The year my daughter started preschool was also the year she began talking incessantly of birthday parties. As in, “Quinn says I can’t come to her birthday party” or “Phillip told me, if I share this, I can go to his party.” It seemed that every day brought with it a new invitation—or the rescinding of one—no matter if any actual celebrations had been planned.
Welcome to preschool politics, where the granting and withholding of friendships reigns supreme.
The start of preschool is, for many, the first chance kids have to flex their social skills. As they learn to navigate the classroom with others their age, our little ones are bound to bump up against conflict.
“Often it is very difficult to decipher between intentional aggression and behavior that falls in the typical range for young children,” said Maggie Gale, an early childhood educator. “Young children are developing their social skills, and clumsy attempts to determine social order can result in hurt feelings and parental concerns about bullying.”
Bullying in preschool? You bet.
Signs of Bullying in Preschool
It’s called relational aggression, and while often subtle, experts say it could be at the root of bullying in the elementary school years and beyond. Unlike physical aggression, relational—or social—aggression finds children wielding friendship as a tool to manipulate and dominate other kids and ultimately to get their own way.
So, what does it look like? Maggie recommends keeping an eye out for these key components:
- A child intentionally ignores another child
- A child will not allow a particular peer to join in play
- A child sets boundaries on his or her friendship (e.g. “If you don’t do X, then we can’t be friends.”)
Again, Maggie cautioned, these actions may still fall within typical preschooler behaviors. “Whether or not it is deliberate bullying is less important than how parents and adult caregivers respond to a child’s potentially worrisome behaviors,” she said.
If social upsets as early as preschool allow children to have their first taste of bullying, then parents and teachers should focus on nipping aggressive behaviors in the bud right away.
What You Can Do
Observe and Correct
Whether you’re at the park or a home playdate, take a few minutes to observe your child at play. If you happen to catch a moment you’re not crazy about, stop your little one for a quick sideline chat. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, it’s perfectly appropriate to say something like this: “You can tell Alonzo you don’t want to play right now, but you may not say ‘go away’ because that is unkind and hurts his feelings.”
When you are disciplining your child, do you unintentionally withhold your affection as punishment? If you have ever responded to your child by saying something like, “I can’t talk to you right now” or “I can’t play because I’m so upset with you,” you may want to rethink your tactics. Instead, look to logical and natural consequences to guide your little one, such as “You are screaming so loudly you woke up the baby, and now we have to stop playing to get her out of her crib.”
Young children are inherently self-focused, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be coached to consider others’ feelings and perspectives. While reading, make a point to stop and talk with your child. “How do you think this character feels?” “How would you feel?” These are questions you can ask as openers to chat about others’ emotions. You may also want to consider role play, making a game of deciphering one another’s feelings.
Schedule Play Dates
Give your child plenty of opportunities to practice friendship skills by scheduling playdates after school hours. And don’t just stick with one or two friends. One-on-one playtime with a variety of children will give your little one the chance to flex their social skills within different friendship dynamics. Take a few moments to observe how your little one is playing and correct as needed. In the same vein, be sure to shower your child with praise for being a good friend and playing, sharing, and problem-solving well with others.
Lead the Way
As parents, we are our children’s first teachers, for better or worse. Model the type of behavior you’d like your child to follow. Be kind to others. Be thankful for the smallest acts of compassion. And never gossip in front of your children. Take a moment to sit down with your kid to chat about the importance of including others — and make certain they have the language to navigate different social situations when solo (such as “May I play with you?” or “Want to join us?”).
Researchers are just now turning their attention to this subtle form of bullying at the preschool level. While it may be difficult to separate what is typical preschool behavior from what’s relational aggression, encouraging kids to find kinder approaches to conflict serves everyone best in the long run.
This article was originally published in 2019 and has been updated for timeliness.