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Bullying and aggression in ECE – what teachers need to know

By Dr Vicki Hargraves

In our webinar on bullying and aggression in early childhood education, Cara Swit explored how teachers might identify, prevent and address bullying and aggression, and the common misconceptions that surround the issue of bullying in early childhood. Below are some of the key ideas discussed.

Aggression is not always bullying. Bullying behaviours cause harm; they are intentional (rather than accidental or impulsive); repeated, persistent and ongoing; and they are characterised by a power imbalance (based on age, size, gender or social status). Any kind of behaviour can be bullying if it meets these four criteria. Aggression, on the other hand, may not be intentional, persistent or involve a power imbalance. It is important teachers understand the distinction between bullying and aggression, as the label “bully” is associated with negative stigma, and can lead to negative trajectories for children. Many children explore aggressive behaviours as a natural part of testing boundaries, and to figure out what are acceptable and unacceptable behaviours. It is important to know children well and how they typically behave to be able to distinguish between developmentally appropriate aggression and more intentional bullying behaviours.

All behaviour is learnt. Children aren’t born with social skills; they learn social skills from others. All children have the capacity to engage in bullying behaviours if teachers don’t do the right things in terms of preventing behaviour and teaching prosocial skills. Also, be aware that just because children are too young to engage in the behaviour developmentally, this does not mean they are not learning it. They may enact behaviours in the future, especially if they see that bullying behaviours have positive outcomes for children.

Bullying can be prevented. Have a look at what proactive and collaborative strategies you already have in place to promote positive, prosocial and cooperative behaviours amongst children. Prevention is more powerful than intervention. Promote leadership while at the same time encouraging cooperative skills, so that children do not use their leadership skills to bully others. De-emphasise competition, as competitive games and activities may increase power imbalances between children.

Reflect upon your own behaviour. Look at your behaviour before you try and change a child’s behaviour. Changing your own behaviour is easier than trying to change a child’s behaviour. Children are always watching teachers and peers so be mindful of your own behaviours and what they are communicating to children. Reflecting on your own behaviours may alert you to ways in which you may be modelling inappropriate behaviours, or communicating that some behaviours (such as social exclusion) are more acceptable than others (such as hitting).