Does bullying begin at preschool?

Does bullying begin in preschool?

This post is by Amanda Gray of Learn to be Buddies.

Does bullying begin at preschool?

There is some debate about whether it is accurate to call rough behaviour or teasing in preschool, “bullying”. However, young children do behave in ways that hurt each other, physically and emotionally.

Rigby (2002), who is a respected researcher on the topic of bullying, nationally and internationally, states:

Bullying involves a desire to hurt + hurtful action + a power imbalance + (typically) repetition + an unjust use of power + evident enjoyment by the aggressor and generally a sense of being oppressed on the part of the victim.” (p 51)

The problem with labelling teasing and rough behaviour in preschool children as bullying lies in the nature of child development. Very young children are what we call ‘egocentric.’ This means that when they act, they are usually not thinking about the effect their behaviour is having on others. Often they are simply fulfilling a need or desire of their own.

The reason why young children are egocentric is because they have not yet developed proficiency in what we call “Theory of Mind”. This is a cognitive or thinking skill we use to empathise, predict how others might feel, and adapt our behaviour. It is believed that this ability to empathise doesn’t typically start developing in its full complexity until the age of four (Blijd-Hoogewys et al., 2008).

Bullying: Why does it happen?

So, in the pre-school years, a child hitting another child, or excluding a peer from play, or saying hurtful things, is likely to be motivated by things such as:

  • Wanting to retain ownership over a toy
  • Not wanting to have their friendship group “crashed” by another child
  • Not wanting to have their play disrupted
  • Needing to express anger, frustration, pain
  • A need to control their environment, either due to anxiety or leadership qualities

The intent to harm others is generally not a significant part of emotional or physical aggression in young children simply because they are not really thinking about the effect they are having on others.

We would love to hear your thoughts. Do you think bullying can begin in preschool? Has your child experienced bully-like behaviour in the years prior to formal schooling?

Read more of our bullying series:

Amanda Grey is a qualified teacher who currently educates undergraduate teachers about inclusive practice in schools and spends the rest of her hours writing and developing the Learn to be Buddies Series. The series grew out of her strong interest in the social and emotional development of children and the recognition of the important role teachers and families play in this development.

Blijd-Hoogewys, E.M.A, Geert, van AEPLC, Serra, M., Minderaa, Æ R. B. (2008). Measuring Theory of Mind in Children: Psychometric Properties of the ToM Storybooks. Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders, 38, p1907–1930

Rigby, K. (2002). New Perspectives on Bullying. Jessica Kingsley Publishers: London.



  1. I do wonder about the effect on the victims of hurtful behaviour by preschoolers (wanting to go to school, developing social skills).
    I look forward to reading the next post.

  2. Hmmm, this is an interesting topic. Firstly, what is the definition of bullying? I think it's the intentional hurt inflicted by one child on another. There has to be a malicious intent there. The question is this: can a pre-schooler have the mental fortitude to plan this sort of behaviour? I don’t know the answer but I expect it would depend from one chid to another. I believe the key to minimising bullying is to teach respect.

  3. Starting a Small Business says:

    Sadly, some kids are in a position where they have learnt domineering behaviour from others around them. It makes them feel better to 'have it over someone', that they have control over someone else, as others have over them.
    They don't always consciously make a decision to bully someone, but when a child has these types of experiences it can come down to 'eat or be eaten' – get in first, so your not at the end of the feeding line.
    This type of situation can easily be changed with understanding, tolerance and persistent modelling.
    A child may experience hell on earth in one environment, but behave differently somewhere else if they feel safe and looked after.
    My opinion is based on 20 years of caring for kids, predominantly in their homes as a nanny.
    I have also spent 5 years living and working in an area where bullying was rampant, yet in some environments, the bullies would let down their guard and even their facial expressions would transform them from cranky little monsters to angelic fun kids.
    It breaks my heart to see it, but our role as grownups is to empower the bullied to stand up for themselves, create strategies to get help and report issues and also to let go of the hurt which these experiences bring.
    It's also to be firm with the bullies to show them in a tolerant way, that there is a better way to get what they want, help them to rationalise (even with 2 year olds) that their behaviour is hurting someone and that the world can be a better place.
    Bullying is a repeated behaviour directed towards one person. This can take many forms, being verbal, body language and physical behaviour. Basically targeted put downs and dominant behaviour.

  4. Princess Truelove says:

    Oh this topic really hits a nerve with me. My son has just turned 4 and has started pre-school this year. (last year he was in long day care for 2 days a week, so still in care, but with a wider age range of kids). In term 1 he started mentioning one particular boy's name in the context of this boy hurting him, jumping on him, etc, and it seemed deliberate to me. Then he started talking about 2 or 3 other boys he had befriended, and they all didn't like Boy 1, because of Boy 1's rough behaviour, so they excluded him from their group. This worried me as I started to wonder whether my boy was doing some bullying of his own. I spoke to the teachers who assured me they would naturally find their own way, it was just boys being 'physical', and this one child was trying to find his friendship group and was feeling a bit excluded, hence his behaviour.
    They said they were doing group exercising focussing on gentle hands and empathising; and seemed to imply that the situation was bigger in my son's mind than in reality (possible, but it's still my son's experience).

