It is clear that the old adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” isn’t borne out by the research. Far from being a “right of passage,” evidence demonstrates that bullying has lasting negative psychological, emotional, and health impacts well into adulthood. A more nuanced understanding of the impact of bullying has propelled a national conversation about school climate and the importance of creating safe and supportive learning environments for all students. Is it possible to catch “mean” behaviors in early childhood before they develop into bullying? Are there factors in early childhood that either contribute to or protect from bullying behaviors later on? Author Erin Walsh explains what the research has found to answer these questions.
It is clear that the old adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” isn’t borne out by the research. Far from being a “right of passage,” evidence demonstrates that bullying has lasting negative psychological, emotional, and health impacts well into adulthood.1 A more nuanced understanding of the impact of bullying has propelled a national conversation about school climate and the importance of creating safe and supportive learning environments for all students.2 Schools now allocate resources for professional development, parent engagement strategies, and school curriculum designed to prevent and address bullying at the elementary and high school levels. While these solutions are obviously important, many argue that they are “too little, too late” and do not begin early enough to prevent the emergence of bullying behaviors. By the time a child enters 6th grade, nearly 28% of students report being targeted in the previous year.3 Is it possible to catch “mean” behaviors in early childhood before they develop into bullying? Are there factors in early childhood that either contribute to or protect from bullying behaviors later on?
While bullying is a term used casually by many adults as broad reference to toxic, cruel, or hurtful behaviors of all stripes, it is helpful to remember the formal definition of bullying before exploring its origins in early childhood. Bullying has three central characteristics: It is deliberate aggressive behavior, repeated over time, and reflects a power imbalance between the bully and the victim.4 Many researchers argue that these criteria are less useful in early childhood. At this age, relationships don’t always reflect a consistent power imbalance, and dynamics are often much less targeted and organized over time.5 Another challenge is that unkind behaviors are quite normal in early childhood as children learn emotional regulation, develop empathy, and navigate more complex social relationships. We need to be careful not to pathologize normal patterns of child development.
That said, there is evidence that stable levels of aggression throughout early childhood do predict bullying later in life.6 It is also likely that mean or cruel behaviors become increasingly organized and intentional over time if caring adults do not intervene and teach more appropriate skills. A recent review of the research by Child Trends concluded that while research is still limited and there is not currently a fleshed out developmental pathway or theoretical model that accounts for developmental stages of bullying, there is evidence of early mediating factors that do catalyze its development:7
There are of course many complex factors that combine in the life of a child to propel bullying behaviors. More research is needed to unpack the variables and provide a more comprehensive view. Some of the mediating factors in early childhood, such as maltreatment, are complex issues that require attention to both acute services and systems-level change.9 That said, there are things that can be done in early care settings right now that can serve as protective factors and facilitate the development of pro-social skills in the early years. Rather than focusing on identifying specific young children as “bullies,” all children benefit from programs and approaches that promote inclusion and positive interactions. Evidence indicates that prioritizing consistent, safe, and welcoming relationships and classrooms that promote emotional regulation can significantly reduce aggression.
There are things that you can do now to play an active role in preventing the development of bullying behaviors:
Prevention and Intervention:
Resources & Notes:
Writer: Erin Walsh is a national speaker on issues related to brain development, parenting, and the impact of media and technology on child health and development. She is a speaker for Bolster Collaborative and guest author for the Practice Brief Series. She is also one of the founders of Mind Positive Parenting, where she translates the latest discoveries in brain science into practical advice and strategies for parents and youth-serving professionals.
This brief is one in a series describing new knowledge and innovative research emerging from the field of youth development. The briefs are intended to inform parents, professionals, and volunteers in education, youth development, and related fields; and to contribute to a heightened national awareness of youth development practice.
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