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Teaching Social Skills to Prevent Bullying in Young Children

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Bullying among young children is not uncommon. When young children–who often differ in physical size, skill level, and family experience–get together, patterns of hurtful behavior often emerge.

Children may be mean to each other by making mean faces, saying threatening things, grabbing objects, pushing others aside, or refusing to play with others. Some young children may engage in actual bullying behaviors by deliberately and repeatedly dominating a vulnerable child by name-calling, physical attacks, and excluding others from playing with them.

To prevent bullying from escalating, caregivers can prepare effective strategies to deal with bullying incidents—before, during, and after they occur. They can also take steps to create an environment that supports respect, where bullying is not accepted or tolerated.

Caregivers can also help children learn the social skills they need to deal with bullying when it occurs. To gain and maintain friends, and avoid becoming involved in bullying, young children need to develop three types of social skills.

1. Social problem-solving skills:

  • Find concrete ways to teach children the skills they need to solve problems.
  • Teach social problem-solving skills directly related to various forms of bullying—verbal, physical, and indirect.
  • Help children understand and deal with their feelings.
  • Encourage impulse control and self-calming.
  • Help children practice listening skills.
  • Practice coming up with solutions, anticipating consequences, and evaluating the harmfulness of violent solutions.
  • Help children understand that everyone is different and that this is something to be respected, not made fun of or simply tolerated.

2. Empathy skills:

  • Encourage children to label their own feelings and tell each other how they feel about bullying.
  • Discuss how children who are bullied might feel.
  • Explain that despite differences between people, everyone experiences certain basic feelings.
  • Remind children how they felt in situations like those faced by others in distress.
  • Model empathy by talking about how you identify another’s distress and think of ways to help.

3. Assertiveness skills

  • Teach children to:
    • Ask for and offer things to each other in a polite and open-ended way.
    • Use assertiveness skills to avoid submitting to bullying tactics, bossiness, or discriminatory acts.
    • Ignore routine provocative peer behaviors.
    • Use assertiveness skills to meet their goals. Teach these skills to both boys and girls.

Learn more about early childhood and behavior.