Bullying in Kindergarten
Does bullying really exist among kindergarten children? The answer is a clear yes. Some teachers and parents may still question this evidence, thinking that young children are not capable of “so much meanness”. Based on our research and research from colleagues during the past 15 years, we can say that children do not need to be “mean” to bully peers. They just have to learn that their behavior is rewarding and they will keep on with their attacks.
Research on bullying in kindergarten is still new. Nevertheless, all studies conducted in different countries have demonstrated that bullying occurs at approximately the same rate in kindergarten as in elementary school (1, 2, 3). What may differ are the forms of harassment, but the general features are similar. An example:
Mike would very much like to play with Sarah, Andrew, and Simon. He sometimes asks but usually gets the same answer: they don’t want him. They habitually ignore him or they tell him he is good for nothing. However, sometimes they ask him to join. That’s when they want to play family and need a dog. Dogs do not speak and they have to do everything they are told to. After some 5 minutes Mike usually gets very sad and runs away.
This is neither a conflict nor a playful situation among equal peers. This is a typical case of bullying and it occurred in a kindergarten and was repeatedly observed by the teacher. It has all elements of bullying that we know from older school children: A child who is repeatedly the target of negative acts, several children who stay together to bully their victim, a situation in which the victim has no chance to defend him/herself and an adult who does not really know if she/he should intervene.
Bullying is a Social Problem
There is agreement among researchers that bullying is a social problem and we can observe that children take over or are forced into the same kind of roles in kindergarten as those found among older school children. Furthermore, children in the group can influence the process by helping the victim, supporting the bully, or choosing to ignore what they witness (4). The main roles can be described as follows:
Children Who Are Bullies
- We can observe children, whom we call bullies. They have fun in pestering a specific peer using a broad range of negative behaviors. These may range from hiding shoes, destroying a picture, saying nasty things, refusing to sit beside the targeted child, to beating, throwing stones and the like. Bullies do not often use physical means to aggress their victim and seem to be rather manipulative knowing very well whom they can aggress against without retaliation, where they can do it unobserved, and even how to get peers to assist them. They feel powerful, like Eric, 6 years old, who used to say: “I’m the boss here”. Although percentages in kindergarten vary depending on the assessment methods that were used, . In our kindergarten studies, combining teacher ratings and peer nominations, we find around 10% of kindergarteners are bullies. These children are very well aware of social norms and rules, but they have to learn to respect them.