What Does Bullying Look Like in Kindergarten and Early Grades?

A definition of bullying in kindergarten and early years of school

bullying kindergarten grade school
What bullying looks like in kindergarten and younger grades. Mediaphotos/Getty Images

Many parents may not realize that bullying can happen as early as preschool or kindergarten. Bullying among young children is in some ways similar to bullying among older kids, but it is distinctive, too. And while bullying in preschool, kindergarten, or early grades is not as common as bullying in the upper grades of elementary school, middle school, and high school, it can and does happen.

Kids can certainly behave aggressively toward each other at one time or another, but bullying is a distinctive type of aggression.

When it comes to bullying, the way to think about it is this, says Jamie Ostrov, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo: All bullying is aggressive behavior but not all aggressive behavior is bullying.

Here are some ways parents and teachers can tell if aggressive behavior among kids is bullying or general aggression among kids.

  • There is intent is to hurt or harm and it is not an accident.
    Young children haven't mastered the art of using words when they're frustrated and can get occasionally get into tussles over a toy or shove each other when they don't agree about something, even with a friend. Or they can resort to name-calling when they're upset with someone. But when there is a deliberate action or words that are designed to hurt someone, that is bullying, says Dr. Ostrov.
  • There is an imbalance of power.
    The aggressor may be bigger or older, or it may be two or more kids against one. The victim may be someone who can't defend himself.
  • There is repetition. There is a high likelihood that the aggressive behavior will happen again, and the aggressor will keep doing what she's doing to hurt someone.

Some other things to keep in mind about bullying among young children:

  • Bullying occurs less frequently than general aggression, which is common among young children, but parents need to realize that it does happen. Parents and teachers should be on the lookout for bullying, even in preschool or kindergarten.
  • Decreasing aggressive behavior among kids in general also decreases bullying behavior. (Parents can teach kids how to express their frustration in a polite and respectful manner; schools can teach kids how to manage conflicts in a friendly way.)
  • Bullying behavior can be physical or relational. Physical bullying is hitting, kicking, or taking a toy away. Relational bullying is social exclusion, malicious gossip, or giving someone the silent treatment. Some examples of relational bullying are when kids say things like, "You can't play with us," or "I won't invite you to my birthday party."
  • Bullying in kindergarten and lower grades is much more obvious and direct. Most kids this age are not yet cognitively able to try to hide their actions the way an older child might. If a child pushes or hits someone or says mean things about someone, it's done out in the open and everyone knows who's doing it. And because most kids this age do not have a cellphone or computer, things like anonymous cyberbullying are not yet problems.

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