​​​​If you see aggression or bullying

You need to respond if you see aggressive behaviour or bullying in young children.

Try to find out the reason for the aggression.

Sometimes aggression is an attempt to fit into a new group of children. Aggressive behaviour may also be a response to stress, worry or feeling strong emotions. For example, the stress of starting in a new group at kindergarten, moving house or being worried about a sick family member may lead to anti-social or aggressive behaviour.

Young children who are experiencing significant changes or stress need time and support from adults to help them adjust and build relationships.

Importance of intervening early
A positive approach to positive behaviour
Responding to bullying incidents
Talking to young children about bullying
More about educational settings
Resources

Download this page (combined with Young childen and agression page): Young children, aggression, bullying and what to do (PDF, 82KB)

The importance of intervening early

Young children who regularly use aggression to sort our problems and get what they want can have ongoing social problems. Children who bully others need help as early as possible.

Physical aggression peaks at about 30 months of age and then decreases. Older children use more indirect verbal aggression and social exclusion. If adults do not intervene, there is a risk that physical aggression may simply shift to indirect aggression.

Research shows that intervention to reduce aggression and promote positive behaviour is most likely to be effective when children are young. The most productive time to intervene with inappropriate, aggressive and anti-social behaviour is with children between 3 and 8 years of age.

At this age, children are usually more willing to participate in activities that adults lead and are less likely to be a member of a peer group that supports inappropriate behaviour.

Parents and educators can work in partnership to deal with ongoing aggressive behaviour by:

  • setting clear expectations for behaviour
  • teaching and supporting social and emotional skills
  • teaching and acknowledging positive pro-social behaviour
  • pointing out and intervening with inappropriate behaviour
  • explaining how aggressive behaviour can hurt others and does not solve problems for long
  • ensuring adults consistently reinforce positive behaviour and apply consequences for inappropriate behaviour.

Children need a reason, motivation and to know exactly what is expected to 'be good'. Adults need to teach and reward positive behaviours.

A positive approach to positive behaviour

It is highly likely that children will show or experience aggressive behaviour at some time.

You can turn these sometimes distressing events into an opportunity to learn about ways to deal with aggression and bullying, a skill for life.

Things to remember:

  • emphasise teaching, not punishment
  • avoid labelling young children as 'bullies' or 'victims'
  • avoid responding to a child's aggression with anger or aggression
  • make sure your behaviour does not include anything that young children could interpret as bullying or teasing.

Children benefit from a positive partnership between parents and educators.

Responding to bullying incidents

Bullying can be damaging to everyone involved, including those who observe it happening.

Respond to children if they are bullied by:

  • listening calmly with empathy
  • reassuring the child you will help
  • telling them that although they might feel bad, it is not their fault
  • giving some suggestions about what to say if it happens again, for example, 'Don't do that, I don't like it'
  • encouraging them to ask for help next time if they need it
  • talking to the child about how to deal with strong feelings of anger
  • helping the child to think about what they could do to be safe (if appropriate)
  • helping all children in the incident to learn to sort things out in more appropriate ways.

Respond to children who bully others by:

  • listening calmly with empathy to this child's perspective too
  • finding out what the child was thinking about when being aggressive or behaving inappropriately
  • pointing out how the other child is feeling
  • teaching children the various skills they need to join in and play appropriately with others
  • talking to children about how to deal with strong feelings
  • teaching children more appropriate ways to deal with conflict or problems, for example, suggest they use words, ask questions, think about the consequences of their behaviour, etc.
  • acknowledging steps towards more appropriate behaviour
  • ensuring you praise and encourage the child's positive behaviour.

Children who are responding to grief or loss or stress with anger or aggression need your patient and supportive help.

Talking to young children about bullying

When talking to very young children, you don't need to use the word 'bullying. Instead use a simple description of what has happened like, 'He is being mean to you all the time'.

Avoid labelling children as 'bullies' or 'victims' at any age. Labels like these can stick and influence other people's attitudes to the children involved. A negative reputation can be a problem even for young children.

If you do want to talk about 'bullying' to young children, it's important to be clear about what bullying is. You could say something like:

Bullying is when someone:

  • keeps picking on you again and again and tries to make you feel bad
  • says or does lots of mean things that upset you
  • makes fun of you a lot
  • tries to stop you from joining in or make others not like you
  • keeps hurting you such as hitting or punching you.

Bullying is not fair. You feel like you can't stop it. Bullying is not okay.

Explain that not all upsetting or inappropriate behaviours are bullying. You could say something like, 'Sometimes you might have a fight or argument with someone. If it only happens once, it is not bullying even though it can be upsetting. It is also not bullying if you sometimes fight with a friend and you can sort it out.'

More about educational settings

A partnership between parents and educators is central in dealing with and modifying children's aggressive behaviour.

In educational settings, you can minimise aggression and bullying by:

  • focusing on secure and positive relationships within the group
  • fostering a positive classroom community
  • modelling positive ways to deal with conflict and solve problems
  • discussing what bullying is in the class group
  • talking regularly about clear rules against bullying
  • including learning goals which promote friendships
  • providing and practising specific steps for social problem solving skills
  • ensuring communication between school and home about the importance of a positive approach to encouraging appropriate behaviour in young children.

Early childhood educators need to investigate what is causing aggressive behaviour and address the underlying reasons as well as the behaviour itself.

Avoid setting up a situation where you comfort a student who is hurt and punish the child doing the bullying. This may backfire by continuing a relationship pattern of bullying.

Students who bully others tend to target children who do not fight back and who do not receive support from peers. Children who are being targeted may benefit from initially having an older 'friend' who plays a protective role while you all work toward the longer term solution to the bullying behaviour as well.

Bullying rarely happens where there is an adult present. Most children know that aggression is against the rules, so students who want to bully others will do so out of sight of adults.

Teach children what to do if they see bullying behaviour.

When young children perceive that others repeatedly break the group rules, the social status 'payoff' the children get from bullying will decrease. Other children are more likely to speak up or report bullying when there are clear group rules and expectations about behaviour in the class.

Resources

About Discipline - Helping Children Develop Self-Control. Anita Gurian, Behavioural Institute for Children and Adolescents.

The best way to discipline your kids. Drake Baer. Science of Us, New York Magazine (US), 2016

Teaching Young Children Self-Control Skills: Information for Parents and Educators. National Association of School Psychologists (US).

Dr Louise Porter's website provides information about developmental milestones, aggression and bullying from her books Young children's behaviour: Practical approaches for caregivers and teachers (3rd edn) Elsevier: Sydney, 2008, and Student behaviour: theory and practice for teachers (3rd edn) Allen & Unwin: Crows Nest, NSW, 2006.

Early Childhood Australia's website has extensive information for parents and educators about behaviour.

Guidance matters: Understand bullying (by Gartrell, D, & Gartell, J.J. (2008). Young Children, 63 (3), 54-57. )

Parent guide to helping children manage conflict, aggression and bullying by the Australian Psychological Society.

Books to read with children

Books for young children about bullying are listed in Guidance matters: Understand bullying (Gartrell, D, & Gartell, J.J. (2008). Young Children, 63 (3), 54-57.)

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