Child Care

Preventing Bullying in Child Care Settings

Learning how to get along well with others is one of life’s most important challenges. Child care settings—including daycare, preschool, home care groups, and play groups—often provide young children with their first ongoing social experiences. Children have the opportunity to observe, learn, and practice the many social skills they need to get along and build friendships with their peers. Yet, child care settings are also where many children first observe or experience early forms of bullying behavior. If this early bullying behavior is not addressed, patterns of violence and victimization may grow and persist, not only within the child care settings, but also into later childhood, adolescence, and even adulthood. 

Caregivers’ ultimate responsibility is to keep children safe. This includes maintaining an environment that is bully free. Caregivers can play a critical role in determining whether early bullying behavior escalates and spreads, or is reduced to isolated events. 

How Does Early Bullying Develop?

Bullying among young children is not uncommon. When groups of young children, who often differ significantly in physical size, skill level, and family experience, get together regularly, patterns of hurtful behavior often emerge. Children make mean faces, say threatening things, grab objects, push others aside, falsely accuse, or refuse to play with others. These behaviors are precursors to verbal, physical, or indirect bullying—though they are not always recognized as such (see What is Bullying? Chart). Some young children are also capable of engaging in actual bullying behaviors by deliberately and repeatedly dominating a more vulnerable peer through name-calling, physical attacks, and social exclusion. 

Among children two to six years of age, bullying usually develops in a well-defined progression. For example, a young boy may begin by targeting and dominating a vulnerable peer. This boy may have acquired his view of domination at home by watching family members or media characters that forcefully dominate others, or by experiencing such behavior being used against him. If the boy’s early examples of coercive behavior are ignored or remain unchecked, he is likely to increase their levels and/or increase the number of children he targets. Then, other children who observe his “success” and perceived power are likely to join in—dominating the same victims repeatedly or using similar tactics to target and dominate victims of their own. If these early forms of direct bullying are allowed to continue over several months, power hierarchies may form, with groups of dominant children regularly bullying others who give in to their demands by crying and yielding. 

Some children, often girls, may develop more sophisticated and subtle forms of indirect bullying by manipulating relationships, excluding classmates, spreading rumors, telling secrets, and threatening not to play if their demands are not met.

To prevent bullying from escalating, caregivers can prepare themselves with effective strategies to deal with bullying incidents—before, during, and after they occur. They can also look ahead and take steps to create an environment that supports respect, where bullying is neither accepted nor tolerated. Finally, caregivers can help children learn the social skills they need to deal effectively with bullying, when it occurs.

Teaching Social Skills to Prevent Bullying

To gain and maintain friends and avoid becoming involved in bullying, young children need to learn a variety of social skills. They must learn how to analyze and resolve social problems, understand and respond caringly to what others think and feel, and stand up for themselves in a fair and respectful way, without attacking others. Child care settings offer a natural learning environment and a potentially safe haven in which to teach and practice these social skills.

Young children are generally eager to learn social skills when they 1) understand why they are important, and 2) are given concrete examples they can understand. The explanations and examples used will depend on the age and developmental level of the children. Social skills can be taught through presentation, modeling, discussion, story telling, videos, role playing, games, and curricular activities. Caregivers can also take advantage of opportunities throughout the day to allow children to practice what they have learned, as well as to coach them and provide them with cues, encouragement, and feedback. As children begin to learn new strategies in this way, providers can reduce their level of support.

Developing Effective Strategies

Effective strategies for teaching social skills related to violence and bullying have been documented in research findings.  Many of these research-based strategies are presented in the book, Early violence prevention: Tools for teachers of young children by Ron Slaby, Wendy Roedell, Diana Arezzo, and Kate Hendrix. Three of the most important social skills for preventing and bullying are 1) Social problem-solving, 2) Empathy, and 3) Assertiveness. 

1) To help children develop social problem-solving skills:

