Bullying in the early years

The bullying phenomenon is no longer restrained to the traditional concept of a bully picking on a weaker victim in the schoolyard.

I was at one of those indoor play gyms recently with my children. You know the kind: noisy; overcrowded; a headache in the making. We hadn’t been there long when I heard my son cry out. Scanning the crowd of children I saw him on the second level of the play area, pinned up against the wall by a little girl—much smaller than him—who, I couldn’t believe, was punching him continuously with both hands.

With much commotion I managed to get my son out of there, but not without him receiving a bruised body and ego to match. The girl skipped off without remorse or even acknowledgement that she had just beaten up a child twice her size.

An unlikely bully

he incident was so unexpected and hard to believe—not just for me, but also for my son, as well as onlookers. This got me thinking about bullying. As a teacher I had read a lot of information about bullying and since this incident I have read even more, and this is where I came across a common misconception. Bullies are generally described as either as big as, or bigger than, their victim, whom they choose because they are different, isolated, or inferior in some way.

Previously I had taken this information as law, but after this incident I began to question some of the reasons why bullies choose their victims. After all, if this little girl was out looking for a victim, I would think that there would have been many more vulnerable children than my rambunctious boy who was at least a year older than her. And in talking with the other children who witnessed the attack, she did not seem to be provoked. This was further ascertained when I later spotted her beating up some other poor soul—and yes, I intervened again. Not only did I stop the attack, but I also told her mother.

The mother was shocked that her daughter was acting in such a way. The girl looked so harmless. She was only about three, and yet she had managed to physically and emotionally intimidate at least two children.

What had made her act in this way? Had she really, at her young age, had the ability to weed out sensitive children who weren’t likely to hit her back? Or was she just a bad seed who felt the need to act out her frustrations on poor unsuspecting souls?

Since when were girls thugs?

It got me thinking about a girlfriend of mine who was called into the principal’s office not long after her daughter started school. Her daughter had been bullying other children, unbeknown to her. On this particular day she had threatened a Year 2 girl with a pair of scissors and then proceeded to cut her hair, which, by the way, had never been cut before. My girlfriend was just as shocked as the mother at the play gym.

Once again, this was an incident of a little girl with pigtails and dimples bullying someone much bigger than her without having been provoked. What is it with these girls? In looking further to find the answer, I came across another bullying misconception. Every source of information I accessed said that girls bully differently from boys. Apparently, boys who are bullies will tend to be aggressive, whereas girl bullies will be nasty, use scare tactics and exclude others intentionally. But this is not always the case, and certainly isn’t in these examples. Girls are capable of much more than back-stabbing and name-calling.

The skills to end bullying

So you can’t always pick who is likely to be a bully, or in which way. And you can’t always pick who is likely to be a victim. But the one thing we can do to put a stop to bullying is teach our children to stand up for each other, because unfortunately our children cannot always rely on an adult to witness bullying and intervene.

The most recent Australian research on bullying is The Australian covert bullying prevalence study published by Edith Cowan University in (Cross et al., 2009). The study focused on ‘covert’ bullying which is classified as ‘any bullying behaviour not witnessed by an adult’. The study found that by Year 9, 55 per cent of students—as opposed to 27 per cent of Year 4 students—said they had been bullied. Of these students, 12 per cent feared that the bullying could physically hurt them, however only 12 per cent felt comfortable to tell an adult.

Another study—Naturalistic observations of peer interventions in bullying (Hawkins et al., 2001)—found that more than 50 per cent of the time, bullying stops within 10 seconds when a peer intervenes. With bullying becoming more prevalent as children get older, and with children less likely to tell an adult as they age, it makes sense to arm our young ones with the skills they need to stop bullying by intervening. And we teachers and parents need to arm our children with these skills in the early years.

If we teach our children to band together against bullying, maybe we can nip bullying in the bud for good. The girlshealth.gov website’s Bullying: If you see someone being bullied (United States Department of Health and Human Services, 2009) offers some sound advice for children who witness others being bullied. One of the things we can teach them to do is to stand up to bullies. If they see someone else being bullied, we can encourage our children to intervene. Many times children are scared to intervene for fear that the bully will turn their attention to them, but often it is enough to unbalance the power which the bully holds in order to put a stop to it. This is one but not the only strategy we can teach children. We can also teach them to stop rumours in their tracks by not repeating them, when they hear a rumour about someone. We can teach them not to join in group bullying. We can teach them to get an adult when they see someone being bullied, and to offer help to the victim when the bully leaves.

And to think this all started with a visit to the play gym!

Karen Weeks
Junior primary classroom teacher


United States Department of Health and Human Services (2009). Bullying: If you see someone being bullied. Retrieved 2 July 2010 from www.girlshealth.gov/bullying/stopping/seeing.cfm

Cross, D., Shaw, T., Hearn, L., Epstein, M., Monks, H., Lester, L., & Thomas, L. (2009). Australian covert bullying prevalence study. Perth: Child Health Promotion Research Centre, Edith Cowan University.

Hawkins, L., Pepler, D., & Craig, W. (2001). Naturalistic observations of peer interventions in bullying, Social Development, 10(4), 512–527.

Bullying in the early years by Karen Weeks was featured in Every Child Vol. 16 No. 4—New directions. Click here to purchase your copy today!