Bullying in Child Care

Published on Monday, 05 December 2016
Last updated on Friday, 04 January 2019

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What can we do about it?

We often hear about bullying in schools and primary and secondary schools have a system in place to watch for and deal with bullying. However, bullying doesn't just happen at school it can also occur in the child care and pre-school environment.

Many of you may have children who have experienced periods of pre-school biting or hitting – either with your child as the perpetrator or the victim or both. This aggressive behaviour can also manifest as bullying in young children especially as they hit their aggressive peak between 24 and 42 months.

A study on the development of physical aggression in infancy by Dr Richard Tremblay, a researcher at the University of Montreal published a few years ago, showed that aggression starts in a child's first year of birth.

According to Dr Tremblay, 'this suggests that rather than learning to physically aggress, children are learning not to physically aggress.'

The results of the study showed that physical aggression appears during the first year after birth and its frequency increases rapidly during the second year, reaching a peak between 24 and 42 months, and then decreases steadily.

Types of bullying

The most common type of bullying in the early childhood sector are physical and verbal and to a lesser extent social isolation.

Physical bullying includes hitting, punching, pushing, kicking and so on. While many of these behaviours occur on a seemingly daily basis in child care environments, when they are directed towards the same children over an extended period of time they can have serious effects.

Verbal bullying includes calling children names, taunting them, making sexist/racist statements, making cruel statements about personal attributes, clothing etc.

Social isolation occurs when particular children are excluded from activities and games by other children in a group. Young children form very fluid friendships and may change allegiances regularly so again the distinguishing characteristic is if it is the same children being excluded over a long period of time.

Knowing how to deal with pre-school bullying, as both a parent and a carer is of course hugely important. The initial admittance that bullying is happening is the most important step. And that's most important if the perpetrator is, in fact, your own child.

What to do if you suspect your child is being bullied?

Usually in the child care centre environment carers will address bullying issues with the parents of the perpetrator, not the victim of the bullying.

Bullied children more often than not remain silent, but may display signs such as a sudden reluctance to go to child care, separation anxiety and/or withdrawn behaviour.

If you suspect something is going on, talk to your child care service provider straight away. They may be aware that there is a difficult or aggressive child in the program but may not be aware your child is being targeted.

What to do if your child is the bully?

Early childhood educators receive a lot of training about children's development but possibly not enough training in behaviour management. Parents receive no training at all and it's very hard to admit your child may be displaying bully tendencies.

If a carer addresses a bullying incident with you, try not to be overly defensive and make an effort to deal with the situation positively. If you suspect your child may be bullying another, it's important to ask the carers what they have witnessed.

If children do not have the support they require to develop resilience and skills in handling bullies, the psychological effects can be ongoing. Children who have been bullied may be scared of certain social situations, they are nervous among groups of strangers, they may suffer from depression and a small minority of children who are bullied do strike back.

The most important thing is for parents and carers to have an open and frank discussion and to have clear understanding on how bullying should be dealt with in a positive and productive way.

Developing an Anti-Bullying Policy

Child care centres are encouraged to develop an Anti-Bullying Policy as a proactive way of dealing with the issue of bullying head on. The purpose of an anti-bullying policy is to make it clear where the child care service stands on the issue of bullying and what action the service will take in the event of bullying.

These policies should include general principles and guidelines and should be flexible enough to deal with the unique peculiarities of cases which may arise.

Guidelines and statements may include some or all of the following:

  • A strong statement about the service's stand against bullying.
  • A simple definition of bullying with illustrations.
  • A declaration of the rights of individuals (including children, teachers, other workers and parents) to be free of bullying and (if bullied) to be provided with help and support.
  • A statement of the responsibilities of everyone in the service to refrain from bullying others, to discourage bullying when it occurs and to offer support to those who are the victims of bullying.
  • A general description of what will be done to deal with incidents of bullying. For example:The severity and seriousness of the bullying will be assessed and appropriate action taken. This may include counselling, the imposition of sanctions, interviews with parents and in extreme cases suspensions.
  • An undertaking to review the effectiveness of the policy on a regular basis.

To be truly effective an anti-bullying policy must have strong community support and should ideally be developed in consultation with staff, parents and children.

Once developed, it may be necessary to have the policy translated into the various community languages, so parents, children and staff from non-English speaking backgrounds are familiar with its contents.

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