Bullying behaviors often emerge in early childhood. Early childhood educators play a critical role in determining
whether bullying develops and escalates, or whether it is stopped and prevented. All of us who interact with young
children can take steps to teach them the skills they need to avoid bullying altogether. If you don’t know that
bullying happens among young children, you won’t be able to see it or stop it. If you don’t stop bullying, it will grow
and spread. When concerned adults are prepared, they can nip bullying in the bud.

We all want to believe that all little kids are complete angels, incapable of inflicting harm on each other, but the unhappy reality is, sometimes they are. Sadly, preschool bullies are very real and have lots of methods of inflicting emotional and physical harm on their pint-sized classmates. Teasing, taunting, exclusion, hitting, kicking and other forms of bodily injury, while seemingly unlikely in a preschool classroom filled with young children, can certainly exist. Bullying can be devastating for children’s confidence and self-esteem, especially in the preschool years. If a child is being bullied at preschool, she/he needs lots of love and support, both at home and at preschool. She/he also needs to know that you’ll take action to prevent any further bullying. If one of your young students is the victim of a preschool bully, it’s hard to stay calm and focused while offering support to the victim of the bullying. But you need to. Bullying can have consequences for bullies, too. They may have a hard time forming real friendships, which can lead to problematic relationships in all parts of their lives.

  1. Talk about what just happened: Give the victim of the behavior a hug and assure her/him that you are there to help. Letting children know that this isn’t something they have to handle all by themselves will do wonders for the self-esteem of the victims of bullying and alert the bully that his/her behavior will be addressed. Ask specific questions about what is happening like, “Did Sally hit you?” “What did Bobby do that is making you upset?” It’s important to sort out whether the behavior is bullying (happening repeatedly) or an isolated incident, such as a tussle over a toy or a mishap in the playground. The message you want to send him/her is “I love you. I’m here for you. Together, we’ll work on a solution.”
  2. Know the signs: While some children will come right out and say that someone is teasing or hurting them, others may say nothing at all, especially if it is a chronic problem. Possible signs that a child is being bullied include not wanting to go to school after always loving it, complaining of feeling sick or having a stomach ache before going to school or during school, not answering questions about how school is/was or a sudden change in their demeanor – maybe they’re sad or even angry.  They may even give you some clues – telling you that a certain child bothers them or that they don’t like someone in the class.
  3. Try to Find the Root of the Problem: One way to tell the difference between conflict and bullying is to look at intent. A playmate might accidentally cause harm during a “That’s mine!” “No! I saw it first!” tug-of-war over a shovel in the sandbox. A bully, on the other hand, might snatch the shovel away and tell the other child that she’ll throw sand in her face if she tries to get the shovel back. One possible sign of a bully? He’s smiling during a dispute. Another sign to watch for is sneakiness or secretive behavior: a bully doesn’t want grown-ups to catch him/her in the act, so they’ll carry out their bullying covertly; he/she knows what they’re doing isn’t right. Also, a bully will act as a ringleader and recruit others to join him/her.
  4. Work on Basic Problem-Solving Skills:

The child being bullied

  • Teach children to stand tall and act brave when the bullying happens; advise them to stand up for themselves (but not fight back). A loud “Leave me alone!” or “Knock it off!” can do wonders. The goal is to build children’s confidence.
  • Stick with friends. Bullies try to isolate certain kids so they can pick on them. As the saying goes, there’s safety in numbers.
  • Coach them to Ignore the behavior if the child is being verbally teased. Teach them that sometimes the best course of action is no action at all and to simply walk away; and that most bullies bully because they are looking for attention. If the child understands why some children bully, it might help them realize the situation is not their fault.
  • However, if the bully is hitting or otherwise physically hurting a child, instruct them to tell the teacher immediately. Some children are worried they will be labeled a tattletale but reassure them that this is an instance where they need to enlist the help of an adult.

The child doing the bullying – 

  • Talk about playtime. A few reminders about empathy and kindness may tame the insensitive antics of a bully. If that doesn’t work, try time-outs or cutting play time short.
  • Discuss consequences. Explain that if the bullying continues, the other kids won’t want to play with him/her.
  • Have him/her right the wrong. Help the boy or girl doing the bullying to invite others to play (and apologize if possible). Praise his/her efforts. Be specific: “I like the way you invited someone new to play and played so nicely.”

Pay attention to these signs: 

  • Does the child need to feel powerful and in control?
  • Is she/he hot-tempered or quick to resort to aggression?
  • Does she/he feel he/she does no wrong?
  • Does she/he show little empathy for others’ feelings?
  • Is she/he aggressive toward adults?

Don’t panic if you answered yes to any of these questions. It doesn’t necessarily mean the child is a bully. But a child with these traits can turn into a bully, so pay close attention. The biggest red flag is if the child seems to enjoy insulting, shaming or attacking other kids. If so, it’s probably time to have a conference with the child’s parent or guardian and recommend they consult with a pediatrician or therapist.


If bullying in the early years is overlooked or not stopped, young children who bully will continue to bully as they get older, and children who are victimized will continue to suffer. In fact, bullying may spread as other children see opportunities to engage in bullying. If left unchecked, patterns of bullying and victimization will persist into adolescence and even adulthood, resulting in abusive teen dating relationships, and eventually domestic violence or other criminal activities. The good news is that bullying is preventable. When early childhood educators are prepared, they can nip bullying in the bud. Learn how to create bullying-free learning environments; and learn how to build social skills in children to interact in positive ways and to develop resilience against bullying. Broad-based education about appropriate behaviors can contribute to a climate that is welcoming and inclusive for all children.

  • Understand bullying
  • Learn what you can do to prevent bullying
  • Use activities to build children’s social skills
  • Develop an action plan for intervention

Additional Resources:


-Diversity Solutions Group