Bully: Rarely the Right Label for a Young Child

By Cindy Finch
Four times in the past month in conversations (in and out of school), young children have been described as bullies. That’s a huge label to hang on a young child.
So, let’s talk about bullying . . . and more.
Bullying is a serious issue. According to a September 2010 article posted on kidshealth.org it is defined as “intentional tormenting in physical, verbal or psychological ways.” However, hearing a big, loaded name hung on children’s behavior (and intentions) creates in me a strong urge to protect young children. One of the first cautions I learned about in classes about young children is that we (adults who care for and educate young children) have a large responsibility to interpret their behaviors accurately. That caution includes using labels very judiciously.
At the same time that we must be thoughtful in labeling children’s behaviors, we have to honestly acknowledge that, sometimes, the things we see young children do to other children in a social setting are very raw. Some young children cry, kick, hit, bite, or say unkind things in response to frustrations, wants or needs (all strong but different feelings). These behaviors are aggressive; there is no arguing about that. Sometimes children do things that have no apparent or observable precedent, making the situations even more puzzling to adults. Early childhood aggression demands a response from adults.
One important task for adults is to look behind the surface behaviors and understand “what’s driving the behavior.” Is the child making awkward attempts to connect socially? Is the child trying to communicate and doesn’t have the skills needed to do that effectively? Has the child been slighted in a social exchange and is making things right in a direct, though inappropriate and immature way? Is the child seeking an opportunity without knowing an effective way to get a turn?
Understanding matters. However, if we stop at understanding we miss the opportunity to be truly helpful to children. Our understanding of an individual child and of child development shapes our adult response—and the aim of that response is always to teach all children involved in a conflict how to handle what has happened and how to prevent a similar event in the future.
You won’t hear TCS teachers describing things that happen among children the age we teach as bullying. Young children’s actions are much more immediate; bullying, by definition, implies a deeper intent to hurt. You will see a lot of attention in our classrooms put into children’s social interactions. That’s because we know how important it is for children ages 2 to 8 to develop a social repertoire (with a lot of continuing support from adults) as a foundation for the type of interactions children do and will face throughout childhood. Not only is it vital that children develop alternatives to the more aggressive behavior, but we put significant teaching energy into empowering children so that they do not identify themselves as victims.
Two pieces of information that we know: 1) children who are able to develop friendships are less likely to have their behaviors labeled as bullying than those who are less socially attractive to their peers—even when they exhibit the same behaviors; and, 2) a child with well-developed problem-solving skills is less likely to become a victim. These two bits of information are from a review of the literature in Children and Conflict: An Opportunity for Learning in the Early Childhood Classroom (Finch and Wirtanen, 2000). This is part of the understanding that we carry with us each day as we interact with children and support them in their interactions with each other—that there is much value in helping children develop social skills that will lead to friendships. Further, there is sound reasoning behind not just comforting a victim, but in helping a child who has been hurt in some way by another child find a strong voice to respond directly, and to shaping that response toward solving a problem. If we are concerned about the possibility of bullying at some point in our children’s lives, then the social interactions of young children are worthy of all the attention that we can give them.
Bullying is a serious issue when it happens in schools. However, we owe young children an opportunity to develop skills without being judged harshly—and inappropriately—by the people in a position to teach them.