While many parents assume that bullying is a problem confined to middle school or high school, it can begin as early a kindergarten and become firmly seeded in a school culture by the second or third grade.
If you are a parent faced with bullying, you need to take a firm stance so that the behavior is stopped before it becomes a de facto part of a child's school life.
The definition is simple: bullying is any aggressive behavior designed to intimidate or torment.
It can be physical, such as pushing or hitting, or verbal, such as name-calling or spreading gossip. In younger children, bullying can also include exclusion, either by urging others to ostracize an individual or by forming cliques to which others are conspicuously excluded.
While cyberbullying may be less prevalent in younger school children, the same behaviors that govern online bullying are played out in real life.
The statistics are dismaying. According to research published in the journal BMC Public Health, as many as 13 percent of children in kindergarten and elementary school are victims of bullying, while 11 percent admit to being a bully. An additional four percent can be described as victim-bullies, a great many of whom will become bullies in later life as a misguided form of self-protection.
Why Kids Bully
The kids most commonly targeted by bullies are those with a disability, who are obese, or are less adept at schoolwork or making friends.
In order to establish social dominance, a bully will often need little more than an unusual name to target a child for abuse, often under the guise of teasing. Other children, meanwhile, will take part, either because they are eager for social acceptance or fearful of ostracization themselves.
In the end, children will attack the same things that many adults do, namely behaviors, beliefs, or characteristics which stand out and challenge a social order to which person believes he or she is a part.
Fear of the unusual can sometimes lead children to exhibit aggressive behaviors to hide insecurities that they themselves do not understand. Such behaviors may be reinforced by parents who exhibit the same biases or use aggression as a means of dealing with conflict.
What Parents Can Do
Rather than dismissing schoolyard bullying as "a phase" that children will eventually outgrow, parents have the unique opportunity to alter these behaviors by helping young children overcome the very fears, anxieties, and insecurity that place them at risk.
There are six things you can do to help:
- Stay connected with your child. The more you know about your child's classmates and school life, the more likely you will be to spot any changes the child's demeanor or interactions. This includes both the child being bullied and the child who is bullying. Make a point of discussing the events of the day every day, and pay attention to not only what the child says but what he or she may be avoiding in conversation.
- Look for the warning signs. If a child is a victim of bullying, the first warning sign will usually a change in behavior. This may include withdrawing, exhibiting sudden aggression or anger, misbehaving, or being reluctant to go the school. If your child is a bully, the clues may be harder to pick up, but it is not uncommon to hear the bully make disparaging and boastful remarks about others, often without realizing how unkind the behavior is.
- Explain what bullying is. Young children understand that hitting or pushing another child is wrong. Even teasing is something they instinctively know is hurtful. But kids can be both sophisticated and unsophisticated in their approach to these behaviors. On the one hand, they can dismiss teasing as "just kidding around" and, on the other, fail to comprehend how other hurtful behaviors like exclusion can be. Help your child understand bullying in all its forms, both direct and subtle.
- Teach a child empathy. Young children have the unique talent of making connections. Unlike adults, who are able to navigate conflict and justify ill behaviors, kids who are five, six, or seven see action and consequence in a more straightforward way. If your child is a bully, ask how he or she would feel if the shoe were on the other foot. If your child is being bullied, help them understand why some kids misbehave can effectively "take them off the hook" and confirm that they are neither strange nor blameworthy.
- Tell a child what to do if he or she witnesses bullying. Children will often not want to get involved if someone else is being bullied out of fear of reprisal. Teach them how not acting is essentially the same as approving of the behavior. A child should understand that reporting a bully is not "tattling" but merely a way to stop others from getting hurt. Let your child know that he or she should report any such behavior to you or a teacher so that an adult can intervene.
- Lead by example. Many parents do not take bullying seriously enough and will dismiss some behaviors as being "not as bad" as others. Do not allow yourself to be swayed by these arguments. If such behaviors are ignored, young children will believe that they have been given tacit permission to bully. Even things like exclusion can be acted upon by teachers by breaking up groups, pairing kids who don't interact with school projects and regularly changing classroom seating.
As a parent, do not accept that nothing can be done. The greatest opportunity for change is not in high school when social dynamics are set; it's in kindergarten and elementary school when behaviors and personalities are still evolving.
If school officials fail to act, voice your concerns to the parent-teacher association or file a formal complaint with the local school board. Include a detailed outline of the bullying events and any other information that may support your claims. In the end, how you act can determine whether a child is allowed to suffer in silence.
Jansen, P.; Verlinden, M.; Dommisse van-Berkel, A. et al. "Prevalence of bullying and victimization among children in early elementary school: Do family and school neighborhood socioeconomic status matter?"BMC Public School. 2012; 12:494. DOI: 10.1186/1471-2458-12-494.
The best and most obvious way to stop bullying in schools is for parents to change the way they parent their children at home. Of course, this is much easier said than done and everyone parents their children differently. Bullies, however, come from homes where physical punishment is used and children have been taught that physical violence is the way to handle problems and “get their way.”
Bullies usually also come from homes where the parents fight a lot, so violence has been modeled for them. Parental involvement often is lacking in bullies’ lives and there seems to be little warmth.
Early intervention and effective discipline and boundaries truly is the best way to stop bullying, but parents of the victims or therapists cannot change the bully’s home environment. Some things can be done at the school level, however.
- Most school programs that address bullying use a multi-faceted approach to the problem. This usually involves counseling of some sort, either by peers, a school counselor, teachers, or the principal.
- Hand out questionnaires to all students and teachers and discuss if bullying is occurring. Define exactly what constitutes bullying at school. The questionnaire is a wonderful tool that allows the school to see how widespread bullying is and what forms it is taking. It is a good way to start to address the problem.
- Get the children’s parents involved in a bullying program. If parents of the bullies and the victims are not aware of what is going on at school, then the whole bullying program will not be effective. Stopping bullying in school takes teamwork and concentrated effort on everyone’s part. Bullying also should be discussed during parent-teacher conferences and PTA meetings. Parental awareness is key.
- In the classroom setting, all teachers should work with the students on bullying. Oftentimes even the teacher is being bullied in the classroom and a program should be set up that implements teaching about bullying. Children understand modeling behaviors and role-play and acting out bullying situations is a very effective tool. Have students role-play a bullying situation.
Rules that involve bullying behaviors should be clearly posted. Schools also could ask local mental health professionals to speak to students about bullying behaviors and how it directly affects the victims.
- Schools need to make sure there is enough adult supervision at school to lessen and prevent bullying.
A child who has to endure bullying usually suffers from low self-esteem and their ability to learn and be successful at school is dramatically lessened. Schools and parents must educate children about bullying behaviors; it will help all children feel safe and secure at school. Children who bully need to be taught empathy for others’ feelings in order to change their behaviors and the school must adopt a zero-tolerance policy regarding bullying.