How to Teach Your Preschooler to be an “Upstander”

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I get a lot of phone calls about dealing with bullying at the elementary and middle school level each school year, but lately, there’s been a slight shift. In the past couple of months, I’ve heard from two preschool parents with concerns about bullying in the classroom. In both cases, the schools addressed the behavior with the children quickly. In both cases, the behavior continued.

Parents often ask me if bullying is even possible in preschool. Do kids that young really target other kids?

Surveys (according to data collected in 2009) show that 25% of boys and 18% of girls ages 2-5 are physically bullied in preschool, and 15% of boys and girls experienced emotional bullying during the previous year.

As it turns out, bullying does occur in preschool. Before we start slapping the “preschool bully” label on a young child, however, it’s important to consider the differences between “aggressive behavior” and “bullying”.

Two important facts about bullying:

  • Bullying includes repetitive behavior
  • Bullying includes a power imbalance
Preschoolers can engage in aggressive and unkind behavior at times, but it isn’t necessarily considered bullying.

What many parents want to know is this: How do I help my child steer clear of or deal with this behavior in preschool? The truth is we can’t protect kids from everything, but we can give them the tools to deal with difficult situations. Teaching a preschool kid to be an upstander is a great way to encourage positive behaviors as kids grow.

Talk about it.

Sometimes little kids don’t know how their words and actions impact others. Young children have big feelings, and they tend to lack the necessary tools to cope with frustration, jealousy, and other negative emotions. More often than not, they lash out with hitting, unkind words, or tattling when these feelings arise.

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Talk to your child about what he does when he’s upset and ask him if he notices how other kids react when they’re upset. When parents talk to kids about reactions to negative emotions, they can help them figure out positive ways to handle those emotions in the future.

Define unkind behavior.

Everyone has a bad day once in a while. It’s important that we remind kids of this fact. A friendship doesn’t have to end because one child had a terrible day and made a bad choice. Talk about behaviors that are unacceptable:

  • Name calling
  • Hitting, kicking, biting, pushing
  • Teasing about the way others look, dress, talk, play, eat, etc.
  • Forcing others to do what you want them to do
  • Trying to get other kids to leave out one kid

When kids understand friendship limits and boundaries, they know what to look out for. If they see this behavior between other kids or experience it themselves, they know to get help.

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Shares ways to be an “upstander”.

With younger kids, it’s important to empower them to seek adult help if they see or experience physical aggression of any kind. Preschoolers should not try to mediate physical altercations. Talk to your child about ways to be an upstander, by including others and helping if another child is feeling hurt or left out:

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  • Invite someone to play
  • Stand or sit near a friend who looks left out
  • Say no if someone asks you to leave someone else out
  • Get the teacher if you see hitting or any other physical aggression
  • Use kind words
  • Say no to unkind behavior
  • Always include other kids in your play

Teach empathy.

The best way to help a child become an upstander is to teach empathy. Ask your child to think about how it feels to be left out, how it feels when something is frustrating, or how it feels to be sad at school. Talk about times when your child might have felt that way. Discuss what helps your child feel better when he’s struggling, and how he might be able to help a peer having a hard day at school.

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When kids learn to tap into empathy and make positive choices, they not only learn to regulate their own emotions in the moment, but they learn to help a friend in need as well.

How have you helped your preschooler to be an upstander?

What do you think?

How to Teach Your Preschooler to be an “Upstander”

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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