teacher’s role modeling, and will imitate the teacher by attending to another child with verbal cooperation with a statement such as “I like you”. The effect is that the other child will respond with cooperative behaviour. When teachers attend only to verbal aggression, the effect is a decrease in verbal and physical cooperation by the children. When a child reacts towards another child with an expression of dislike, the other child responds with an aggressive verbalisation or act. Thus, it is appropriate to teach children to attend to the prosocial behaviours of other children to encourage more cooperative verbalisations and actions.

There is an increased risk for children with difficulties to be further pathologised within the early childhood or school setting both by teachers and other children as children view negative responses from teachers and use those as a model for interactions with the targeted child. Interactions between adults and children that are “attachment-rich” (Dadds, 2005) rather than coercive, aggressive, humiliating, or rejecting, facilitate a socially supportive relationship based on positive affect and role model caring and inclusive communications and relationships with children.

The Incredible Years programme, designed for children aged three to eight years (Webster-Stratton & Reid, 2004) uses a combination of individual, parenting and centre/school-based activities to teach social skills, conflict resolution, emotional regulation, and befriending strategies to children with social, emotional or behavioural problems and their peers. One of the features of The Incredible Years programme is pairing children who have social, emotional or behavioural difficulties with more competent peers in small group activities of six children. The more mature children serve as role models and helpers, encouraging diversity and supporting learning.

Peers can reinforce the behaviour of bullies by either actively encouraging or participating in bullying, or by silently allowing it to continue unchallenged (Salmivalli, 1999). In bullying amongst sixth and eighth graders, most children don’t condone bullying but up to forty per cent of children take a part in it in some form (Salmivalli, 1999). Once these roles become established, group dynamics, momentum, and norms make it difficult for individuals to change their behaviour, particularly the bullies and the victims. It easier to change the behaviour of the participants through programmes that enlist the help of the majority of the children, the bystanders, to befriend and protect the victims (Samivalli,1999), and displaces the power base of the bully. This is accomplished by raising awareness through discussion, self-reflection, and offering alternative ways of behaving. Children need support to practice new behaviours (discussion and role play) in actively taking a stand against bullying in order to increase their confidence and motivation in real-life situations.

Victims of bullying highly value supportive interventions involving peers because they usually have experienced positive interactions with adults, and want to experience positive interactions with a peer group (Samivalli, 1999). Children who escaped bullying cited that finding different and more friends was a helpful strategy (Smith, et al. 2004). Given the previously discussed profile of bullies in early childhood regarding sociability and likeability, teachers need to take care to ensure that victims are not paired with bullies.

Despite children’s reluctance to tell an adult about being bullied, it is a helpful strategy in escaping the situation. Two-thirds of young people (Smith et al. 2004) escaped being victims by talking to someone about the incidents. There has to be an emphasis on shifting a culture that stigmatises children for ‘telling’ to one where children feel confident in confiding in their teachers and trust that their concerns will be heard and they will protected from reprisals from bullies.  

Every time an act of bullying is successful, it represents failure for children, adults, school, and community (Pearce & Thompson, 1998). The impact for individuals, families and society of denying or ignoring bullying and aggressive behaviour in early childhood settings is too costly in terms of the effect on children’s short and long-term mental health and social wellbeing. It is recommended that settings that have an influence on young children’s social behaviour should implement and maintain a whole centre approach to the prevention and intervention of bullying behaviour. Children should be raised in the awareness that bullying and aggressive behavior is unacceptable, and will not be tolerated. Teachers have an extremely important role to play in supporting children to support their peers, both individually and collectively, to challenge bullying behaviour. Anti-bullying strategies and programmes need to be developmentally appropriate and based on current research into the bullying behaviour of young children.


Alsaker, F. D. & Valkanover, S. (2001). Early diagnosis and prevention of victimization in kindergarten. In: Juvonen, J. & Graham, S. (eds.). Peer harassment in school. New York: Guilford Press. pp. 175-195.

Cremin, H. (2002). Pupils resolving disputes: Successful peer mediation schemes share their secrets. Support for Learning. 17(3), pp. 138-143.

Dadds, M. R. (2005). Treatment of conduct disorder via parent training: Innovation and process. Lecture presented on 15 August 2005. Westmead NSW: The Children’s Hospital at Westmead.

Gillespie, C. W. & Chick, A. (2001). Fussbusters: Using peers to mediate conflict resolution in a Head Start classroom. Childhood Education. 77(4), pp. 192-195.

Hanish, L. D., Ryan, P., Martin, C. L. & Fabes, R. A. (2005). The social context of young children’s peer victimization. Social Development. 14(1), pp. 1-18.

Kalish, C.W. & Shiverick, S. M. (2004). Children’s reasoning about norms and traits as motives for behavior. Cognitive Development. 19, pp. 401-416.

Kumpulainen, K., Räsänen, E. & Puura, K. (2001). Psychiatric disorders and the use of mental health services among children involved in bullying. Aggressive Behavior. 27,  pp. 102–110.

Limber, S. P. Addressing youth bullying behaviors. In: Fleming, M. & Towey, K. (eds.). (2002). Educational Forum on Adolescent Health: Youth Bullying. May 2002. Chicago: American Medical Association.

