Little Bullies: Relational Aggression on the Playground

The playground is where children learn many important lessons.  While having fun, they are improving their motor coordination, agility and balance.  By playing with their peers, they are learning how to make friends, share, and get along with others.  They are practicing and refining their communication and social skills. Although they don’t know it, they are even engaging in conflict resolution.

Unfortunately, the playground is also where some young children learn about the wrong kind of conflict: bullying. According to a New York Times article, “The Playground Gets Even Tougher” (10/8/10), bullying is starting earlier – as early as kindergarten.  The article explored the increasing likelihood of bullying on elementary school playgrounds.  A group of kindergarten “mean girls” regularly harassed a timid, vulnerable classmate, sneering at her, excluding her, and calling her names.  They even threatened her and set her up to embarrass herself in front of other children.

The article’s author, Pamela Paul, pointed out that young mean girls like these are becoming more prolific.

A survey found that 47% of third graders had been bullied, 52% have been called names or been teased, 51% had been purposely excluded or ignored.  Another survey found that 67% of parents of young children (ages 3-7) worried that their children would be bullied.

Mean girl behavior, also referred to as relational or social aggression, may involve exclusion, manipulation, name-calling, or teasing someone to the point of humiliation. Girls are more likely to bully using these tactics, while boys tend to be more physically aggressive.

Another article mentioned that bullying has even been reported as early as in preschool.  According to, children this young might display bullying behavior for attention or to get their way.  A child of this age might say, “You’re not my friend,” and then exclude another child from a game or a birthday party.

A Sadly Familiar Problem

Bullying has been around forever and has changed over the years in terms of how it’s carried out (i.e., the recent development of cyberbullying).  What has remained the same is this: it is intentionally harmful and is usually directed at someone vulnerable in some way (a smaller/weaker child, or someone with a disability).

According to, a federal website managed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, there are three types of bullying: verbal (i.e., name-calling), social (i.e., spreading rumors), and physical (i.e., kicking or pushing).  We also see bullying in the form of cyberbullying, which involves using the Internet or technology to harass someone.

Why Are Bullies Getting Younger? 

The New York Times article mentioned that among many possible reasons for younger bullies is the media.  Children are bombarded with messages in the media that promote bullying behaviors.  TV shows have become more violent and characters are meaner.  Making fun of others is seen as funny.  It’s rampant in reality shows and children’s entertainment.  The article also noted an increase of aggressive female models on TV.

Other reasons for increases in bullying include the following: parents may model hostile behaviors; no consequences for bullying behaviors; more acceptance of bullying in homes, schools, and society; and lack of effective bullying interventions.

Stopping Young Children from Becoming Bullies 

While we are starting to see more efforts to eradicate bullying (such as a new film documentary, “Bully” that features celebrities and seeks to promote an anti-bullying movement), we have a ways to go.  As parents and educators, we need to start addressing bullying sooner than ever before – in kindergarten or younger.   This includes preventing it from happening and stopping it when it does happen.

Parents can help by being good role models, not tolerating bullying behavior, not letting our children be around bully types, and helping them to develop empathy (i.e., through activities that involve perspective-taking).  It is also important to have an open line of communication with our children, to regularly ask them about their day, and to look for signs of anything out of the ordinary.  For example, a young child might tell you that he or she does not want to go to school anymore or play with a certain classmate.

School-wide efforts should include zero tolerance for bullying policies, awareness-building, and consequences for any bullying behaviors.  Schools need to have explicit action plans for putting a stop to bullying.  Teachers might post social rules that include anti-bullying messages.  Additionally, supervision on the playground may need to be increased.

Counseling and social skills groups would be beneficial for children who may be at risk of becoming bullied and becoming bullies themselves.  These groups would engage children in activities that involve conflict resolution training, techniques for socialization and building positive relations, and getting along with one another.

We need to make the playground a safe place for kids to have fun while learning positive skills.  Instead of having to worry about being teased, excluded, or threatened, children should be able to focus on taking turns on the slide, pushing each other on the swings, and building a sand castle together.

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