Cultivating Kindness: Bully Prevention for Early Childhood

Bullying and Young Children

Be kind

Kindness counts.

Bullying has been in the national spotlight so much lately.  Does this mean anything for our youngest children?

Apparently, yes.  Not only do teachers and parents report bullying behaviors  in young children, but researchers do too.   Repeated, intentional, unkind actions from children with more power toward children with less power. That’s the definition of bullying.

One teacher shared, “Some years, we see just typical arguing or spats; other years, we are really surprised by the bullying and aggression that crops up.”

Bullying researchers (yes, there is such a thing!) have found that curbing bullying in the early years has the most long-term impact.  The longer bullying continues – the “stickier” the problem becomes.  Studies have found that a child  being bullied consistently in first grade is very likely to be targeted through middle school.  And children who consistently behave in aggressive and antisocial ways beyond age six are at increased risk of future violent behavior patterns. Clearly – helping young children develop positive social behaviors is critical.

What Does NOT Stop Bullying in Young Children?

Teaching young children about “bullies,” “victims,” “on-lookers,”  etc., and emphasizing “No Bullying!” has been a popular response to bullying in older children.   Developmentally, educating young children in this way is not effective.  It is too theoretical for the age, and most importantly, it doesn’t change behaviors in young children.

This approach is  similar to other “stop”  behavior messages  – stop running, stop yelling, stop chewing with your mouth open.  Young children respond more reliably to positive, persistent adult guidance to  “do this instead.”  Walk please, thank you for talking with such a gentle voice, remember to close your mouth while you chew.  Please.

To reduce bullying behavior in young children, adults have more success (and frankly more fun!) by helping children practice what TO DO to replace acting unkindly or aggressively.  Be Kind.  Share.  Use Gentle Touches.  Help Others.  Include Each Other.  Environments with strong, clear messages about kindness, cooperation, and valuing others have lower rates of bullying.  Luckily – humans are primed to be kind!

What CAN Stop Young Children From Bullying?

Many studies show that caring for others appears to be hard-wired in humans.  Babies cry when they see  another baby crying; young children show more happiness sharing a toy  than playing alone with the toy.  One researcher has identified a facial expression people make when they are about to help someone!

Of course the real world is more complicated than a lab.  Sometimes we’re tired or they’re tired (or both).  Sometimes children get another kind of reward when they act unkindly – power, attention, relief from boredom.

We must provide supervision, protection, and appropriate consequences if children bully.

But what about creating meaningful opportunities for children to directly experience being kind, helpful, and generous?  Children would get those good feelings that result from being kind (yes, there’s research about this too!) and would practice how to care for others.

Reducing Aggression and Bullying Through Kindness Projects

Involving children in kindness projects appears to increase their general kind feelings toward others – not just the recipients of the project.  Family kindness projects like taking cards to injured soldiers at the Veteran’s Hospital or leaving neighbors a bright balloon with a note saying “surprise  – have a great day”  teach children that actions matter and that they have the ability to help others.  Think of the lessons learned by the neighborhood group of kindergarteners collecting for the food bank in their little red wagon (with mom’s help).

Class projects can be more complicated – but set an equally important tone.  One pre-K class that filled trail mix bags for a homeless shelter loved the project, and the teacher observed the effects spreading as children treated each other more kindly.  Another teacher added “Kindness Captain” to the class roster of rotating jobs:  the Kindness Captain reported any kind acts observed among classmates that day.

While not a magic cure-all, kindness projects offer rich learning for children and the adults who lead them, and cultivate behavior patterns that help reduce bullying.

We’d love to hear about kindness projects you’ve done or plan to do.   We will compile a list of suggestions and post it, so be sure to check back for that.

Click here to print a “Blogtips” handout with pointers from this post.

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One thought on “Cultivating Kindness: Bully Prevention for Early Childhood

  1. I really enjoyed the section of what doesn’t work. When I was teaching Special Education in the seventies , a third grader passed my class and said something negative. His teacher said if he did it again, he would have to write sentences. I invited him in my class for lunch. I think that understanding of the”other” will breed compassion and reduce bullying. The best resource on compassion I know of is Karen Armstrong’s book ” The charter for compassion” i think it is called. she has 10 steps building compassion, and easy activities that everyone can do.Teaching bullying as something that gets kids in trouble, has kids avoiding it to avoid being in trouble , rather than compassion and understanding that will help them not want to bully

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