I was watching a group of 3 girls playing the other day. They had a smoothly operating system going – a little assembly line of sorts, measuring and weighing different containers of materials. Another child came over to join them when one of them announced: “You can’t play here. There can only be three of us.” The fourth child looked horrified and hurt.
The entire group looked over at me, including the one doing the excluding. She looked equally surprised; almost as if a couple seconds of reflection was all it took to regret what she’d done. It was clearly not premeditated; more an instinctual defense against this fourth girl.
The fourth girl interrupted the flow and delicate balance of this play. It is complicated for kids to negotiate how to work together and once they do, it’s intrusive and disruptive to try and incorporate a new peer. I felt for them and understood where the exclusion was coming from, but also felt for the excluded child.
The girls, savvy and clever as they are, rebounded before I had to say much to them. They saw the pained look on their peer’s face. One of them quickly said: “No, that’s okay. You CAN play with us. Here use this,” and handed her a container.
Later that day, a little boy on the playground left a shovel on the ground and another kid picked it up and began to use it. The first boy ran back over and began hitting his peer; fighting over this shovel. I told him to sit down and take a break and calm himself down. A few minutes later, I told him he could go back and play but he didn’t move. I asked why he was still sitting there.
“I’m trying to think of how I can be nicer,” he replied unassumingly. He then lay down on his back, crossed his ankles, and looked up at the sky. “I think I’m feeling mad,” he said calmly. “My big brother is always mean to me.”
I was shocked at this not-even-yet-5-year-old’s capacity to self-reflect and express himself. This boy was playing out aggression directed at him at home.
We had a new child enter the class in the middle of the year recently. He doesn’t speak English well and is trying to acclimate to a class of kids who have already bonded deeply for the past several months.
During our morning meeting the other day, he said something in Korean that I could not understand. I leaned forward to try and get some clarity from him when a little boy across the circle began to laugh at him. It was literally once of those “Ah haa haa!” teasing laughs that I thought only existed in cartoons.
I snapped my head around to look at this child. He was pointing and laughing at our new Korean friend. A thousand reactions went flashing through my mind. Instead I stopped and looked around at the other kids.
Not one of them was laughing. Not one of them was participating in this “bullying” behavior. I watched them. They watched me. We looked at the hurt child. We looked at the kid who was teasing. We all processed it. The teasing kid’s jeers eventually lost steam and he actually began to look embarrassed.
After a moment, another kid said: “That’s not funny.” The rest of the class concurred. I felt victorious. I didn’t do or say a thing. The kid who had been laughing shrunk. The class had come to the defense of the little Korean boy.
I have been doing research for a workshop on the topic of bullying in the early childhood years. It’s such a hot topic in education today. Schools everywhere have initiatives in place to protect kids from bullying and it’s interesting to think about it from the perspective of early childhood education.
As I was reflecting on the term “bully” something about the word seemed inappropriate and harsh applied to young children. Bullies, mean girls, bad kids – are these labels valid in a classroom of 4 and 5 year olds? The labels imply a certain premeditated intent that I don’t think most young children possess quite yet.
Social emotional work is an important part of the early childhood curriculum and incidents happen on a daily basis that look like an awful lot like bullying. If not addressed, these kids can very well turn into bullies as they get older. But experimenting with aggression, exclusion, teasing, etc. is actually a very normal and necessary part of child development.
Teaching and modeling empathy, negotiation skills, self-regulation, and compassion is powerful. Kids in a classroom setting have a forum to experience all sides of the equation. Sometimes they are the victims, sometimes they are the perpetrators, sometimes they are the community of supporters.
If we as teachers are tasked with preventing future bullies, it begins with understanding the root of the behavior and guiding our kids to see the impact their behavior has on others.
Children develop “Theory of Mind” around the age of 4, which allows them to understand that others have separate feelings and opinions than themselves. This provides us with a great opportunity. Early childhood educators have the luxury of catching kids before they are too self-conscious, too affected by outside influences, too fixed in their ways.
The classroom that gives kids room to experiment, self-police, and fix their mistakes is one that leaves no room for a bully.