Stamping out bullying in child care

Published on Wednesday, 24 April 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

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Bullying is often associated with school-aged children and is at a very high rate amongst 15-year-olds. It can also occur amongst younger children attending early childhood education services, and wherever it happens, bullying has a big impact on a child's physical, social and emotional wellbeing.

Over time it erodes confidence and self-esteem, and despite it occurring behind the backs of adults, it's important that parents, carers and whānau can identify the signs of bullying and work together to stop this bad behaviour in its tracks.

So, let's look at what bullying actually is and how adults can manage it.

What is bullying?

An isolated act of aggression or an argument between preschoolers can be distressing for a child, these kinds of one-off events don't amount to bullying. Instead, bullying involves these four factors:

  1. Deliberate - it involves harming another person intentionally
  2. Misuse of power in a relationship - physical size or age
  3. Repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time
  4. Involves behaviour that can cause harm

Bullying can happen in person or online, called cyber bullying, and the most common types of bullying in the early childhood education sector are:

  1. Physical bullying - biting, hitting, punching or pushing
  2. Verbal bullying - name-calling, teasing or insults, and to a lesser extent
  3. Social isolation - children being excluded from activities and games on an ongoing basis

What are some signs of bullying?

It's easy to see a bite mark on your preschooler's arm, physical abrasions are not the only indications of bullying.

Bullying can be obvious or hidden, but it's often done away from adults. So be on the lookout for changes in behaviour and signs that all is not well with your child.

For instance, a bullied child may start wetting the bed, having nightmares or losing interest in food. They might be unusually fearful, unhappy, anxious, moody or find it hard to concentrate. Their belongings might keep going missing, they may complain about a lack of friends or they may be reluctant to go to their ECE service at all.

What can parents do if they suspect bullying?

As the Ministry of Education says, 'Bullying is unacceptable in any form. It is not a normal part of growing up.' As bullying is a serious and upsetting experience that can have long-term effects, it's important that you act swiftly and communicate with your child and child care service if you have bullying concerns.

If you're worried that your child is being bullied:

1. Stay calm and talk with your child in a supportive way.

Ask simple questions to find out what's been happening, and listen to your child, taking what they say seriously. Be clear of the facts and write notes about what happened and when. Reassure your child that it's not their fault and they have a right to be safe. Praise them for speaking to you.

2. Agree on a plan.

Empower your child by asking what they want to do about the bullying. Provide reassurance that you'll solve the problem together, and that you'll work with their child care service to make things better.

With your child, plan what they should do if they get bullied again. For instance, they could ignore the bully, then tell them to stop, and if that doesn't work, walk away and ask for help from an adult.

Going forward, check-in with your child regularly to see how they are doing.

3. Meet with your child care service.

Whether you tell them your concerns, or the child care service informs you that bullying has happened, it's important to have a calm, open and constructive discussion.

Express your worries clearly and ask what steps will be taken to manage the bullying and prevent it happening in the future. Agree on a plan to support your child and take appropriate action and if the bullying continues, let your service know immediately.

How do child care services manage bullying?

Child care services have a responsibility to promote your child's wellbeing and provide a safe, bullying-free learning environment.

To prevent and stop harmful behaviour, child care services:

  • Model respectful ways for children to interact with one another and teach children positive social skills around caring and problem-solving.
  • Adopt a zero tolerance for bullying and explain this 'no bullying' rule to children.
  • Intervene straightaway to stop any bullying and prevent it from escalating.
  • Teach children strategies to challenge bullying before it becomes entrenched, by saying, "I don't like it when you call me that name."
  • Communicate openly and sensitively with the parents and whānau of bullied and bullying children to investigate, respond to and prevent bullying.
  • Provide guidance and support to bullies, bullied children and those who witness the harmful behaviour.

What if your child is the bully?

It can be alarming and upsetting to discover that your child is the bully, but the best thing is to work with your child care service to develop a range of supports for your child.

If you think your child is bullying someone:

  1. Talk to your child to get their side of the story and understand why the bullying is happening, e.g. are they being bullied themselves?
  2. Calmly and clearly explain what bullying is and talk about both acceptable and unacceptable behaviour at home and at child care by emphasising that you don't support bullying, but you do support them
  3. Explain the effect bullying has on others and on others in the child care setting
  4. Discuss better ways to handle situations where they may act aggressively, e.g. asking for help when they’re frustrated
  5. Regularly ask your child how they are going
  6. Recognise and praise their good behaviour
  7. Talk to your child care service about the problem and ask how they can work with you to resolve it

How else can we make a stand against bullying?

Bullying-Free NZ Week starts on 13 May this year and this is a great chance to raise awareness about bullying and share kid-friendly activities.

Books are also a helpful way to educate children about bullying, and here are some titles written for younger children:

References and further reading

Bullying-free NZ
Ministry of Education

NZ Herald - Calls for Ministry of Education to Crack Down on Significant Bullying in Early Childhood Education Sector

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