Posted by: l2bb | February 6, 2010

Bullying in preschoolers… Does it happen?

Copyright Amanda Gray 2010

I have been exploring books, journals and websites to reinforce what I have seen from experience.  But I haven’t found the same body of work about bulling in early childhood that can be found on bullying in school-aged children.

The main reason for this is probably a reluctance to label behaviours as bullying at this early stage in children’s development (as per the discussion with Harrison on Life Matters).

Defining bullying in under-fives

The lists of behaviours identified as bullying behaviour in early childhood seem to be pretty much the same as those listed for school-aged children (National Childcare Association Council [NCAC], 2009).  However, according to the NCAC (2009), physical bullying is most common.    There is, however, evidence (even if it is largely anecdotal) that relational aggression in the form of exclusion from play is also relatively common in early childhood settings (Gartrell and Gartrell, 2008; Sprung, Froschl & Hinitz, 2005).

Put simply, hitting, biting, kicking and saying, “You can’t play!” are probably the most common behaviours in early childhood that may be seen as bullying.

But is it really bullying?

In the context of child development, can this behaviour actually be identified as bullying?

As discussed in the previous post, bullying is about power imbalance and the implementation of the intent to harm.  As Rigby (2003) states

“Bullying occurs when somebody who is less powerful than another person or a group is deliberately and [typically] repeatedly hurt without in any way deserving that treatment.  The children doing the bullying enjoy what they are doing and the victim is unable to avoid being bullied.” (p3)

The thing is that, in early childhood, what may be percieved as bullying often occurs due to immature social skills.

The development of Theory of Mind

The technical definition of theory of mind goes something like this:

“Theory-of-Mind (ToM) is the social cognitive ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others and to use these attributions in understanding, predicting and explaining behavior of others and oneself.” (Blijd-Hoogewys, Geert, Serra & Minderaa, 2008)

In simple language, it is about the ability to empathise and evaluate how our behaviour is effecting others.  As Blijd-Hoogewys et al suggest, it is a core skill in being able to interact in a socially acceptable way.

It is believed that this empathy doesn’t typically start developing in its full complexity until the age of four (Blijd-Hoogewys et al., 2008).  Before that children mostly act egocentrically, interacting socially according to their needs and wants without thinking about how this may effect others.

Therefore, the intent to harm others is not often a significant part of either relational or physical aggression in young children simply because they are not really thinking about the effect they are having on others.  Therefore, we need to be careful about labelling this behaviour “bullying”.

Differences in rates of development

Trauma, conditions such as Autism and ADHD, communication difficulties, individual personalities and family culture – these can all influence the rate of a child’s social development (Blijd-Hoogewys et al., 2008; Gartrell & Gartrell, 2008; Miller, 2006).   So we also need to be conscious that some young children may may be more sensitive or have a greater capacity for empathy than others.

Aggression in early childhood

Therefore, a child who says, “I’m not your friend” is not necessarily bullying another child.  Instead, it is more likely to be a product of their egocentric view of the world.  For example, they may feel that there are enough children in the sand-pit, or they don’t want their pattern of play disrupted, or simply that they aren’t particularly fond of the other child.

A child who hits another again is not often doing so to see its effect on another child.  I could not put it any better than Gartrell and Gartrell (2008) – though I would perhaps debate their use of the term “bullying”:

“For many young children, bullying is a form of intrumental aggression – harming another physically or psychologically in order to obtain a goal… For a few children, bullying is a reactive aggression – a child experiences stress, does not know how to ask for help, and acts out against a perceived unjust world as a reaction to the stress.” (p55)

So a toddler who goes around biting other children is likely doing it a) because they are in pain (teething) or experiencing some emotional (adjusting to separating from mum) or physical distress (tiredness), b) because they can’t tell you this is happening, and c) because they get lots of attention (even if it is negative) when they do it.

A four-year-old who is grabbing things, bumping, hitting and pushing others may be doing it because a) they want to play with others and get a sense of belonging, but b) they don’t have the communication skills to do this in the socially acceptable way.   I saw this with several children I have worked with who had cochlea implants and were slower at developing language than other children.

