Does bullying really exist among kindergarten children? The answer is a clear yes. Some teachers and parents may still question this evidence, thinking that young children are not capable of “so much meanness”. Based on our research and research from colleagues during the past 15 years , we can say that children do not need to be “mean” to bully peers. They just have to learn that their behavior is rewarding and they will keep on with their attacks.
Research on bullying in kindergarten is still new. Nevertheless, all studies conducted in different countries have demonstrated that bullying occurs at approximately the same rate in kindergarten as in elementary school (1, 2, 3). What may differ are the forms of harassment, but the general features are similar. An example:
Mike would very much like to play with Sarah, Andrew, and Simon. He sometimes asks but usually gets the same answer: they don’t want him. They habitually ignore him or they tell him he is good for nothing. However, sometimes they ask him to join. That’s when they want to play family and need a dog. Dogs do not speak and they have to do everything they are told to. After some 5 minutes Mike usually gets very sad and runs away.
This is neither a conflict nor a playful situation among equal peers. This is a typical case of bullying and it occurred in a kindergarten and was repeatedly observed by the teacher. It has all elements of bullying that we know from older school children: A child who is repeatedly the target of negative acts, several children who stay together to bully their victim, a situation in which the victim has no chance to defend him/herself and an adult who does not really know if she/he should intervene.
Bullying is a Social Problem
There is agreement among researchers that bullying is a social problem and we can observe that children take over or are forced into the same kind of roles in kindergarten as those found among older school children. Furthermore, children in the group can influence the process by helping the victim, supporting the bully, or choosing to ignore what they witness (4). The main roles can be described as follows:
Children Who Are Bullies
- We can observe children, whom we call bullies. They have fun in pestering a specific peer using a broad range of negative behaviors. These may range from hiding shoes, destroying a picture, saying nasty things, refusing to sit beside the targeted child, to beating, throwing stones and the like. Bullies do not often use physical means to aggress their victim and seem to be rather manipulative knowing very well whom they can aggress against without retaliation, where they can do it unobserved, and even how to get peers to assist them. They feel powerful, like Eric, 6 years old, who used to say: “I’m the boss here”. Although percentages in kindergarten vary depending on the assessment methods that were used, . In our kindergarten studies, combining teacher ratings and peer nominations, we find around 10% of kindergarteners are bullies. These children are very well aware of social norms and rules, but they have to learn to respect them.
Children Who Are Passive Victims
- Our studies also indicate that about 6% of kindergarten children can be categorized as passive victims, children who are victimized by the bully and some other peers (the bully’s assistants) on a regular basis and who do not retaliate when attacked. Teachers often tell us that these young victims are very kind children. In our research, we find that these kindergarteners usually share belongings, help and console their peers, even if although they do it less often than children who are never involved in bullying or victimized. These passive victims also seem to have difficulties asserting themselves, saying “No, I don’t want this!” Furthermore, they play alone more often than other children and seem to have difficulties making friends, approaching other children, asking peers to play, etc. Not surprisingly, we also find that these children have fewer friends and are less liked by peers than bullies or children who are not involved in bullying at all. It would be of great help for these children to gain more self-confidence in social relationships. For example, they may benefit from in training in assertiveness with non-aggressive peers. Also, every experience of that enhance their self-competence would be helpful to these children in order to minimize their vulnerability in the peer group.
Children Who Are Aggressive Victims
- There are also children who themselves behave highly aggressively in the peer group and who become victimized. We call them aggressive victims, and our studies indicate that this characterizes about (around 8% in our studies) of kindergarteners. These children are very impulsive and use physical aggression much more often than bullies do. They seem to lack self-control and to react all too quickly and aggressively to provocations or to what they perceive as such. And even if they defend themselves vehemently, they cannot stop the bullying. Their impulsiveness is also “used” and manipulated by the bullies, who know how to provoke their outbursts. These children also seem to lack skills that are helpful in finding friends, they actually have few friends and are not well liked by peers.
Children Who Are Assistants to Bullies
- There are also children in the group who do not initiate bullying, but sometimes assist the bullies, and other children who sometimes are bullied, but not as regularly as the victims described above.
Children Who Are Witnesses to Bullying
- Finally, about half of the children in a kindergarten group never bully peers and are never attacked by peers. Our studies show that these children often feel angry or sad when they witness bullying and sometimes try to help the victim. Importantly, results from our prevention studies show that these children can learn to help victims. This, however, has to be combined with clearly defined behavior rules in the class. Then, children can very well learn to tell bullies to stop to bullies (indicating that the behavior is “against the rules they have agreed upon”) and to get help from the teacher, when the bully does not stop.
What are the Consequences of Bullying at this Young Age?
- Psychosomatic symptoms — Kindergarten children who are harassed by their peers have been reported by parents and teachers to be stressed, to show different psychosomatic symptoms (for example, headaches), to be afraid of going to kindergarten and to show depressive symptoms.
- Peer rejection — In our studies, we find that bullying among younger children is very similar to bullying among school children; it is a problem that concerns the whole group of children in the class as well as the adults (teachers and parents). Kindergarten children like victims much less than non-involved peers and even bullies. Also, victims lack friends who could protect them. We know that peer rejection remains stable for years and has long-lasting negative consequences for children’s well-being and social adjustment (5) and also may lead to further victimization (6). Given such evidence, it is clear that children who lack friends, who are not well accepted in the group and who even are victimized need special attention and adult’s help to come out of such vicious circles.
