While many parents may assume that bullying in schools is a problem that occurs in middle or high school, the fact is that schools and parents should take steps to prevent and stop bullying in schools as early as kindergarten and early elementary school. By teaching children about what bullying is and the facts about how and why it is harmful, teachers and parents can set important foundations to stop bullying behavior before it starts.
What is Bullying?
Bullying is defined as aggressive behavior that is intentional. It can be physical (such as pushing or hitting) or verbal (such as hurting someone with insults or malicious gossip). In younger children, bullying can also frequently include exclusion (a child telling another she doesn’t want to play with her and urging others to join her in excluding the victim of the bullying behavior, for instance).
Bullying can affect children of any age, from kindergarten and elementary school years to high school. Studies show that as many as 15 to 20 percent of kids are bullied "sometimes or more often," and 15 to 20 percent of kids admit to bullying others with some frequency, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Bullying in Grade School
While problems such as cyberbullying may be less prevalent in grade-school, bullying can still occur among young children. While younger children are much less likely to have access to social networking sites or cell phones to exchange hurtful messages, they can nevertheless encounter hurtful behavior on the playground or in classes.
Bullying among younger kids can take the form of ostracism, as in when a group of kids may agree not to include a classmate in their games. Some other ways younger children bully may include verbal aggression, such as name-calling or physical aggression such as shoving or hitting.
Kids who are targeted by bullies often include those who have a disability or children who are not adept at making friends and have little social support. Recent research has shown that obesity is also a significant risk factor for being a victim of bullies. In some instances, a child may become the target of bullying behavior based upon nothing more than a distinguishing characteristic, such as her name. Remember the book Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes? In this spot-on story about young kids’ behavior in school, poor Chrysanthemum is teased and ostracized by some mean girls in her class simply because of her name.
What Parents Can Do to Prevent and Stop Bullying
Stay connected with your child. The more you know about her friends and the details about her interactions with classmates and peers, the more likely you are to spot any changes in your child’s social interactions. Talk with your child every day about specifics at school and extracurricular activities such as who she had lunch with or what the best or worst part of her day was. This is also an important way to establish good communication with your child so that she knows that you are someone she can go to when she has a problem.
Explain to your child what bullying is. Young children understand that hitting or pushing another child is wrong (that’s why even young bullies will try to be aggressive toward their victims when teachers or other adults aren’t looking). But you can also explain that other forms of bullying, such as excluding or ignoring someone, can also be hurtful.
Tell her what to do in case she experiences or witnesses bullying. Establish and periodically review with your child the basics of what to do if they encounter hurtful behavior directed toward them or someone else. Tell her to alert a teacher right away if she sees bullying behavior (explain that this is not tattling, which is reporting something to the teacher just to get someone in trouble, but is an important way to stop someone from getting hurt).
Teach a child the importance of empathy. Research has shown that emotional intelligence and empathy skills may be even more important for success in life than intellectual intelligence. A child who is able to understand what it may feel like to be bullied and can understand and regulate his own emotions is less likely to engage in that behavior.
Set a good example. Do you ever make fun of other people or gossip about others in front of your child? Have you ever spoken rudely to a waiter at a restaurant or to a store clerk in a shop? Even if you think your children are not listening or observing your behavior, the fact is that kids learn a lot about how to conduct themselves from watching their parents.
Look for warning signs that your child may be the victim of bullying. Does she express reluctance to go to school? Are you seeing sudden behavioral changes such as aggression or emotional problems such as anxiety or depression? Children may be reluctant to discuss a school bullying problem with parents, but there are common signs parents can look for if they suspect that their child may be the victim of school bullying.
Talk to your school about what teachers can do and about effective programs that are being used by schools to deter bullying. If you suspect that your child may be the victim of school bullying, you can tell your child’s teacher about your concerns and ask her to keep an eye out on the interactions between your child and his classmates. Ask the teacher to watch out for problems and notify the school principal and counselor about your concerns.