So do we let it go?


Just because we don’t define it as bullying doesn’t mean it is okay.  It just means that we should deal with it differently in the context of the children’s stage of social development.  We need to be proactive in finding the child’s motivation; supportive in listening to and addressing their needs; and focused on teaching social skills, rather than focusing on disciplinary procedures.

The importance of promoting social skills  in pre-school settings

Gatrell and Gatrell (2008), and Sprung, Froschl and Hinitz (2005) both highlight the significance of teaching social skills in early childhood settings as it is laying the foundation for future development.

Sprung et al. especially focus on the importance of an inclusive centre.  For example, they cite Paley’s (1992) mantra of “You can’t say you can’t play” (p11).

This doesn’t mean that you try to force every child to be “friends” – there will always be personality clashes, differences in interests and so on.  However, it does mean that relational aggression such as exclusion from games is seen as unacceptable, and by-passes the expectation that young children will necessarily be able to change their behaviour based on a prediction of how another child may feel.

It means that young children aren’t being asked to do more than they are developmentally capable of; and that they are learning to be more sensitive and accepting of diversity as they learn to play along-side all others in their little community.

The other side of the coin is teaching children the communication and social skills necessary for positive interaction.  For the child who is grabbing or hitting because they want to “belong”, teaching them appropriate words and body-language to achieve the same thing is essential.  Talking about feelings, reading stories and discussing social interaction… these are some of the ways we can help children develop Theory of Mind or an understanding of how their behaviour is effecting others.

In other situations, such as the toddler biting, adult support may be the only answer.  If the child is distressed, tired, in pain, then the behaviour is only likely to stop when they are getting the attention and relief from these conditions.  Doing things like having a cuddle time (getting the attention they need), teething toys (some relief from pain) and/or a quiet space for the child to rest and withdraw (relaxation in the face of stress) could help the child get what they need.

Doing these things will help prevent bullying in the future.

So why do I talk about bullying in Dave is Brave?

Saying “Golly was a bully” in my book Dave is Brave may be seen to be hypocrytical in the context of this discussion.  And perhaps there is some contradiction.

However, the book is designed to help children understand and identify behaviour that is unacceptable.  It was also done to highlight the difference between being a friend and being a bully, and that someone who has been seen as a bully has feelings, too, and can change.

Dave is Brave provides a platform for discussion of what might motivate aggressive behaviour and the nature of bullying, discussion that is facilitated by the accompanying activity plans and questions in the back of the book.


Blijd-Hoogewys, E.M.A, Geert, van AEPLC,  Serra, M., Minderaa, Æ R. B. (2008).  Measuring Theory of Mind in Children: Psychometric Properties of the ToM Storybooks.  Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders, 38, p1907–1930

Gartrell, D., and Gartrell, J.J.  (2008).  Guidance Matters: Understand Bullying.  Young Children, 63(3), p54-57.

Miller, C.A.  (2006). Developmental Relationships Between Language and Theory of Mind.  American Journal of Speech – Language Pathology, 15(2), p142.

National Childcare Association Council  (2009).  Managing Bullying in Child Care. Retrieved 6th February, 2010 from

Rigby. K.  (2003).  Bullying Among young Children: A guide for parents.  Retrieved 6th February, 2010 from$file/Bullying+Parents.pdf

Sprung, B., Froschl, M. and Hinitz, B.  (2005).  Anti-bullying and Teasing Book for Preschool Classrooms.  Gryphon House: Maryland.



  1. […] if we help children develop “Theory of Mind“, then we are helping them avoid becoming a bully as well as recognising when others are […]

  2. […] is the function of our brains that helps us analyse and control our behaviour.  It works alongside theory of mind to help most of us avoid bullying others.  However, if you are acting impulsively (linked to […]

  3. […] Peer-related social skills: These are skills children need in order to interact successfully and develop a sense of belonging with a group of peers.  They include skills such as sharing, taking turns, and the ability to correctly predict and respond to others’ feelings and emotions (theory of mind). […]

  4. thanks, will check back later, have bookmarked you for now.

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