Early Childhood Education



Bullying is a type of relational aggression directed intentionally against an individual by one or more other individuals. Bullying behavior has been documented in cultures around the world, though there is evidence that it may be more prevalent in some countries than in others. In one survey of American high-school students, over 60 percent reported that they had, at some time in their school career, been a victim of bullying. Similar percentages have been reported in studies from Europe and Asia. Despite the prevalence of bullying, there is no single agreed-upon definition of the phenomenon. Some scholars emphasize that bullying should be defined as repeated aggression directed toward an individual (Olweus, 1993), others emphasize the malicious intent of perpetrators as the most important component of bullying (Randall, 1997; Tattum and Tattum, 1992), while other scholars highlight the role that imbalances of power and social position play in bullying (Smith and Sharp, 1994). Bullying can encompass a range of behaviors including physical, verbal, and psychological aggression. Bullying may be overt (e.g., physical or verbal aggression) or covert (e.g., social aggression).


Bullying in Developmental Perspective

Aggression, like other aspects of children’s socioemotional development, passes through various developmental stages. A developmental examination of bullying must also recognize that its development is dependent on linguistic, cognitive, and socioemotional development. Moreover, it must be acknowledged that all development occurs within the context of culture and hence, definitions and manifestations of bullying vary among cultures.

The earliest signs of aggressive behavior have been documented in children as young as seven months of age. From 18 months until 2 years, there is an increase in the frequency of children’s aggressive behavior. As children’s linguistic development progresses, they increasingly use verbal means to negotiate social tension, and, consequently, name-calling becomes the most frequent form of bullying behavior that has been documented in young children. There is a concomitant decrease in physical aggression.

Between the ages of 3 and 5, there is a marked decrease in the percentage of physical aggression, combined with an increase in the amount of time that children are able to socially interact without physical or verbal aggression. During these years, children may go through a period of what some scholars call “potty mouth”: deliberate use of taboo language in order to provoke a reaction from recipients. Specialists in language development view this phase as an outcome of children’s pragmatic development as children gain the insight that language can be wielded in the service of power. In fact, young children may not know the meaning of the taboo words they utter, but they do recognize that they are powerful and provocative. As children begin to internalize their culture’s social norms, bullying becomes more covert and children may attempt to hide their bullying behavior from adults in their environment.

In the preschool years, children’s teasing and name-calling reflects the developmental concerns common to children of this age: control of emotions, bodily functions, and adherence to gender normative behaviors. In the United States, the most common names that young children use to tease each other (e.g., poo-poo head, crybaby, and baby) reflect these developmental concerns. It is rare in the preschool years for children to use language that is overtly linked to social ideologies such as sexism, racism, or homophobia. However, as children internalize the attitudes of their culture, their name-calling comes to reflect the norms and values of the broader culture. For example, in America, where fat is highly stigmatized, it has been documented that children as young as eight will use “fat” as a slur when bullying other children.

In middle childhood, there is a marked increase in the frequency of bullying. This may be due to the fact that, in middle school, peer relationships become increasingly central to preadolescents and bullying may play a central role in establishing and negotiating social hierarchies in the middle school (Pellegrini, 2002). It is during the middle-school years that “social category names” (e.g., geek, dork, nerd, stoner, etc.) become frequently used. Use of such slurs serves two purposes: (1) it defines oneself by defining others and (2), it establishes a sense of group membership and group norms. It is during the middle-school years as well that the use of racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs increases. Indeed, studies of American middle-school children suggest that sexist (e.g., bitch, slut) and homophobic (e.g., fag, queer, homo) are the most frequent verbal taunts used by middle-school children. These gender-related slurs serve multiple functions: they enforce normative gender behavior while simultaneously stigmatizing perceived infractions of gender norms.

Though bullying behaviors can persist into adulthood (Moffitt, 1993; Randall, 1997), by the time most children reach late adolescence, the amount of bullying decreases sharply when compared to middle school. Bullying becomes less socially acceptable to older adolescents, and it may become more covert.


Gender Differences in Bullying

Although both boys and girls bully, research suggests that they do so in gender- specific ways. Research supports the idea that boys are, on the whole, more aggressive than girls, independent of other variables such as culture and socioeconomic status. Moreover, boys are more likely than girls to engage in physical aggression. Recent scholarship focusing on girls’ bullying has found that girls are more likely to engage in social aggression: aggression where the intent is to cause harm to another’s self-esteem or social standing.


Implications for Early Childhood Educators

Bullying occurs most often in school contexts, especially at times and in locations where there is minimal adult supervision (e.g., during recess or in the lunchroom). Teachers and other school personnel, therefore, are in a unique position to combat bullying. Scholars and educators (see Olweus, 1993) generally agree that effective antibullying policies must work on multiple levels: school-wide, within individual classrooms, and amongst individual students (both children who bully and those who are bullied). School-wide actions might include the formulation and dissemination of explicit policies and codes of behavior on bullying that delimit the bounds of appropriate language use by students and teachers, and set up clear and unambiguous consequences for infractions. At the classroom level, teachers must be trained to recognize bullying behavior and they must be equipped with the skills needed to intervene effectively. On the level of individuals, educators stress the importance of avoiding labels such as “bully” or “victim” inasmuch as most children can and do play both roles at some time in their social interactions. Any intervention must involve the child (or children) who bully, as well as the child who is the recipient of bullying. Students themselves must be provided with the social and linguistic tools to intervene in bullying behavior, especially if they are not directly involved; research suggests that by-standers who witness bullying feel as much anxiety as those who are the victims of bullying. If schools establish a clear set of policies and procedures, the incidence of bullying can be dramatically decreased. See also Development, Language; Peer Culture; Peers and Friends.

Further Readings: Espelage, D. L., and S. M. Swearer, eds. (2001). Bullying in American schools: A social-ecological perspective on prevention and intervention. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum; Moffitt, T. E. (1993). Adolescent-limited and life-course-persistent antisocial behavior: A developmental taxonomy. Psychological Review 100, 674-701; Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying in schools: What we know and what we can do. New York: Blackwell; Pellegrini, A. D. (2002). Bullying and victimization in middle school: A dominance relations perspective. Educational Psychologist 37, 151-163; Pellegrini, A. D., and J. Long (2002). A longitudinal study of bullying, dominance, and victimization during the transition from primary to secondary school. British Journal of Developmental Psychology 20, 259280; Randall, P. (1997). Adult bullying: Perpetrators and victims. New York: Routledge; Smith, P. K., and S. Sharp (1994). School bullying. London: Routledge; Swearer, S. M., and B. Doll (2001). Bullying in schools: An ecological framework. Journal of Emotional Abuse 2, 7-23; Tattum, D. P., and E. Tattum (1992). Bullying: A whole school response. In N. Jones and E. Baglin Jones, eds. Learning to behave. London: Kogan Page.

Calvin Gidney