Research Summary: Bullying in Early Learning Classrooms

The latest research, strategies, and resources for educators to combat bullying in younger grades.

September 2015, Volume 39, Issue 1

Understanding how to prevent bullying is a critical concern for both educators and parents. A recent Child Trends report, Bullies in the Block Area: The Early Childhood Origins of “Mean” Behavior, examines what researchers know about behaviors in young children that are risk factors for later bullying, as well as factors that may buffer that risk.

The report is the result of a review of existing research and a convening of national experts in early childhood development and media for young children, held at Child Trends earlier this year. It is accompanied by a short practitioners’ guide.

Among school-aged children, bullying is characterized by:

  1. Aggressive behavior;
  2. That is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated; and
  3. That reflects an imbalance of power between the aggressor and the victim.

A young child’s aggressive behaviors may become more organized into bullying-like behavior during the preschool years, but still do not consistently adhere to the criteria used to define bullying among older children.

The authors refer to this early behavior as “mean” or aggressive behavior rather than bullying. They caution against conflating typical social, emotional, and behavioral norms with signs and behaviors that suggest a child may be at risk of later bullying behavior or victimization.


Key Findings
Research suggests that children who are aggressive during early childhood and whose aggression remains at about the same level throughout childhood are more likely to engage in bullying behaviors later on. Children whose aggression levels decrease, however, do not appear to be at increased risk.

There are other factors that seem to be strongly related to children’s later involvement in bullying. Risk factors include:

  • Parental behavior and characteristics: Having inappropriate developmental expectations of a child, hostility or violence in the home, or low levels of maternal empathy (fathers’ empathy has not been well studied) may be risk factors for later bullying involvement.
  • Maltreatment: Early, persistent maltreatment has the potential to alter physical structures of a child’s brain and lead to developmental deficits, including social and emotional ones. Children who have experienced maltreatment may also be more likely to interpret innocuous situations as hostile and respond accordingly.
  • Exposure to TV: Research has found a correlation between early TV-watching and later bullying behavior. This occurs even with non-violent content, where children may witness antisocial behavior, such as characters being disrespectful. This is not the case with shows such as Sesame Street or Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, whose messages about cooperation, nurturing, and verbalizing feelings have been shown to increase children’s likelihood of demonstrating those skills.

Strategies and Resources for Educators
Current evidence stresses the need to focus on promoting positive social and emotional skills. Promising practices and evidence-based programs and resources may help elementary school teachers and educators facilitate these skills in young children.

Promoting Safe, Welcoming Classrooms: Practitioner guides and resources to help promote safe, welcoming classrooms include:

  • Eyes on Bullying in Early Childhood is designed to help early childhood educators identify, prevent, or de-escalate bullying among their students and instead foster positive interactions. A toolkit designed for parents, caregivers, educators, and healthcare providers who work with children and youth is also available.
  • Welcoming Schools, developed by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, tackles the roots of bullying embedded in bias toward many types of diversity, including toward LGBT families and individuals.

Supporting Students in Learning Problem-solving
Establishing a culture of respect for individual differences and commonalities is important for preventing and mitigating bullying, as well as for addressing the underlying emotional causes behind acts of bullying.

  • In “Guidance Matters,”Dan Gartrell and Julie Jochum Gartrell advise teachers to address incidents of bullying by helping the children involved find alternative resolutions, and to seek insight into underlying causes that may be unrelated to the situation in which aggression was carried out. They present the idea of “liberation teaching,” which emphasizes that comforting the victim and punishing the bully perpetuates the bully-victim cycle; instead, it is important for the teacher to help each child express their feelings about the situation, and to teach the bully that those behaviors will not help to establish an identity within the classroom group.

Promoting Kindness and Compassion
Educators can model, teach, and reinforce pro-social behaviors such as empathy and kindness. This can happen informally through a deliberate focus on supporting positive behavior, and formally through programs and curricula:

  • Al’s Pals is a comprehensive curriculum and teacher-training program for children ages 3 to 8. Al’s Pals teaches children to express feelings appropriately, control impulses, show empathy, and solve problems peacefully. It gives children on the receiving end of bullying the skills to assert themselves, and encourages potential bystanders not tolerate hurtful behavior.
  • Second Step is a universal classroom-based social-skills program for children ages 4 to 14. Children are taught to identify and manage their emotions and to understand others’ emotions. Second Step guides children to reduce impulsiveness and emotion-driven decision-making while teaching them to make positive goals.

Ideas for classroom interventions and activities described above provide educators with strategies for age-appropriate activities designed to prevent exclusion and other “mean” behaviors. In addition, online resources from organizations such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children help translate research into practice tips, and put forth innovative strategies for problem solving with children.

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