Aggressive behavior can come into play early in childhood, but when do children cross the line from developing appropriately for their ages to bullying?
Expert opinions differ on age specifics, but most agree that bullying and victimization can begin as early as preschool and can spike during transitions like new schools or change in family situations.
The National Association for the Education of Children (NAEYC) says the general consensus among researchers is that bullying is partly driven by a child’s developing social skills and ability – or lack thereof – to regulate behavior and emotion.
Studies show bullying rates generally increase through elementary grades, and physical bullying rates peak around eighth grade before falling off, according to PREVNet, a bullying research and prevention organization based in Canada.
October is National Bullying Prevention Month in the United States, where the Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights (PACER) Center first created the annual awareness campaign in 2006.
The PACER Center-driven campaign against bullying eventually reached the federal level, where www.stopbullying.gov now defines bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children” involving a real or perceived power imbalance and behavior that is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.
The website identifies three types of bullying:
Verbal: Writing or saying mean things, which can include teasing, name-calling, inappropriate sexual comments, taunting and threatening to cause harm.
Social: Hurting someone’s reputation or relationships, which can include leaving someone out on purpose, telling other children not to be friends with someone, spreading rumors about someone and embarrassing someone in public.
Physical: Hurting a person’s body or possessions, which can include hitting, kicking, pinching, spitting, tripping, pushing, taking or breaking someone’s things and making rude hand gestures.
Understanding the widely accepted elements of bullying – aggressive acts intended to do harm, repeated over time, within the context of a power imbalance – is especially important in situations involving very young children, experts say.
Early childhood is a group in which bullying behaviors may be over-reported, according to the NAEYC, because of the developmental stages of the children involved.
And it’s not just young children whose development should be considered, according to stopbullying.gov, which states that while promising prevention and intervention strategies exist, some common methods can make matters worse.
Zero-tolerance policies, for instance, could potentially affect a significant number of elementary and middle school-aged children. In recent surveys, nearly one in five students in that age group admit they occasionally bully their peers, according to the website.
The probability of suspension or expulsion may discourage students or adults from reporting incidents, and bullying may an indicator of other behavioral issues for children who could continue to benefit from positive interaction with other students and adults at school. While suspension or expulsion may be necessary at times, “they should not be the standard bullying prevention or intervention policy,” stopbullying.gov states.
Short-term solutions like anti-bullying units or workshops are ineffective at reducing the number of bullying incidents at school, according to the website, as are conflict resolution and peer mediation that hold the victim partially responsible for the victimization. And group treatment for for children identified as bullies tends to reinforce antisocial and bullying behavior.
A 2017 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine urged educators and authorities to acknowledge bullying as a serious public health issue.
"We need to understand that this is a public health problem faced by a third of our children," said Dr. Frederick Rivara, chairman of the committee compiling the report. "It has a major effect on their academic performance as well as their mental and physical health."
Some commonly utilized methods of bullying prevention might be ineffective, but the Crisis Prevention Institute says schools still have plenty of options. Focusing on communication, rewarding positive behavior, engaging parents, reinforcing age-appropriate rules and – most importantly – embracing a clear definition of bullying can change school culture and reduce instances of bullying, according to the CPI.