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3 Ways To Stop Bullying In The Earliest Years

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

Research is now backing up what early childhood professionals have known for years. It's possible to build resilience to bullying for both aggressors and victims before the age of 3. We can do it by planting the proper seeds for peace.

I've been reading up on bullying in early childhood and it seems like its getting a little bit of attention. Finally.

Yesterday I read a couple of papers on the subject so I thought I might summarize them for you and give you a couple of things to think about and to try.

Here are the links to what I read.

Here are a few key ideas from those articles.

We need to identify and define bullying early. It's possible to teach empathy, problem solving and fairness to young children though the experiences they have. The actions and words of the adults in their lives matter greatly. Children learn by watching adults.

Since I've experienced a bit of bullying as a child, it feels really bad to hear a child rejected by others. Here's a story from my own experience as an early childhood teacher of a mixed age group

Penny was 3 and was leading a few children in a game she developed called “lunchtime." She was distributing pieces of realistic looking plastic food to her friends and sounding quite authoritative. You can have the milk and you can have the cupcake. She beamed. Then 2-year-old Howie walked up to the group. Can I play? No! Snapped Penny and continued on, ignoring his request.

I was dumbfounded. What a mean thing to say! I know that 3-year-olds don’t often have the social skills to navigate situations that include power and fairness. They have only a partial , developing understanding of other people’s feelings. I waited before choosing my words carefully. I wanted inclusion, not forced compliance.

“Find a way to include him”., I said firmly while gazing steadily at the situation.

Penny looked at me and said, Fine! And handed Howie a serving of rubber peas with an actual bite taken out of them. (That’s the problem with realistic looking play food.)

I looked at Howie. “Is that OK?” He nodded, smiled and plopped down to play “lunch” with the older kids. I wouldn't have let her get away with giving him the least desirable option if it had made him unhappy. I would have just stuck with the situation until it was OK for everyone.

Since that day, I’ve used those words countless times. And it usually works. I can tell they had absorbed some of it because one warm spring day outdoors all 6 children in the group ages 2-5 were doing some kind of play project together. This is what I saw.

One child pushed a small plastic wheelbarrow around while others milled around finding “berries” to make “stinky stew” The oldest child was instructing all of them on what to do. They were listening. Only certain plants were allowed. Plus water. And mud.

Occasionally they all got sticks and stirred the mixture. A younger child kept trying to add different things and his ideas were rejected again and again by the group. After a brief conference, his sister decided that he could add some greenery since he was having a hard time finding the berries.

It's not only our words but our attitudes that make a difference.

Nanci J Bradley is an early childhood and family educator, author, teacher, family aerobics instructor, and an all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, healthy eating, lifelong learning, and most of all, PLAY! She studied early childhood ed at Triton College and received her BS in education in 1986 from NIU. She received her MA in human development from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison WI.

Click on the word PLAY!

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