Committee for Children Blog

Bullying in Kindergarten? Prevention Means Starting Early


by Allison Wedell Schumacher

When most of us think of bullying, we think of the stories we’ve seen in the news: high school kids being maligned on social media; middle schoolers shunning or teasing each other.

So when we see bullying prevention lessons that begin in kindergarten, we might think, “Overkill! Those sweet little five-year-olds wouldn’t hurt a fly!”

There are two problems with this assumption:

  1. Anyone who has ever taught or been the parent of a kindergartener knows bullying behavior can start to emerge as early as kindergarten, and
  2. Starting prevention efforts early is the best way to ensure that positive behaviors will be adopted and negative behaviors will be rejected.

Learning to be human

Kindergarten is often the first time children interact with one another consistently in a structured group setting. To imagine that these first interactions are nothing but positive would be naive. As part of the normal process of development, children learn by making mistakes. As adults, part of our job is to make sure that mistakes—like mean, aggressive, or exclusionary behaviors—are corrected as quickly as possible.

And the mistakes are being made. A recent survey of third-graders found that 47 percent have been bullied at least once. Or, to put it another way, look at any group of 8-year-olds, and you can assume that half of them—half—have already been bullied at some point in their young lives.

A rose by any other name

It may look a little different among five- and six-year-olds, but it has the same effect: the child who is made to play the dog in “house” (when he’s allowed to play at all) begins to keep to himself during recess. The girl whose clothes are made fun of by a boy begins to make her clothing choices based on whether she believes he might think they’re pretty enough.

So rather than allowing these behaviors to go unchecked, why not nip them in the bud? The added bonus is that children will learn and be rewarded for positive behaviors, which will contribute to a positive school climate.

Helmet or brain surgery?

These days, you hardly ever see a kid—or anyone, for that matter—riding a bike without a helmet. It might seem silly; after all, the vast majority of the time, your child will return from a bike ride completely unscathed, so why go to the trouble of putting on a helmet every time?

But you know the answer. You put the helmet on every time because of that 3.3 percent likelihood that the unthinkable will happen. Does wearing a helmet guarantee your child’s complete safety? Of course not. But it does greatly decrease his or her chances of getting a head injury. And helmets are a lot cheaper than emergency brain surgery.

What we’re talking about here is prevention. Studies show that bullying occurs in kindergarten at the same rate it occurs in elementary school and even middle school. Either way, why should we wait until then to give kids the skills they need to handle and even prevent it? By the time they get to fourth grade, they could already have had four years’ worth of social-emotional learning and bullying prevention lessons. That’s four years in which to learn and practice skills for recognizing and managing emotions; making friends; recognizing, refusing, and reporting bullying; and being a responsible bystander.

Out with the bad, in with the good

And leaving aside the issue of prevention for a moment, there are so many other good reasons to address bullying starting in kindergarten, especially using a program with a strong base in social-emotional learning. Left unchecked, bullying puts young children at risk for a range of social and psychosomatic symptoms. It’s bad enough for a middle schools student to fake a stomachache to avoid school and the bullying that accompanies it; what about a five-year-old? Just at the point in a child’s life when you’re trying to instill a love of learning and an excitement about attending school, he or she might be too scared to go. This does not bode well for a child's academic career.

Other excellent benefits of starting bullying prevention early are that students will learn social-emotional skills that can help them avoid negative behaviors like bullying, aggression, relationship problems, and even (down the road) substance abuse, and learn positive behaviors to help them build strong relationships, make good decisions, regulate their emotions, and succeed in school. Plus, doing bullying prevention in all grades also makes for a positive classroom and school climate by promoting respect and safety and giving all students and staff a common language for addressing problems.

We teach our five-year-olds to brush their teeth, hold an adult’s hand while crossing a street or parking lot, and eat their fruits and vegetables. Adding bullying prevention to that list can only make them safer.


Allison Wedell Schumacher is Committee for Children's PR and Communications Manager. She has frequent talks with her first-grader about bullying and what to do about it.