Bullying... in preschool?
Your son comes home from preschool and tells you “Ryan” is being mean again. You ask him, “What is Ryan doing?” Your little guy gives you a pitiful face and says, “He is mean to me.”
This opens up a conversation on what being “mean” can actually be. You wonder how on earth a child could be so mean at this age?
Is it bullying or an adjustment issue?
The problem could be that “Ryan” doesn’t know how to handle a social situation.
A 3-year-old, 4-year-old or 5-year-old does not always recognize how his or her actions affect others said Amy Zoellner, professional development instructor with Capital Area Early Childhood Training Institute in Harrisburg. Zoellner travels to preschools to educate teachers about the topic of bullying. “We need to stop worrying so much about the consequence and take a step back and really look at why this behavior is occurring. The child may not know how to ask others to play, the child may need more attention, the child may need taught how to control and express their feelings,” Zoellner said. “As adults, we need to help teach children empathy, it's not something that comes naturally to all people.”
Preschool teachers and parents need to work together to help the children realize the affects of their actions and words. Adrienne Fiscus, director of Maple Grove Preschool in Atglen is not fond of the word “bully.” “I feel that even though behaviors may be like that of a bully, the child may not actually realize that they are as hurtful as they are because he/she has not learned to self-regulate their emotions,” Fiscus said. “Often it is the parents of the victim that use this term for lack of a better term to describe what their child has experienced. I am not sure what the appropriate term should be. I must admit, though, that we need to be realistic, and if a child is acting like a bully then the label will be easily applied.”
Out of control
“Sometimes the child acts out as a need to have control of an environment. The preschool ‘bully’ that I have had experience with would come into class in an introverted fashion. This child would be demanding to the parent, and often gets his/her way. This may be shown through whining and clinging,” Fiscus said.
Holly Lukens has eight years of experience teaching preschool students in the Harrisburg area. Lukens said helping “Ryan” find a way to feel in control “in a positive way” could break down barriers between such a child and other children in the classroom. “We had a job chart and we made sure that the child had a job for the day. That child was able to express that need for control by being responsible for something, even if it was just picking the songs that would be sung that day. It often gave the child something to look forward to, something that was their own.”
A parent can help enforce this effort by not allowing the child to control the situation. As long as he or she has control in a negative situation and sees that the tantrums, hitting, yelling and other reactions result in getting what they want, they will continue the behavior, Lukens said. “I think that being consistent with a child and meaning what is said is so important. If you tell a child [he or she] can’t go outside without a coat on, but after five minutes of crying you let the child go outside without a coat on anyway, what has the child learned? They are learning to control situations in a negative way.”
The child then tries to use this control on his or her peers, because it seems to work. “Parents need to tell, but more importantly they need to show the children the behavior they want to see,” Zoellner said. And putting a child in “time-out” or removing them from the scene after a child has attacked another child is not effective. They need to see for themselves what their actions have done.
“I believe that this is a huge issue for early learning environments today. A lot of frustration is brewing in many classrooms because angry children are hurting others and teachers aren’t prepared to handle their aggression,” Fiscus said.
“Preschool teachers should have the aggressive child help the child (he or she) hurt. For example, if Ryan hits Kobe, Ryan should get Kobe and icepack and comfort Kobe until he feels better. Often adults would make Ryan say ‘I'm sorry’ or sit him in time out. That won't help Ryan see the consequences of his actions or make him understand how Kobe feels. Children learn really quickly that all they have to do is say sorry and then the fact that they hit doesn't matter,” Zeollner said. “That's not the message we want to send children. Also, teachers and parents should talk to Ryan about what he should do next time he gets angry, instead of hitting.”
Tabitha Goodling is a freelance writer and mother of four daughters (including triplets!) from Juniata County.