Consequently, even if we see that many children in the peer group are upset about bullying, research findings are very consistent with observations from teachers, showing that victims and their peers cannot bring the situation to an end and that bullies do not stop by themselves. All findings indicate that the situation is highly reinforcing for bullies and that they themselves, like the victims, are confined in their role. This means that adults have to become directly involved and stop this harmful situation.
Our experience with the prevention of bullying in kindergarten shows that teachers need to do the following:
- First, they need to learn to differentiate between bullying and more typical interpersonal conflicts between young children, and and to recognize early and the sometimes ambiguous signals of bullying and to do so early on.
- Secondly, teachers need to understand that early interventions are necessary to stop bullying and that it is necessary to talk with the whole class and discuss acceptable and non-acceptable behavior. Clear and early communication about bullying helps children who are victimized (they feel supported and protected) and it helps bullies and their assistants who get a clear picture of what is allowed and not. It also contributes to a feeling of security in the whole group, as children perceive that they are not left alone in awkward situations.
Also, parents should be aware of their role as educators and models and communicate the same attitudes as teachers do.
Some Implications of our Knowledge about Bullying in Kindergarten:
- Bullying is unfair and adults must take it seriously as early as in kindergarten.
- Be aware of social, indirect, hidden and ambiguous forms of bullying; they already occur in kindergarten.
- Pay attention to symptoms and possible indicators of victimization, like unwillingness to go to kindergarten, stress or sadness
- Listen to children when they report on “trivial” daily hassles that seem to upset them. It may be one of many hassles.
- Talk with the children about “good and bad things” happening in the kindergarten group.
- Talk about the unfairness of bullying and provide children with alternative behaviors
- Teach children to say no!
- Give children an opportunity to feel competent
- Give children who feel insecure in situations with peers some social training
- Use teaching forms and games that enhance integration of all children
- Encourage children who are not involved in bullying to intervene when they witness such situations. They may be trained to tell the bully to stop, to ask the teacher to help or to include the victim in play situations.
All recommendations listed above are part of our prevention program against bullying in kindergarten and school (7).
Some papers from our team on bullying in kindergarten:
Alsaker, F. D. (2004). The Bernese program against victimization in kindergarten and elementary school (Be-Prox). In P. K. Smith, D. Pepler, & K. Rigby (Eds.), Bullying in schools: How successful can interventions be? (pp.289-306). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Alsaker, F. D., & Gutzwiller-Helfenfinger, E. (in press). Social behavior and peer relationships of victims, bully-victims, and bullies in kindergarten. In S. R. Jimerson, S. M. Swearer, & D. L. Espelage (Eds.), The International Handbook of School Bullying. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Alsaker, F. D., & Nägele, C (in press, 2008). Bullying in kindergarten and prevention. In W. Craig, & D. Pepler (Eds.), An International Perspective on Understanding and Addressing Bullying. PREVNet Series, Volume I. PREVNet: Kingston, Canada.
Alsaker, F. D., & Nägele, C (submitted, July 2008). Vulnerability to victimization in kindergarten: Need for a differentiation between passive and aggressive victims. Merril-Palmer Quarterly.
Alsaker, F. D., & Valkanover, S. (2001). Early diagnosis and prevention of victimization in kindergarten. In J. Juvonen, & S. Graham (Eds.), Peer harassment in school: the plight of the vulnerable and victimized (pp. 175-195). Guilford Press. Valkanover, S.,
Alsaker, F. D., Svreck, A., & Kauer, M. (2004). Mobbing ist kein Kinderspiel. Arbeitsheft zur Prävention in Kindergarten und Schule [Bullying is not a game: Teachers’ book on preventing bullying in kindergarten and school]. Bern: Schulverlag
Françoise D. Alsaker is a professor in developmental psychology at the University of Berne, Switzerland. Her special interests are: socio-emotional development and developmental psychopathology. In the past years, she has lead two large research projects on: 1) victimization and its prevention through kindergarten and primary school and 2) on Swiss adolescents’ health (national study).
- Alsaker, F. D., & Nägele, C (in press, 2008). Bullying in kindergarten and prevention. In W. Craig, & D. Pepler (Eds.), An International Perspective on Understanding and Addressing Bullying. PREVNet Series, Volume I. PREVNet: Kingston, Canada.
- Alsaker, F. D., & Nägele, C (submitted, July 2008). Vulnerability to victimization in kindergarten: Need for a differentiation between passive and aggressive victims. Merril-Palmer Quarterly.
- Stassen Berger, K. (2007). Update on bullying at school: Science forgotten? Developmental Review, 27,90 – 126.
- Salmivalli, C., Lagerspetz, K., Björkqvist, K., Österman, K., & Kaukiainen, A. (1996). Bullying as a group process: participant roles and their relations to social status. Aggressive Behavior, 22, 1-15.
- McDougall, P., Hymel, S., Vaillancourt, T., & Mercer, L. (2001). The consequences of early childhood rejection. In M. Leary (Ed.) Interpersonal Rejection (pp. 213-247). New York: Oxford University Press.
- Ladd, G. W. & Troop-Gordon, W. (2003). The role of chronic peer difficulties in the development of children’s psychological adjustment problems. Child Development, 74, 1344-67.
- Alsaker, F. D. (2004). The Bernese program against victimization in kindergarten and elementary school (Be-Prox). In P. K. Smith, D. Pepler, & K. Rigby (Eds.), Bullying in schools: How successful can interventions be? (pp.289-306). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.