Preschool Bullying & How to Help
I felt awful for Big M when it happened; her feelings seemed so hurt. And I was in such a state of shock, I know I didn’t handle it as well as I could. I don’t want to be a helicopter parent and swoop in like a Mama Bear. I want her to be able to speak and stand up for herself, but there has to be some appropriate medium route for handling this. So I reached out to my followers and favorite experts for advice, and as always they came through. Turns out this is pretty common among this age group, and I wasn’t alone in being unsure of how to handle it, so I thought I would share their best advice with all of you!
Preschool Social Development
In The Importance of Play for Early Childhood Development, I outlined the natural progression of play in early childhood. In preschool, children begin to progress beyond parallel play to play and interact more with each other, engaging in associate and co-operative play. Fantasy play often takes center stage and children begin to identify with specific gender roles. While playing house, girls play the mommy, while boys emulate their fathers, reflecting what they observe in the world around them.
They may begin to show preferences for certain playmates over others, often choosing those who they identify with as similar, or in their ‘same set.’ Children as young as 6 months old are hardwired to naturally discern physical differences. In the case of our experience on the playground, the little girl was excluding Big M because she wasn’t in their preschool class; she didn’t know her the way she knew and was comfortable with the other kids.
One of the best pieces of advice I received came from Terri, a retired elementary school principal who now blogs at Our Good Life (don’t miss her latest post on the Top 10 Readiness Skills for Your Kindergartener).
“Her comfort level was with the other kids in her class. She doesn’t understand exclusion and its effect on others. In this case, it is acceptable to show the mean girl how the excluded child could fit in. For example, mom walks with child over to the group and says, look! My child is wearing the same shoes as you, or both of you have barrettes today, or, I am friends with your mom! This gives the mean girl a way to fit the other girl into her set.”
The 4 year old girl isn’t in fact a ‘mean girl’, her social development is just at a point where she isn’t yet comfortable including children she isn’t familiar with in her social circle. By pointing out shared commonalities, it helps young children find common ground which gives them comfort and helps them build friendships.
Little people have big feelings. Yet they often don’t have the vocabulary to put words to exactly how they are feeling, or the social awareness to convey those feelings to others. When moments like these arise, it is helpful to talk through their feelings with them so they understand what they are feeling and how to handle it then and in the future. My mom, the 30-year kindergarten teacher, outlines how she handles situations of exclusion among the 5-year olds in her classroom:
“At school when a child is told they can’t play, I intercede and bring the children together and have the child express how the comment made them feel, and then we talk about if they would like to be told they couldn’t play. We have lots of conversations about being kind and friends with all our peers. If the unkindness continues the child will learn that you have to be a friend to have friends.”
— PGPBMeghan (@PGPBmeghan) July 20, 2015
This may be the only thing I did right in the situation. Lil’ M, at nearly 2, wants nothing more than to play with her big sister always. At home, Big M generally tolerates her. But at the playground, around kids her own age, she wants nothing to do with her. When Big M looked so sad after being excluded, and acknowledge she felt as much, I pointed out it doesn’t feel good to be left out, and suggested that might be how she was making her little sister feel by not including her. She quickly grabbed her by the hand and ran off to play elsewhere!
My cousin, also an early elementary teacher, shared this advice as well.
“I tell them I’m sorry that they are sad. Then, take a teachable moment to remind them to include everyone when playing. That being left out makes them sad, and that’s how others feel. To be sure not to leave anyone else out.”
A fellow mother of two and former co-worker also uses it as a teachable moment to teach her daughter to lead by example and stand up for herself in such situations or those where another child is treating others unkindly or with aggression.
“We encouraged A to stay away from the girl, and if she came toward her in a way that was mean to stand up for herself. She would say you are not playing nicely, you are being mean and I don’t want to play with you if you are going to be mean. She told the little girl that about 5 times. It not only changed how she interacted with A, but with the other kids as well.”
Parenting Lesson Learned
Reaching out to my fellow parents and experts, I learned so much to better enable me to handle the situation should it arise again. Intervening does not make me a helicopter parent or a mama bear, but the experienced adult with the social intelligence to impart wisdom to these young children who are still learning social norms and the skills for developing friendships. As adults, it is our job to step in and model what it means to be a good friend and how you can include others. Role-playing these situations at home, or even in the moments when they occur, will teach Big M how to handle them herself in the future, as she gets older, and most importantly, in the moments where we as parents won’t be present.
Has your preschooler’s feelings been hurt by another child or encountered bullying at school? How did you handle it? If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy two of our most popular early childhood posts: The Importance of Play for Early Childhood Development and 9 Ways to Help Ease Daily Transitions.
You can find all of these, along with all our favorite parenting posts from around the web on our Parenting Tips board on Pinterest.