From a very early age, I can remember the first time in school that someone picked on and excluded me because I was heavier than all the other kids. It was the first time I realized I was somehow different from the other children and it hurt me a lot. This continued my whole academic career with instances that included profane name calling, public humiliation, and physical harm towards me.
The definition of bullying (from the website www.stopbullying.gov ) is “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems. In order to be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include an imbalance of power; kids who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others, and repetition; bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.”
It is our job as early educators to start talking early about kindness and respect to the children in our care. One way I encouraged this in my preschool class was by having a time set aside for us to talk about our feelings each day. We had a group-sharing time where I would pass around our pillow/bear and the child holding it got to tell how they felt (happy, sad, mad, scared, etc.) and why they felt that way. Children weren’t required to share if they didn’t want to. I always gave them an opportunity after to pull me aside and tell me something privately if they preferred. We would talk about how to help our classmates celebrate a happy feeling, or help them feel better about a sad, mad, or scared feeling. It helped some of the children to talk about their emotions and work through feelings together, not by themselves, creating a community. Sometimes I included stories and finger-play songs to help teach.
If a group time setting isn’t something that will work with your program’s schedule, below are some tips from Stopbullying.gov (with some edits for younger children) to help encourage kindness and empathy in your program throughout your day:
Model positive ways for young children to make friends. For example, practice pleasant ways that children can ask to join others in play and take turns in games. We can coach older children in our program to help reinforce these behaviors as well. Encourage children for appropriate behavior. Help young children understand what behaviors are friendly.
Help young children learn the consequences of certain actions in terms they can understand. Encourage young children to tell an adult if they are treated in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable, upset, unhappy, or if they witness other children being harmed. Teach them that it is okay to stand up for others in need if they feel safe to do so.
Set clear rules for behavior and monitor children’s interactions carefully. Step in quickly to stop aggressive behavior or redirect it before it occurs.
Encourage age-appropriate empathy for aggressive behavior. Young children should be encouraged to apologize in their own way whenever they hurt a peer, even accidentally. Guiding questions from you may include “What can you do/say to help ____ feel better about what happened?” Some younger children are still learning what ‘apology’ and ‘sorry’ mean so be patient and respect their approach to it. Not all apologies and expressions of empathy are the same.
With patience, understanding and a positive approach, we can help children recognize that kindness and empathy can go a long way in the world today.