Bullying occurs when one child or a group of children deliberately hurt or pick on another child.‘Children who are bullied will feel sad, alone and frightened, and can lose their confidence for learning and playing with others. Children who bully may feel temporarily important or popular but bullying is likely to be a symptom of feeling isolated, afraid and not good enough’ (Dolby, 2010, p.4). Both children need help from protective adults.
How can adults be protective so that children feel that protectiveness from them?
ALWAYS LISTEN TO CHILDREN AND ACKNOWLEDGE THEIR FEELINGS
If a child tells you that another child is hurting them or won’t let them join in play, always listen and be curious about what has happened. Show that you understand how the child feels.
‘Thank you for telling me, now I understand why you have been upset and haven’t wanted to go to school.’
Then children feel that you are with them and that they are not on their own with this. This is the first step in helping them.
TALK TO CHILDREN ABOUT KEEPING THEM SAFE AND HOW YOU ARE AVAILABLE TO DO THIS
In one preschool program (The Attachment Matters Project—from relationships to learning) the educators talk very directly with the children about their role in keeping them safe. For example, in the transition from inside to outside, the educators show the children pictures of where they will be sitting in the playground, ‘I’ll be sitting here so I’ll be easy to find’. They state their availability: ‘You can come back to me whenever you want to’. And their role: ‘I’m going to look all around the playground to see where you are, enjoy watching you play and keep you safe. Come and find me to say hullo, or you might have something to show me’. ‘If you are upset come and tell me. You don’t have to have big feelings all on your own’. From this direct information, the children learn that ‘there is a plan here at this place about how I can find my teacher. He/she will always be glad to see me. I feel safe to play because I can always go back to my teacher if things go wrong’.
NURTURE CHILDREN’S INNATE CAPACITY TO BE KIND AND EMPATHIC
Being empathic refers to understanding how someone else feels. When one child deliberately hurts or is mean to another child, you want this child to feel sorry for what they have done. This is more complex than just asking them to say sorry; often they will need help from you to make sense of their feelings and to see the feelings of others before they can respond with genuine empathy (Dolby, 2010).
You can highlight one child’s feelings to another to help them become more empathic. The Roots of Empathy program (Gordon, 1996) does just that. A curriculum is built around a parent and infant from the local community who make regular visits to the school. The children reflect on how the baby is growing up, including making connections between the baby’s feelings and their own. For example, when the baby struggles to sit up the children discuss how this is like when they feel frustrated learning to do up a zip or ride a bike. In this way, they learn to put themselves in the baby’s place. Bullying and aggression among school children has been significantly reduced as an outcome of this program.
Dr Robyn Dolby
Senior Research Fellow, the Benevolent Society
Dolby, R. (2010). Everyday learning about bullying. Everyday Learning Series, 8(3). Canberra: Early Childhood Australia.
Gordon, M. (1996). Roots of Empathy Program. Accessed online 15 Jan 2011 at www.rootsofempathy.org.