Are pre-schoolers really capable of bullying?

Dr Cara Swit, University of Canterbury

We hear the words “bully” and “bullying” being used all the time. We have never known as much about the act of bullying as we do now (e.g. see here, here, and here). As teachers, parents, and caregivers, we are concerned that our children are being bullied or will become bullies and we’re even more conscious of these behaviours because we hear so much about the negative consequences resulting from bullying behaviour. This post draws on recent NZ research into parents’ and educators’ attitudes towards “bullying”-type behaviours in early childhood.

Defining bullying

Researchers understand bullying to be:

“aggressive behaviour or intentional ‘harm doing,’ which is carried out repeatedly and over time in an interpersonal relationship characterised by an imbalance of power” (Olweus, 1993, p. 8-9).

This definition means that each aggressive behaviour must meet three main criteria to be labelled bullying:

  1. The behaviour must be carried out with the intention to cause harm. Accidental harm is not considered bullying.
  2. The behaviour must be repetitive. A one-off aggressive act is not considered bullying
  3. There must be some evidence of an imbalance of power. This could be an imbalance in age, physical size, relationship roles, popularity, ‘belonging’ (e.g. at school, in a friend group) etc. Behaviour that causes harm but occurs between equals is not considered bullying.

Recently, researchers have started to question whether pre-schoolers are capable of engaging in aggressive behaviours that met all three criteria. Is it appropriate to label such young children as bullies? During the early years, children are developing social skills and friendships. They are learning how to regulate their emotions and develop self-control, and it can take them a while to process others’ perspectives. While these skills and abilities are developing rapidly during early childhood, this is still an immature period in a young child’s development. This means it can be very difficult (and dangerous!) to label young children’s aggressive and bullying-like behaviours as intentional behaviour used to cause harm. These behaviours may in fact reflect poor self-regulation, reactivity, or experimenting with behaviours observed in their environment, rather than having the malicious intent required for being categorised as bullying.

A real challenge in understanding early childhood bullying relates to how we define bullying at such a young age. Bullying behaviour is subjective in nature and the definition and criteria used by researchers to define bullying may not be applied (or known) consistently by educators, parents, and caregivers. This is not a criticism of those educators, parents, or caregivers: Very rarely do we actually discuss the definition and criteria used to label aggressive behaviours as bullying.

What do parents and educators think about “bullying” among pre-schoolers?

In my most recent study, I was interested in speaking to early childhood educators and parents about

  1. Whether they thought pre-schoolers were capable of bullying, and
  2. The types of behaviours that these educators and parents believed constituted bullying among this age group.

The majority of early childhood educators (76%) and parents/caregivers (72%) in this study believed that pre-schoolers were capable of bullying. However, these behaviours were referred to as “mostly unintentional bullying” [emphasis added] and comments were made that preschool-age children do not understand what they’re doing and the impact their behaviour may have on others. For instance, a parent stated:

“I don’t think they intentionally bully others but act in a way that they think is ordinary”

and an early childhood educator noted:

“Yes [young children are capable of bullying] but I don’t believe they realise what they are doing. They know they are upsetting the child but don’t understand the impact this has on the other child.”

An interesting finding out of this study was that what early childhood educators and parents/caregivers classify as bullying behaviours changes at different ages of the child. Participants made comments such as

“I don’t think they can bully in the same way as an older child does”

and

“Yes, young children can act as bullies but not comparable to the way a tween or teen or adult may bully.”

It seems that early childhood educators’ and parents’ expectations of pre-schooler’s aggressive behaviours differ from their expectations of older children. This may reflect the types of behaviours we label as bullying during the early years.

Common bullying behaviours reported by educators and parents

While we could create a long list of the different negative behaviours that pre-schoolers can use, the educators and parents who participated in this study indicated that physical forms of aggression (e.g. hitting, kicking, punching etc.) were the most common form of bullying they observe in pre-schoolers. This was followed by relational (e.g. social exclusion) and verbal (e.g. threats) forms of bullying. While it is difficult to determine whether young children do engage in more physical bullying compared to relational and verbal bullying (because no observation data has been collected on these behaviours), we do know that early childhood educators and parents still perceive physical aggression as being much more serious than relational aggression. These adults are also more likely to intervene immediately in cases of physical aggression, whereas adult intervention is more likely to be delayed or not occur at all after relationally aggressive behaviours are observed.

So, are pre-schoolers capable of “bullying”?

Although my research indicated that a majority of educators and parents believe that pre-schoolers are capable of bullying, many raised serious concerns about labelling such young children as ‘bullies’ because it was difficult to discriminate between typical social behavioural development and intentional aggressive behaviour. The inconsistent understanding of what constitutes bullying during early childhood is another reason that labelling can be dangerous.

So, what should we do when we feel like a child may be exhibiting ‘bullying’ behaviours? When I talk with educators, parents, and caregivers about young children’s aggressive behaviour, I always find myself emphasising the importance of understanding the ‘why’ of behaviour. By understanding the purpose of children’s behaviour, we are better able to understand:

  • their intentions
  • what they think they will achieve by using the aggressive (or prosocial) behaviour
  • whether they believe the behaviour is un/acceptable and
  • whether they think there may be consequences associated with the behaviour

Often, we rely on our own observations and knowledge of the child to make judgements about whether their behaviour was aggressive or whether they were bullying. However, this can be dangerous – applying the “bully” label to behaviour and young children incorrectly can lead to stigmatising effects, and there is a need to acknowledge that bullying is distinct from more typical aggression and rough and tumble play. Similarly, attempting to label a child or the behaviour is not likely to be helpful in facilitating healthy social development and relationships. Behaviour is meaningful – as adults involved in caring for and educating children, we must always stay curious in order to understand why children are behaving the way they are.


Cara SwitDr Cara Swit is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Canterbury and currently teaches in the Postgraduate Diploma in Specialist Teaching – Early Intervention. She continues to explore the important role of teachers and parents in fostering healthy social relationships in young children.

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