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Stopping Bullying from the Beginning

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The earlier we start, the better the outcomes. Brain scientists, educators, economists and public health experts agree that the foundation for healthy relationships begins at birth. The earlier children can adapt and develop critical social-emotional skills – like attentiveness, persistence and impulse control – the earlier they can engage in healthy social interactions with their peers.

Given the tremendous amount of social and cognitive development that occurs from birth through age 5, it is no wonder there is a growing body of research - PDF which shows that even very young children can be at risk for bullying. Before characterizing situations among young children as “bullying,” however, it is especially critical to recognize that young children’s experiences with bullying differ greatly from older children.  Many young children, whether the aggressor or the victim, don’t see aggressive actions as “bullying.” They may view these actions as hurtful, but they typically are not developmentally able to recognize repetitive behavior or power imbalances until they reach elementary school.

Many adults might also not recognize bullying-like behavior in young children; however, bullying can be prevented early. Parents and early childhood providers both play important roles in laying the foundation for strong social-emotional skills that lead to the development of healthy relationships. Adults at home and in classrooms can prevent bullying if they model positive behaviors, set clear rules, and monitor for warning signs of bullying.

 At the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a private-public partnership dedicated to providing children – especially those from low-income families – with high-quality early childhood experiences from birth to age 5, we focus on the physical, social and emotional development of young children. Promoting good mental health is a key component of all of the Ounce work—ranging from home visiting programs to child care, preschool and pre-kindergarten.  

Learning starts at home. One way the Ounce embodies this idea is by advocating for evidence-based home visiting programs that model and teach new parents and caregivers how to nurture strong social-emotional skills before children enter a preschool classroom. By exploring emotions together and engaging in imaginative play to learn how to express feelings, parents can help children to better manage their emotions before starting preschool.  Home visiting programs recognize - PDF that social-emotional learning skills are formed through parent and child attachments. This first relationship serves as the foundation for all relationships that the child will have, and healthy attachments can help prevent peer abuse later on in life.

The Ounce of Prevention, the Buffett Early Childhood Fund and other partners have a network of high-quality early education schools – referred to as Educare Schools.  An essential part of Educare Schools are Early Childhood Mental Health Consultations (ECMHCs) in which mental health specialists from local partner organizations visit centers regularly and help classroom teachers develop their knowledge of children’s mental health issues on an individual and classroom level. These consultants help staff understand, assess and address individual children’s needs, as well as identify attitudes, beliefs, practices and conditions that may adversely affect the relationships between teachers and children. Preschool teachers and child care providers who understand the unique physical, social-emotional, cognitive and language development needs of children are in critical positions to monitor group interactions and identify children demonstrating emotional difficulties.  

The best way to prevent bullying at all ages is to engage schools and communities in a variety of settings and recognize the importance of healthy social-emotional development. StopBullying.gov’s Training Center offers Early Education and Child Care Providers a user guide - PDF with specific information on the role these community members play in bullying prevention. Additionally, the Ounce has a video series to teach young learners important relational skills that can be employed everywhere a child learns. Young children aren’t necessarily born with the skills to engage in healthy relationships; they are born with the potential to develop them. Children must be provided the support they need to build these skills.

Allison Lowe-Fotos, MSW, LCSW is a Policy Specialist with the Ounce of Prevention Fund, which focuses on giving vulnerable children and their families the best chance for success in school and in life by advocating for and providing the highest quality care and education from the prenatal period to age five. She works on mental health, special education, and workforce development initiatives at the Ounce and has previously worked in direct practice in early childhood education programs as an early childhood mental health consultant and supervising home visiting programs.