Young children, particularly preschoolers, are incredibly egocentric. Their brains still have an enormous amount of cognitive and social-emotional development to undergo; in fact, the human brain does not finish developing until a person’s mid-twenties. While the brain reaches its full size developmentally in adolescence, the prefrontal cortex is the last part to finish developing.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for impulse control, prioritizing, planning, and judgment decisions; it’s why teens and young adults often make poor decisions and engage in risky behaviors. 

As a result, young children, in particular, tease one another, say things that others may perceive as hurtful, and sometimes make poor decisions: grabbing toys, hitting, and calling names. Unfortunately, some of these behaviors, while not friendly, are typical preschool and early elementary behaviors. 

Our job as educators and parents is to teach children why those behaviors are hurtful and what they can do instead and support them as they learn appropriate social-emotional skills. 

However, bullying is not the same as run-of-the-mill teasing or name-calling out of frustration. When confronted with a bully in our classroom, it is vital to intervene as soon as possible to stop the hurtful behavior and address it with all parties concerned.

What Is Bullying?

The American Academy of Pediatrics describes bullying as consistently picking on another child who’s usually smaller or weaker, shy, and who usually gets upset or gives in to the bully. 

Obvious Signs of Bullying

  • Shoving or pushing
  • Threatening
  • Taunting or teasing.

Subtle Signs of Bullying

  • Excluding a child from games or activities
  • Whispering insults
  • Taking their things

Bullying is intentional behavior that intends to intimidate or control the child being bullied. For example, two children who have a disagreement over a game and push or stop playing together for fifteen minutes is not considered bullying; however, teachers should still address and teach valuable skills. 

For behaviors to be considered bullying, they must be repetitive, aimed at the same child, and done with intent. 

Tips for Handling Bullies

Stay Close – As soon as you suspect bullying in the classroom, you should stay close to the suspected bully or victim and conduct careful observations. Children who are bullies are less likely to act out if an adult is nearby, and the simple act of being close may lessen the unwanted behavior.

Role Play – Children learn best through playing and doing, so use role play to act out situations that could happen between a bully and a victim. Elicit suggestions from the children on how they could handle a situation; and what better choices are available. 

Read Books – Books are one of our most powerful tools as educators. Books give children a chance to see themselves in characters. For example, reading social stories about friendship and kindness sends subtle messages to children on how to behave toward one another.

Discuss Bullying – Discuss what bullying is, what it looks like, why it’s harmful, and what children should do if they see someone being bullied. Many children are afraid of being seen as the “tattle tale,” so it’s important to let them know if they see someone being hurt with words or physically, it is their job to help out and speak up. 

Document & Talk to the Parents – If you see a bullying pattern, you must document the instances and address them with the children’s parents. Both the child being bullied and the bully’s parents should be spoken to, but remember to maintain privacy by not mentioning the other child to the parents. Even if their child has told their parents who it is, it is your job to stay impartial; you can simply state, “We are addressing the matter with the other child and their parents, but for the sake of privacy, I cannot discuss who the child is.”