    I have found that his anxiety around going to school, is almost completely in relation to not wanting to encounter this particular boy (who, at 5 is a year older), and he has given me quite a few specific examples of the types of behaviour he's worried about, ie, pushing him off a wooden plank, jumping on his back, squeezing his knuckles together, throwing hard balls at his face. Now after 2 weeks holiday he announced yesterday he only wants to go to school on the days Boy 1 is not there. I have spoken to the teachers twice and am just not sure what to do next. I need to advocate for my child and want him to feel that his concerns are being taken seriously, but am wary of going in with guns blazing and no idea of what I want to get out of it (other than, obviously, to stop the behaviour, but how to do that?)
    My son is a pretty settled kid but very sensitive, he is also a 'leader' style kid and seems outgoing, has friends, not a loner or timid, but this is really affecting his confidence. I think Boy 1 treats others that way and they respond differently.
    Sorry for the LONG post! It's a big issue.

  5. Princess Truelove says:

    Oops sorry for the double-post. Can I delete one?

  6. Starting a Small Business says:

    Princess Truelove (love that name) = BLAZE AWAY – in a nice polite way.
    Your son deserves better care, and so does mister 5. Group sessions don't always have an impact, the incidents have to be dealt with straightaway and 'boys being boys' is a load of codswallop.
    I love the new show coming up – politically incorrect parenting – it tells it like it is and deals with real situations.
    Some carers are too worried, frustrated or overworked to do anything about uncomfortable areas of care. Ask to have a meeting at a time suited to them with the room leader and also the director. Start to document what your child has said and ask to put a plan into action. Some of the things he's telling you may not match up for the same day. Strategies could include, if your child feels unsafe, he's to hold a teachers hand, go to a part of the playground/room etc.
    These nonverbal signs will empower your son, as he won't be 'telling on' mr 5; also ask if there can be a "pow wow" with the children, addressing the issues at hand.
    One cruisy childcarer is all that's needed and regular checkins to see what's happening.
    My son couldn't verbally communicate at 3 yrs, this had an impact on his friendship building but we got around it with interacting with the kids and letting them know what was going on – we also worked with him to strengthen his speech skills. He basically chose not to speak and loved being the baby of our family group as everyone did everything for him (except mum!)- he soon learnt that he needed to talk to interact with the others. So he did!

  7. My 2 year old daughter has been scratching other children at daycare. The daycare providers are saying they are "unprovoked attacks". They have labeled her a bully. I tend to disagree……buy maybe I'm wrong. I think she is developing her language skills and struggling with pre-verbal frustration. She is learning to express her feelings but still needing to learn how to do it in a positive way. She is developing her social skills, how to interact with her peers, learning the difference between right and wrong, etc. But bullying? Does a 2 year old know how to intimidate? I struggle with my child being labeled. She is fiesty, stubborn, and full of energy. She can be a very loving child. But she is 2. I'm not a parent who sticks my head in the sand and ignores problems or denies issues because I think my kids are perfect angels. Advice? Thoughts?

  8. Great article! I have been going to the same playdate for over a year, became friends and everything…Just recently, the mom and I had a fight. She was yelling at me, didn’t let me explain anything, so I left. Then when I tried texting her about my daughters actions, she said some really nasty things to me. About how she’s been giving me all these chances to teach my 2 yr old to be gentle but now thinks my 2 yr-old is bullying her 2 yr-old. I was disgusted, the kids weren’t even fighting over a toy or anything. My daughter was actually excited to see her friend (over excited, and started rough housing), she had no intent to hurt her friend at all. My daughter has always play rough with her daddy at home, and I have been trying to teach her to be more gentle around her friend (taking a long time). I was just upset to think the mom thought my 2yr old would even know what bullying is..I’m still stressed out about it because my daughter loves her friend. The mom wouldn’t stop texting me tasty messages about the situation, but instead of letting my emotions turn into anger, I just told her to leave me alone. My husband thinks that she’s the one being a bully and doesn’t know it, lol. Anyway, I wanted to know if you had any suggestions? I feel bad for ending a friendship just because the other parent doesn’t like my parenting. But bullying? Really? My daughter just turned 2 yrs-old!

  9. I believe bullying starts at home. It certainly did in our family. Please Please take a look at the work of Gordon Neufeld. He is a Canadian developmental psychologist who has many great videos available on You Tube on Bullying, Understanding Aggression and most importantly building a strong attachment with your children. The book “Hold on to Your Kids” co-authored with Gabor Mate, is a detailed look at Attachment, and developmental psychology as it relates to our youth and their defendedness against feelings, and lays out the core causes of bullying behaviour, and how to work with your child and their natural inclinations to both protect them from bullies and being bullied. I can’t recommend it enough.

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