Bullying: It Starts in Preschool

Edit: Bullying is a serious issue and a few of our readers have pointed out that the stigma that comes with the label of “bully” can be problematic in an early education setting. It is particularly important to address negative behavior in the context of early education, given that young children are still learning impulse control and appropriate social interactions. The conversation doesn’t stop at defining a child as “a bully”. Rather, it can (and should) be the starting point to engage in conversation with educators and families to better understand, identify and address the behavior in a developmentally appropriate manner.

What is a bully?

Let’s talk about something that each and every one of us has experienced (to some degree) in our lifetime – bullying. The term bullying is defined as follows:

“A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself.”(1)

Bullying happens within a social group and can be in both physical and non-physical forms that vary in intensity. As preschool is the the first instance in most children’s lives where they become part of a stable peer-group, bullying exists in preschool. This is a reality that most people don’t like to come to terms with (me included!), but I believe that the first step towards a solution is to talk about it.

Why does bullying happen?

There are three perspectives on bullying that we should understand, since each perspective looks to address the reason for why it happens and intervention steps:

  1. Individual
  2. Social-ecological
  3. Systematic

On the individual level, bullying is tied to natural competitiveness that happens within the context of a social group. This is where social-emotional regulation and communication skills are crucial to prevention and conflict resolution.

From a social-ecological perspective, bullying happens from a desire to “fit in” in a group and is fuelled by social norms. This form of bullying is usually perpetrated by a group, singling out an individual and is driven by the need to establish a position of power within a peer group.

Systematic bullying comes from the broader cultural climate of an organization. The way adults treat each other within the school environment impacts how children model their own behavior amongst peers.

Of course, each situation is unique and bullying can stem from a broad range of factors. Understanding the different causes can provide insight into how to have a productive discussion around the matter and lead to resolution and preventative measures that are effective. This takes a lot of patience, understanding and persistence!

How do I know if my child is being bullied?

Being bullied in school puts added strain and stress on a developing child. Below is a list of signs that could indicate your child is being bullied:

  • Unexplained physical wounds
  • Hesitation to participate in group activities
  • Having unusual mood swings
  • Bullying younger siblings at home (sometimes the victim in a certain context switches their role in a new social environment)

The biggest takeaway here is to create a safe space for your child to express themselves honestly. Listen to your child and try to understand that there are always two perspectives to the situation at hand.

Working together as a parent-teacher unit is also key in preventing bullying from happening in the classroom. Keep communication lines open, ensure that all relevant parties are in the loop and work together to resolve any underlying misunderstandings.

How can I talk to the children about bullying?

Have an open conversation about bullying, encourage an open line of communication. Discussing what bullying looks like and what children should do when they encounter situations where they feel like they are being bullied should be a classroom-wide conversation with the long term intent of laying out classroom rules and policies on bullying.

Knowing how to identify bullying greatly increases the opportunity for positive conversations and resolutions. Developing children’s self-confidence is the other part to addressing bullying. Rather than scolding the perpetrator for their actions, focus on the feelings of the victim and have a conversation about it. Most of us have probably seen (or heard) of the “Apple Lesson” that has gone viral on the internet. Shedding light on the impact of how people treat each other is very powerful in terms of cultivating empathy.

Bullying: The Research

Given the complexity, impact and severity of bullying on the social-emotional development of children, it is crucial that we pay more attention to identifying cases of bullying and guiding children towards positive methods of conflict resolution – yes, as early as preschool.

In the case study Children’s Strategies in Addressing Bullying Situations in Day Care and Preschool, the authors interviewed and observed on bullying incidences in Finnish childcare centers with the intent of deducing and measuring how children from different age-ranges cope with bullying.

The results were interpreted as follows: three-year-olds will either react in a participative manner (told an adult or tried to settle the quarrel) or withdraw (not knowing what to do or doing nothing). However, seven-year-olds displayed a high level of reactivity in a bullying situation.

The authors came to the conclusion that it would still be a challenge for three year olds to receptively and expressively handle bullying situations as their language ability was still emerging: “The most described strategy for children of all ages was seeking for adult’s help. The older children tended to describe more personal and interactive ways to consider bullying. This may be the result of better language abilities.” (pg. 959, Reunamo, J et.al.).

The sentiment that younger children have a greater challenge with regulating their emotions when facing instances of bullying is echoed in the research review: Bully/victim problems among preschool children.

The key takeaway from this review is the importance of providing positive means of conflict resolution in instances of bullying through discussions at group time. Talking about bullying openly helps children understand the impact it has on the victims and helps the group better-identify what to do in the future, as well as develop empathy.

What’s Next

Bullying leaves its scars, not just on the individual, but also on our society. I personally believe that this is a cycle that can be broken by more awareness at a preschool level. Mobilizing the community is an important step here.

Asking the classroom parents for their input helps rally the community around a singular goal of creating a safe space for all children. Parent-teacher communication is key to ensuring that any bullying activity gets nipped at the bud. A two-way system where parents can be open with teachers if they suspect that their child is being bullied, allows teachers to pay specific attention to specific children during programming.

Most of us have been through some sort of bullying in our lives and a majority of us have moved on. That said, there are a handful that never got the right help in the right time. This applies to both the bully and victim. Positive, timely support will lead to long term success at our centres and schools.


  • Everyone loves it whenever people come together and share thoughts.
    Great site, keep it up!

  • Victoria Bennett says:

    I recently published a book entitled “ Mean Doreen” ( on Amazon) which deals with bullying in the 3-7 year old age group. I hope someone on this site might find it helpful for starting a conversation with young children.