My child keeps coming home talking about being pushed by another child at school. It seems to be the same child over and over. Is my child being bullied? What should I do about it?
Every year the topic of bullying comes up. Parents contact their teacher because another child is hitting or playing rough games that are causing uncomfortable feelings for their child. The parents are worried that their child is being targeted and that they are being bullied. It’s confusing for parents because Montessori and Athena talk about a peace curriculum and parents wonder: “Why is my child coming home and talking about such aggressive behavior?”
To answer this question about bullying, we first have to understand the true definition of the word and that it is not developmentally possible for our age group of children to exhibit bullying behavior. A Bully is a person who habitually seeks to harm or intimidate those whom they perceive as vulnerable. https://languages.oup.com/google-dictionary-en/ Children ages 2 - 6 do not have the brain development to bully other children. Our aged children are social scientists and they do often test boundaries set by adults and their peers. They can be curious by cause and effect, for example. It can be thrilling to poke a peer and see how big of a reaction you can get out of them. They can feel powerful in those moments. Some children struggle with impulse control and their arms and body move faster than their mind. They can often hit a classmate before any words come out of their mouth or even finish processing their thoughts. Not all children test these limits or struggle with impulse control, but many do.
Adults can also be quick to judge other parents when they see a child that struggles with impulse control. We might think, “if that were my child, they would not be getting away with that behavior.”
This perspective was true for me early in my teaching career, and then I started to be my own scientist and tried to understand on a deeper level the children that were in my class. There are always ways we can do better and be better parents, but the most compassionate thing you can do is not be quick to judge another parent for their child’s behavior. Children are born with all kinds of temperaments and I can attest to the energy and tiring thoughtfulness that goes into parenting my own spirited child. We are all doing the best we can.
So, if we can agree that any acting out and testing behavior that children in this age group are exhibiting does not fall in the category of bullying and we are going to set our own adult judgements down, what do we do with the situation if my child is being hit at school?
The first step is to reach out to your child’s guide. Share the details that your child is sharing with you. Having the parents and the guide work together as a team is going to be vital to supporting your child. More than likely your child is not being targeted and the child at school is working on one of the challenges I mentioned above. It is important for the guide to know what your child is processing at home. This insight will inform the guide what your child feels incomplete about, as well as any feelings that they are holding on to. The guide can talk with your child and make a plan for the next time a similar situation arises. They can also organize a meeting where the child that feels wronged can set a boundary and make a plan for the future. There is value for children in learning how to set boundaries as well as identifying and claiming their rights. I do not want to leave out that I have seen immense value in children working through these situations with the child that is working on controlling their energy and body. When there is an appropriate container of safety and oversight, there can be some important and vulnerable growth for both children.
Lastly, I want to talk about how to hold and support your child at home when they are processing with you. First, you want to stop what you are doing and really listen. Validate what they are saying by repeating back what you heard them share. Here are some good questions to ask: “How did it make you feel?” “What did you do to take care of yourself?” “Did you let an adult know?” Then you will want to validate and give encouragement to the choices they made. For example: “It sounds like you set a really good boundary.” “Sounds like you needed help and you did a great job of getting your teacher.” Oftentimes, this is as far as the children want to go with the conversation. They just wanted you to know and then they are ready to move on. If they repeatedly talk about the other child, and you have already talked with the teacher and there is a plan in place, then the best thing to do is to continue to empower your child without demonizing the other child. Label the problem behavior under the category of something the child has not mastered and is currently practicing. “Sounds like Mary is practicing how to use their arms safely.” We don’t want to encourage them to see this child as an “other” or a “bad guy.” This othering intensifies the situation and locks in the pattern. We need space for this child to grow and to create a different pattern. It is okay to help them create the boundary they need. For example, “I hear you saying that you don't like that game that Mary plays.” “The next time Mary is playing that game you can let her know that you don’t like that game and that you want some space.” “Let’s practice, I will play the game and you ask me to stop.” Role playing is a great way to help your child process. Just make sure that you are following their lead and not making the conversation bigger or longer than is needed.
In conclusion, I want to mention that part of being in group care where we create a community is that we do get hurt by others sometimes. We do get exposed to other individuals' places of growth. The adults work hard to step in before any hurt takes place, and to use these opportunities as teachable moments for all the children. When there is a problem being solved there is often a child across the room watching the boundary being set, or observing a child take accountability for their actions and then practice a more peaceful way of moving through the room. These are priceless moments that create more compassion, empathy, confidence, and a sense of community for everyone involved.
Please know that my door is always open and if you need time to talk further on this topic, please do not hesitate to reach out.