Bullying seems to be the hot topic among parents of toddler and preschool-aged children these days, but what exactly constitutes bullying? With the cultural bias toward bullying, have we swung too far in the opposite direction and declared too many things as “bullying” behaviors?
As the EC Program Director I can tell you that there is a fine line between playing around and being bullied. It is getting so hard to define as it is not as obvious as it used to be. While some parents prefer a zero-tolerance approach, still others want to just “let kids be kids”. The definition of bullying may be changing, just not in the way you might think!
So What constitutes bullying?
When does good-natured teasing turn the corner and become bullying? In the simplest definition, bullying behavior consists of an imbalance of power (either physical or social) and happens consistently over a period of time. This is different from a one-time-only type of interaction because the bully continues to inflict the hurtful behavior time and time again. This is where some people are confused, and wind up calling any unpleasant interaction a bullying situation.
Bullying at school is something that comes up on a daily basis, and even the EC program is not immune. I am continuously working on ways to provide effective discipline and put an end to acts of bullying — or perceived bullying — in the school setting. Typically the perception of “bullying” is when a parent observes a group of children having a questionable physical interaction and having judgment. Having a background of over 20 years in education, I can assure you that not every negative or inappropriate interaction is bullying. You need to take each incident separately and find out what actually happened. You need to know the prior relationship among the students involved and determine if there was an imbalance of power.
While disciplining the bully with suspension or time spent in the principal’s office may seem like the best solution, the whole school needs to be educated on bullying behavior to truly make a change. When a child is being bullied, there are usually bystanders who are in a position to do something, who often just stand and watch. I approach bullying prevention as an educational issue, where all kids — including bystanders — needed to learn better ways of interacting and being responsible to each other. Just assigning blame and punishing the student who might have bullied does not solve the problem in the long run. The difficulties in dealing with these situations is often compounded by the fact that the parents of the victim are often quite upset and want immediate discipline, in some cases punishment or reassignment for the child.
When is it just Age Appropriate but undesirable behavior?
Aside from true bullying behavior, there is just plain roughhousing that kids are always doing. Some usage of “bad” words and goofing around that happens between friends on the playground is a bit of give-and-take. Most often it is a way of figuring out social skills and learning to get along. Risk play must never, but often is, be mistaken for bullying. When this error is made by adults, kids learn to use the word [bullying] as a trigger — because kids want to be on the strong side of the power equation.
When I see two 5-year-old boys rolling around on the playground engaging in roughhousing, I don’t see bullying, but normal behavior which is necessary for boys to learn social skills. Yes, one or the other may get a scrape or tear the knees in his pants, but this is normal. Research suggests that young children, especially boys, need the chance to learn what the limitations are for physical engagement and they only learn that by crossing the lines. They don’t intend to hurt each other, they just need the physical engagement.
Here at MCH we encourage the students to be respectful of each other, and kind to one another at all times. When disagreements occur and tempers flare, we work with the students to discuss the issue and resolve it in a mutually agreeable way. When a student suspects another of bullying, we monitor and assess each situation independently and take the appropriate measures. Our first priority is teaching the children respectful conflict resolution, and our absolute last resort is dismissal from the program.
We encourage all parents and students to maintain an open and judgement-free dialogue about each child's day at school and understand that children often speak to our sensitivities and what might not gain attention as just risk play, often gets attention when the word "bullying" is used. Maintaining an open dialogue allows us as parents and educators to notice consistent patterns of behavior versus incidental moments of risk play.