Kindergarten Bullying: Signs to Look for, What to Do If It Happens

Bullying can and does happen among young kids; here's how you can help

bullying boys elementary school age kids
How to spot bullying in kindergarten and early grades. 1MoreCreative/Getty Images

Parents today certainly know that bullying is a problem, and we have it on our radar. But many may not realize that bullying can happen as early as kindergarten. When we prepare kids for the first day of kindergarten and help them pick out their first school backpack and lunch box, take them shopping for school supplies, and help them overcome kindergarten jitters, bullying isn't likely to be on most parents' lists of things to do before the big day.

But the fact is that bullying can happen in kindergarten and first and second grade--and, according to bullying experts, even as early as preschool. And while bullying is more common in the upper grades, parents of young children do need to be aware of the signs of bullying in young children and what to do if their child witnesses or is the victim of bullying.

"As teachers and parents, we need to be on the lookout," says Jamie Ostrov, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo. Fortunately, bullying behavior is more obvious and easier to spot among kids this age. "Among young children, these behaviors are very direct, and the identity of the perpetrator is known," says Dr. Ostrov. As kids get older, says Dr. Ostrov, it's often so covert that parents and teachers may not be able to see it, especially if the bullying is relational (gossiping about someone, excluding someone, and so on).

What Bullying Looks Like in Kindergarten and First Grade

Because young children are still developing the emotional, cognitive, and social skills necessary to handle conflicts using words and calm, problem-solving strategies, aggressive behavior--such as taking a toy away from someone or pushing or name-calling--can be more common at this age.

But bullying, which is marked by an intent to harm, imbalance of power, and repetition, is different from general aggression.

At this age, kids may be imitating something they saw an older sibling or parents say or do, or something they watched on TV. "It could be something they're testing out as they figure out what social engagement is at school," says Stephanie Mihalas, PhD, assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at The David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "Bullying among younger kids is more concrete and more visible," says Dr. Mihalas. Kids may say things like, "I don't like what you're wearing" or "Your lunch is smelly," says Dr. Mihalas. They may not include someone at a birthday party or say, "You can't sit with us."

There are also two types of bullying: physical, which includes hitting, kicking, taking something away, and so on, and relational/social, which includes excluding someone, spreading gossip about them, or making fun of them.

 As children get older, you'll see fewer cases of physical aggression and more relational, covert aggression, says Dr. Ostrov.

Common Signs of Being Bullied

If your child is being targeted by bullies, he may exhibit the following:

  • sadness
  • loss of appetite
  • not wanting to go to school
  • trouble with siblings (uncharacteristic fighting, aggression)
  • change in behavior
  • lost possessions or torn clothing
  • stomachaches
  • sleep problems, nightmares
  • regression (such as bedwetting)
  • separation anxiety

What Parents and Teachers Can Do to Help a Child Who's Being Bullied

Try these strategies if your child is being bullied or if you are worried that your child may be the target of bullying:

  • Talk to your child's teacher. Given how visible the bullying behaviors are in young children, parents can talk to the teachers, who more often than not, know exactly what's going on, suggests Dr. Ostrov.
  • Ask about their day, every day. Find time to connect with your child every day, whether during family dinner or at bedtime, and ask about her day. Ask specific questions that will give you more than a "yes" or "no" answer, like, "Who did you play with at recess today?" or "What was your least favorite part of your day today?"
  • Role play. Ask your child to think about how they might react if something happened, like if someone keeps saying or doing mean things to them that hurt their feelings. Remind your child of situations you might have read about in a book or seen in a movie together in which characters were nice or not nice to each other and talk about what was and was not good behavior.
  • Be aware of your own behavior. Take a look at how you handle conflict or resolve problems at home and elsewhere. Do you treat others with respect and kindness? Have you ever made fun of someone in front of your child? Your behavior is the model upon which your child will learn to treat others.
  • Don't minimize what your child is saying. If someone is repeatedly making your child feel hurt or afraid, listen to what he's telling you. "Not addressing bullying can have long-term implications," says Dr. Mihalas. "Let your child know that you are there to help, and that if he's unhappy, he should talk to you."
  • Work on self-advocacy skills. Give your child some tools to use if someone bullies them. For instance, your child can say things like, "I don't like how you're treating me right now" or "Please don't talk to me that way," suggests Dr. Mihalas.
  • Ask your child's school to include bullying prevention in their curriculum. Even in kindergarten, teachers can talk about what bullying is, what it looks like, and what kids can do if they see it or if it happens to them, says Dr. Mihalas. "Teachers can ask kids to be a buddy and look out for someone who's alone or left out," says Mihalas.

Finally, if your child is not a target of bullying but has witnessed bullying--which is the group that most kids fall into when there is a bullying situation at school--explain the difference between tattling and reporting, says Dr. Ostrov. "Explain that reporting helps to keep friends safe while tattling is designed to make people feel bad."

By setting the tone and encouraging kids to look out for each other and be kind and have empathy for others, parents and teachers can cultivate a positive anti-bullying pattern that can carry on into the later years of school and life.

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