Child development expert, Dr Lesley-anne Ey, discusses the importance of educating children from an early age about the differences between bullying and conflict, and the effects bullying can have on their peers.
Children are often seen as vulnerable, hopeless and in need of protection. As a researcher and advocate for the protection of children’s rights and safety, I want to do all I can to support children’s healthy development and wellbeing. However, I also think that to do that, we need to include children’s voice.
As an adult who grew up in a very different era, with less technology, more freedom to play on the streets, and limited understanding of how to keep myself safe beyond, “don’t ride your bike on the main road”, who am I to predict today’s children’s experiences?
For me, if you want to understand what children know, how they interpret particular experiences and what they need, you should ask them. As such, I try to put children’s voice at the centre of my research when I am exploring concepts that will directly affect children. This is what I did when looking at young children’s understanding of bullying.
Bullying is a globally recognised phenomenon which has many detrimental impacts on children’s and young people’s healthy development. Children who experience or are involved in bullying are vulnerable to social, physiological, psychological, educational, behavioural and adjustment problems which commonly persist into adulthood if overlooked. Consequently, there has been a lot of research to explore ways to prevent bullying. Despite this, there is limited research about children’s understanding of bullying in early childhood, particularly in Australia, and equally, there are few resources and programs for early childhood educators about the topic of bullying.
Now we know that early intervention is generally the key to positive outcomes, whether it be in relation to child protection, education, disability or just about anything else, so if we are wanting to prevent bullying, why aren’t we talking to children about it from an early age?
In the early years we tend to focus on helping young children develop social competence, being kind, friendly and polite, sharing, and respecting one’s self and others. If young children have a fight, we discuss the impacts, such as how it makes them feel, alternative choices, such as what they could have done differently to avoid that fight, and finally a resolution, which commonly involves apologising, forgiving and moving on. But what happens if these fights are continuous, if one of the children is in a more powerful position, whether it be because they are bigger, more popular or older, and there is an intention to cause harm, embarrassment or humiliation?
Conversely, what happens if a child is hit or pushed over or teased and they think they are being bullied? Let’s face it, the word bullying is not a foreign word, it is often in the news and we have an anti-bullying day, however many children and adults do not understand that bullying behaviour means that the behaviour is repetitive, there is a power differential and there is an intent to harm. So why aren’t we educating young children about bullying? Do we think they will not be able to understand the concepts? Or are we viewing them as vulnerable and innocent so they don’t need to know about bullying at such a young age?
I am of the view that young children are very capable citizens and wired to learn and we should be talking to them about bullying. For this reason, I wanted to get an understanding of young children’s knowledge about what they thought bullying is and whether they could recognise bullying and non-bullying scenarios, thus we interviewed 99 children aged 5-8 years. As predicted, based on similar research conducted in the United Kingdom by Claire Monks and Peter K Smith, the majority of young children thought that any form of aggression was bullying. This means that young children are over labelling aggression or conflict as bullying which may result in mislabelling their peers as bullies and not having an understanding that conflict is a normal part of healthy social development. This does not mean that I encourage conflict or fighting, but rather, for young children, conflict often leads to learning conflict resolution strategies with support from adults as well as learning social competence and conflict prevention strategies.
As this lack of understanding is problematic, we worked with teachers to help them to co-create a bullying program specific to their context to educate young children about the three elements of bullying: repetition, power differentials, and the intent to harm; alongside bullying verses conflict, conflict as a normal part of social development, managing conflict, help seeking if you think you are being bullied, helpful and harmful bystanders, understanding friendship, being kind, self-regulation, team building, understanding diversity, and building resilience. When we re-interviewed the children who participated in the program, their understanding had increased and they were more than capable of engaging in this learning. Teachers reported that the children were highly engaged, learnt a lot and enjoyed the program and were eager to keep using the program with future classes.