How to Spot, Stop and Prevent Bullying

Published on Tuesday, 15 June 2021
Last updated on Tuesday, 15 June 2021

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Do you know the difference between fighting and bullying? Would you be able to spot an incident of bullying even in children as young as two to five years of age?

A recent study of early childhood teachers conducted by researchers from the University of South Australia, reported that when asked to define the three main components of bullying, namely an intent to harm, repetition, and a power imbalance, only 17 per cent of respondents were able to articulate what constituted bullying.

Most teachers recognised that bullying involves an intent to harm and repetition, but just 40 per cent identified an imbalance of power between young children as a factor.

There is a noticeable lack of training for educators in ECEC on how to spot, stop and prevent bullying, leading to episodes of bullying in early childhood being mistaken for simple fighting.

This may result in both bully and victim being reprimanded for the behaviour, so that in the future, victims of bullying may be less likely to speak up for fear of being blamed again.

While dealing with bullying is a part of the curriculum for schools starting from year four, the behaviours that lead to bullying often begin much earlier in children. 

It would be much more effective for preventing physical and psychological harm in both bullies and victims of bullying if educators were trained in how to deal with bullying behaviours in early childhood.

Lead researcher and senior lecturer at the University of South Australia Dr Lesley-Anne Ey says it is “critical to correctly identify bullying from the earliest years of education, because it can affect a child’s mental health, concentration and self-esteem into adulthood.”


Some of the long-term effects of ongoing bullying include eroded confidence, poor academic results or failure to reach developmental milestones, weight loss, anxiety and depression and, in severe cases, PTSD.

As early educators, it is important to be able to spot incidents of bullying so that action can be taken immediately, to help stop these issues from developing. So, how do you tell when a child in your care is involved in bullying? There are three types of bullying that are relevant to very young children; physical, verbal and social. 

Physical: Pushing, shoving, hitting and biting are common enough among young children, but when one child is persistently being targeted by another, this is a sign of bullying.

Verbal: Name calling, saying mean things or threatening the victim.

Social: Repeatedly excluding the victim from play or interaction, encouraging other children not to play with them or be their friend.

However, it is important to be able to tell the difference between bullying behaviour and simple fights or disagreements. Bullying is not:

  • a mutual conflict - While this kind of disagreement can result in aggressive behaviour, there is no imbalance of power. 
  • a one-off incident - A single act of aggression or unpleasantness does not constitute bullying.
  • social rejection or dislike - Unless this is done deliberately with an intent to cause harm to the victim, it is not classed as bullying.

As unpleasant as other negative interactions between children are, they need to be handled in a very different way to bullying. It is also essential that children are not labelled as bullies after a different kind of conflict, as this may become a stigma for them in the future.


Hey De Ho educational services, which provides specialist education programs for early learning services including how to deal with bullying in early childhood, recommends the following actions for stopping bullying when it is identified:

  • Clearly say stop and stop the bullying
  • Separate victim and bully if it’s necessary
  • Firmly and calmly describe the behaviour and why it’s not ok
  • Stand with the victim and encourage them to speak up
  • Encourage other children who helped the victim.

If an educator can correctly identify bullying and is trained to deal with it immediately, they can work with the children and with their families to start rectifying the situation.

According to the  Better Health Channel bullies also suffer in the long term through poor academic achievements, poor social skills and poor adult relationships. Without support and guidance to change their bullying behaviour, the child bully can take this behaviour into adulthood.


Teaching children about empathy, kindness and how to deal with big emotions in a positive way is the most proactive approach to preventing bullying in early childhood. Model good social behaviours such as manners, sharing and taking turns, and help children learn how to identify emotions so that they can name how they are feeling, and learn to judge how others are feeling too.

It is also important to really listen to the children in your care. If they feel as though their voices are heard, they will be more likely to tell you how they are feeling and come to you with any issues you can help them with.

While these strategies are effective in helping to prevent bullying in ECEC environments, the have limited effectiveness if these lessons are not being intentionally and unintentionally reinforced in home environments.

Assistant director of Annie Dennis Children’s Centre in Northcote Anne Chiera says in her experience instances of bullying are rare in early learning but sometimes children who bully young are modelling what they are seeing at home.

“Sometimes the child that’s bullying is also suffering a lot themselves, so it’s important to recognise the individual child and see what their needs are.

The bullying progresses more in the later years. It is therefore necessary to discuss instances of bullying with your director and with the parents of all of the children involved, so that a strategy can be put in place to support the children and their families going forward,” she said

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