O’Connell, P., Pepler, D., & Craig, W. (1999). Peer involvement in bullying: Insights and challenges for interventions. Journal of Adolescence. 22, pp. 437-452.

Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at School. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers

Olweus, D. (1995). Bullying or peer abuse at school: Facts and intervention. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 4(6), pp. 196-200.

Ostrov, J. M., Woods, K. E., Jansen, E. A., Casas, J. F. & Crick, N. R. (2004). An observational study of delivered and received aggression, gender, and social-psychological adjustment in preschool: “This white crayon doesn’t work”. Early Childhood Research Quarterly. 19, pp. 355-371.

Pearce, J. B. & Thompson, A. E. (1998). Practical approaches to reduce the impact of bullying. Archives of Disease in Childhood. 79(6), pp. 528-531.

Perren, S. & Alsaker, F. D. (in press). Social behavior and peer relationships of victims, bully-vicims, and bullies in kindergarten. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 2005.

Salmivalli, C. (1999). Participant role approach to school bullying: Implications for interventions. Journal of Adolescence. 22(4), pp. 453-459.

Salmivalli, C. (2001). Feeling good about oneself, being bad to others? Remarks on self-esteem, hostility and aggressive behavior. Aggression and Violent Behavior. 6, pp. 375-393

Slaby, R. G. and Crowley, C. G. (1977). Modification of cooperation and aggression through teacher attention to children’s speech. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. 23, pp. 442-458.

Smith, P., Talamelli, L., Cowie, H., Naylor, P, & Chauhan, P. (2004). Profiles of non-victims, escaped victims, continuing victims and new victims of school bullying. British Journal of Educational Psychology. 74(4), pp. 565-581.

Storch, E. A., Ledley, D. R. (2005). Peer victimization and psychosocial adjustment in children: Current knowledge and future directions. Clinical Pediatrics. 44(1), pp. 29-39.

Sutton, J., Smith, P. K., & Swettenham, J. (1999). Bullying and ‘theory of mind’: A critique of the ‘social skills deficit model‘ of anti-social behaviour. Social Development. 8, pp. 117-134.

Schwartz, D., Dodge, K. A., Pettit, G. S. & Bates, J. F. (1997). The early socialization of aggressive victims of bullying. Child Development. 68(4), pp. 665-675.

Webster-Stratton, C. & Reid, M. J. (2004). Strengthening social and emotional competence in young children – the foundation for early school readiness and success: Incredible Years Classroom Social Skills and Problem-Solving Curriculum. Infants and Young Children. 17(2), pp. 96-113.


About Narelle Smith

Child & Family Worker

9 Responses to “Bullying in early childhood settings”

  1. Further Resources:

    Rigby, K. (2005). The method of shared concern as an intervention technique to address bullying in schools: An overview and appraisal. Australian Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 15/1. Internet address: http://www.kenrigby.net/SharedConcern.pdf Accessed 20/3/11.

    Bullying among young children: A guide for parents. (2003).

    Bullying among young children: A guide for teachers and carers.

    Farrell, A. (1999). Bullying: A case for early intervention. Internet address: http://eprints.qut.edu.au/284/1/anzela_paper99.pdf Accessed 20/3/11.

    Rigby, K. (2002). A meta-evaluation of methods and approaches to reducing bullying in pre-schools and early primary school in Australia. Canberra: Attorney General’s Department. Internet address: http://www.kenrigby.net/meta.pdf Accessed 20/3/11.

    Dr Ken Rigby

    Olweus Bullying Prevention Programme

  2. Dolby. R. (2010). Everyday learning about bullying. Canberra: Early Childhood Australia.

    Excerpt at internet address: http://www.earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au/pdf/everyday_learning/EDL1003_sample.pdf Accessed 20/3/11.

  3. I totally agree, and with this viral video, people have gotten a chance to see bullying up close and personal. I hope we as adults focus on it more as well help to prevent it.

    I also wrote a piece on childhood bullying. Take a look and feel free to share it.

    Prevention of Childhood Bullying

    • I think the video that Anthony mentions is…

      Schools that do not act against bullying are negligent in their duty of care to the health and welfare of their students. There are many prevention, early intervention, and treatment programmes available for schools to address bullying – Olweus Bullying Prevention Programme, Second Step, Steps To Respect, Method of Shared Concern, to name just a few.

      Schools are also exposing the system to lawsuits, as victims are turning to the courts as compensation for their pain and suffering, and they are being awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars.

  4. Gosh, I find this all so sad. And though I am truly glad that there actually is something being done to help the students in these environs, I find the fact that we *don’t* change the preschool environment to better accommodate more supervision/assistance from caregivers to be sadder still. Too many very young children are having far too many troubling interactions (of all sorts, not just bullying) “under the radar” of their caregivers and teachers. In fact, with student/teacher ratios being what they are, I’m inclined to resist the notion that there is *any* proper socialization going on in public institutions of childcare and education…

    Thanks for the great post and thanks even more for the references!

    Be well,
    Nathan M


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