  • Prepare yourself with the most promising resources. Review, discuss, and select the most useful and developmentally-appropriate materials, activities, and curricular materials for your children.
  • Find concrete ways to teach your children the skills they need to solve the problems they face. Although young children often have difficulty understanding abstract concepts, they readily understand concrete presentations of familiar problems. Demonstrations, dramatizations, puppet role plays, and illustrated stories can help to make the abstract concrete.
  • Divide social problem-solving into component skills and focus on building one skill at a time. Preschool children who might otherwise become confused with the complexity of the problem-solving process can learn one skill at a time. Important component skills for young children include generating several solutions to a problem, anticipating “what would happen if . . .” and delivering the best solution.
  • Transfer children’s skill-building practice from hypothetical to real situations. Identify real-life situations that offer children opportunities to applythe skills they have developed in hypothetical situations, and support them in practicing their skills.
  • Teach social problem-solving skills directly related to various forms of bullying—verbal, physical, and indirect. When problem solving, select realistic situations for discussion, role play, and practice.
  • Help children understand and deal with their strong feelings about bullying. Let them know that strong feelings, such as anger, frustration, and fear are acceptable, but violence is never O.K. Help them learn non-hurtful ways to express their feelings. 
  • Encourage impulse control and self-calming. Teach and model simple relaxation and self-calming techniques to deal with strong feelings. Help children to practice using these techniques.
  • Help children practice listening skills. Children need to listen attentively to understand what other children want, and why. Attentive listening begins by looking at the person speaking and being quiet while they talk—then repeating what they have said.
  • Provide children with practice in thinking of solutions, anticipating consequences, and evaluating the harmfulness of violent solutions. To prepare children to deal with bullying responsibly, help them to think of alternative solutions and the likely consequences, and discuss how bullying is harmful and unacceptable. Young children are more likely to think of alternative solutions in critical situations if they concretely discuss and practice them first, with adult guidance.

2) To help children develop empathy skills:

  • Encourage children to label their own feelings and tell each other how they feel about bullying and related behaviors. In an atmosphere of understanding and acceptance, caregivers can talk about their own feelings and ask children to describe how they feel about bullying. 
  • Discuss how children who are bullied might feel. Using pictures, stories, or puppets, ask children how they think the character in the picture or story feels, why they think the character is feeling that way, and what could be done to help the character feel better.
  • Explain that despite differences between people, everyone experiences certain basic feelings. Use pictures and stories to demonstrate that even people who look different from each other, experience similar basic and universal feelings.
  • Remind children how they felt in situations similar to those faced by others in distress. For example, if a child falls down, remind another child how she felt when she fell last week. Enlist her aid in assisting and comforting the child who has just fallen.
  • Model empathy by talking about how you identify another’s distress and think of ways to help. Call children’s attention to empathic responses that take place in the classroom, when either the teacher or other children help and share their feelings with each other. Discuss how this behavior makes both the giver and the receiver feel good about each other.

3) To help children develop assertiveness skills:

  • Teach children to speak directly to each other, rather than through the teacher. Dependence on the teacher to solve problems interferes with self-reliance and self-confidence in social situations. 
  • Teach children to ask for and offer things to each other in a polite and open-ended way. Peers are more likely to acquiesce when asked nicely and given a real choice.
  • Teach children to say “No” politely and to accept “No” for an answer from others by saying “O.K.” Children need to know how to decline a request or offer in an acceptable way and respect that right in others.
  • Use demonstration and role-play to teach specific assertiveness skills related to bullying. Dolls and puppets can be helpful.
  • Take advantage of naturally-occurring events to coach assertiveness skills. Children’s motivation to learn is high in such situations.
  • Teach children to accept legitimate adult authority, but also to respectfully stand up for their rights with adults. Children should know that they are entitled to fair treatment from adults, as well as from children.  
  • Teach children to use assertiveness skills to avoid submitting to bullying tactics, bossiness, or discriminatory acts. Children can be taught first to stand up directly to a bullying peer, and only then, to call for adult help if needed. Submission can lead to victimization, and it rewards the bully.
  • Teach children to ignore routine provocative peer behaviors. By ignoring the minor provocations, children practice controlling their own emotional reactions. They also deny the bully the reaction he or she seeks.
  • Teach children to use assertiveness skills proactively to meet their goals. Assertive behaviors often provide effective ways of achieving one’s goals without bullying, retaliating, or submitting.
  • Teach assertiveness to girls and boys equally. Avoid cultural bias toward accepting submissiveness for girls and aggressiveness for boys.

Related Resources

Adults & Children Together (ACT) Against Violence
Features a training program for professionals working with families, materials for violence prevention campaigns, and a searchable database of more than 250 journal articles, book chapters, and other publications that address violence and violence prevention among young children (0 to 8 years of age).

Two useful ACT publications are: 

Violence prevention in early childhood: How teachers can help.

Violence prevention for families of young children.

De Paola, T. (1979).  Oliver Button is a sissy. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Pepler, K.J., & Craig, W. (2000). Making a difference in bullying. Toronto: LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence and Conflict Resolution, York University, Report No. 60.

Shure, M. S.  (1992). I can problem solve: An interpersonal cognitive problem-solving program. Preschool. Champaign, IL: Research Press. 

Slaby, R.G., Roedell, W.C., Arezzo, D. & Hendrix, K. (1995). Early violence prevention: Tools for teachers of young children. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children (available only in secondary market).