How to stop bullying in the pre-school years

“There is far more bullying in pre-k and kindergarten than I ever realized” says Kathleen Wayland, a pre-school teacher in Sacramento, California. 

“Kids at this developmental stage are learning how to work as a team and how to accept differences.  We have to tell some children, at times,  to take their turn and share, and they are learning that it does not all revolve around ‘me’. However, they can deliberately exclude each other from free and dramatic play.  It’s called relational aggression, a form of  bullying that is far more than just feelings getting hurt.  For kids this age, being left out can be devastating.

I was keen to help my students find a solution. I had been trained by No Bully in Solution Team and wanted to use this with my little ones.  But, I knew I would have to significantly adapt it for this developmental stage.   

It started with Wendy.  She came to my table and her little head went down.

“Will you color with me?” she asked.  I had noticed that Wendy was being left out by the others.  At first I thought that she did not want to join in. But then I saw how she was repeatedly and deliberately excluded in dramatic play when they were playing kitchen and dolls.  I’d seen this with other kids in free play in the playground when students were shut out from the monkey bars.

I waited for the right moment to talk to the students involved – after structured time and before they went out to play. It didn’t seem workable to have more than a handful of students join the Solution Team® and I knew I only had a couple of minutes before they got sidetracked . So I invited just the three students who had been excluding Wendy to come sit with me at the “Idea Table”. 

“Miss Kathy is sad, very sad today” I told them, taking on the sad look that had been on Wendy’s face that morning. I’ve found that it really matters how you say it.  You can’t be accusatory.

“Why are you sad?” one of them asks.

“I am sad about Wendy.  She’s left out on her own and has to play all by herself when you are playing kitchen.  This makes her very sad too.”

With older kids, I would take the time to tell them how the target of bullying is feeling.  With this age, I show them the feelings by adopting these in my voice tone and body language.  I use my relationship with them to gain their empathy.

Some of the children at the table said, “But she doesn’t do what we say!  We told her that we were using the red pan and she said it had to be the blue one.”

“I need your help so Wendy wont cry anymore, and I need some happy ideas! She is so sad.  Do you have any happy ideas? What can you do so that she is not so sad during play time?”

I can tell this is working by the look on their faces.  I’ve taken the time to develop a strong relationship with them as their teacher.  And they love sitting at the Ideas Table and having an idea.  By this point they are all ears. 

“We could share with her.”

“I like the way you are thinking.  Try it out and tell me what happened.”

I’ve run three Solution Teams with my class.  Each time they come running up to me and tell me “Miss Kathy, it worked!”  It was not clear to me if they had compromised or they had got more accepting.  Either way it really did work.

It’s crucial that we teach pre-kindergarten students to accept differences and that excluding is not okay.  They can learn not to be afraid to be an ally when they see their peers being excluded from play.  We can begin in preschool with teaching this message at the “Idea Table”, again in kindergarten, and continue through the grades.  It is like passing a torch.  By the time they reach fifth grade they almost don’t need the intervention of a teacher.”


A note on relational bullying by Kathleen Wayland

One form of bullying, called relational aggression, is a form of aggression where the target is exposed repeatedly and over time to negative actions that are intended to threaten relationships (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995). Examples are exclusion from a group, malicious gestures such as making faces, covering ears so as to hear peer, spreading rumors as a way of retaliation, and threatening to exclude from play if target does not go along with aggressor (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995). It is a form of bullying that has been studied predominantly among adolescents, yet it has now been shown that even preschool age children exhibit this covert form of aggression (Crick, Ostrov, Burr, Cullerton-Sen, Jensen-Yeh, & Ralston, 2006; Kawabata et al., 2010). 

Crick, N. R., & Grotpeter, J. K. (1995). Relational aggression, gender, and social-psychological adjustment. Child Development, 66, 710-722.

Crick, N. R., Ostrov, J. M., Burr, J. E., Cullerton-Sen, C., Jansen-Yeh, E. A., & Ralston, P. (2006). A longitudinal study of relational and physical aggression in preschool. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 27, 254-268. doi: 10.1016/jappdev.2006.02.006

Kawabata, Y., Crick, N. R., & Hamaguchi, Y. (2010). The role of culture in relational aggression: Associations with social-psychological adjustment problems in Japanese and US school-age children. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 34, 354-362. doi: 10.1177/0165025409339151