Preschool and kindergarten have long been considered a home away from home for young kids—from learning the alphabet to sharing blocks, the last thing you’d expect to find among such a young group is bullying.

However, young children may participate in bullying—as victims or perpetrators—even more often than older kids. Between the ages of 3 and 5, children are still learning a great deal about how to get along with others—and they’re less experienced in solving the problems that arise when playing with others. Thus, they’ll use aggression to solve problems, rather than more effective ways of conflict resolution.

Getting Along with Others

Prior to elementary school, kids learn about important life skills, such as making friends, sharing toys, and solving disagreements. Since these aren’t intuitive for young kids, they can be very difficult skills to master—leading to frustration and acting out. When preschoolers and kindergarteners get frustrated, they often react by saying or doing things that hurt others. For example, they may yell, call names, push and shove, or banish children from their group of friends.

Developing Abilities

Playing alone and with others is a common practice for both preschoolers and kindergarteners, allowing them to develop skills necessary for forming friendships and building relationships. However, some children—such as kids with multiple siblings or lots of play dates—have an easier time interacting with others. Kindergarteners have had more opportunities to play with other children than preschoolers, so they generally are more skilled at making pals on the playground. Additionally, kindergarteners are more likely to form close friendships, better at reading social cues, better at conflict resolution, more able to support and stand up for allies, better at controlling their impulses, more aware of their feelings and play alone less often then their tiny counterparts.

How Bullying Changes

Putting aggressive children together who are unaware of how to deal with conflict is a recipe for bullying incidents. However, because your kid’s ability to get along with others changes between preschool and kindergarten, the likelihood of conflict—as well as the type of bullying—changes too. Early experiences will teach your child how to get along with others, which can mean protection from bullying in the future. For example, four- and five-year-old kids are better at stopping bullies, protecting their friends from aggression and solving conflicts in healthy ways.

Tips to Reduce Bullying in Preschool and Kindergarten

You can help your little one learn and practice the skills that will help with making friends, getting along with peers, and avoiding bullying situations, as a perpetrator or victim. Here are some tips:

  • Feeling management. Teaching your child how to control big emotions may prevent outbursts or acting out against other kids. Giving your child the vocabulary needed to express feelings, and offering up relaxation techniques—such as taking a deep breath or counting numbers—can help your child keep cool in a heated situation.
  • Encourage problem-solving skills. Throwing toys and tiny punches won’t solve playground problems—and the sooner your child learns that, the better! Instead, encourage kids to work through disagreements by validating everyone’s feelings, restating the problem, and asking for possible solutions. By learning how to resolve conflicts, your child will be much more likely to have positive, supportive friendships.
  • Provide positivity. Arrange a play date, then give the children a chance to practice such as listening, sharing, cooperating, and taking turns. Playing group games with an item that’s passed around (such as a ball) or that requires taking turns helps kids develop these important social skills—while having fun!
  • Celebrate diversity. Interactions with peers are best when children understand, appreciate, and respect one another, so be sure to start conversations about how everyone is different—and how that’s great, since our differences make us special.
  • Help build friendships. Invite buddies over for play dates, spark a conversation with a fellow mom at the park, and attend age-appropriate classes where your child can meet potential pals. Friends can protect one another from bullying.
  • Speak up. Teaching children to step in when they see bullying happening may help limit bullying in play groups. Telling your kid to say, “Stop! You’re bullying,” to guide the victim away from the bully and to report the incident to an adult will empower your child to take action in an aggressive situation, instead of feeling helpless.

Young children are old enough to experience bullying—and old enough to learn about how to prevent it. Teaching your tiny tot these effective anti-bullying techniques helps to develop high self-esteem, effective problem-solving skills and the tools needed to settle playground disputes without violence or temper tantrums.

This article is based on the following research report:

Hanish, L. D., Ryan, P., Martin, C. L., & Fabes, R. A. (2005). The social context of young children’s peer victimization. Social Development, 14, 2-19.