Toddlers and preschoolers aren't developmentally mature enough to bully another child, said Nancy Mullin, director of Bullying Prevention Solutions.
In fact, Mullin said she's hesitant to use the term bullying in the behavior of any child younger than first grade.
"Kids aren't able to control their impulses or cognitively hold two thoughts in their heads at the same time," she said. "At preschool, certainly the adult needs to be teaching the kids non-aggressive ways" of dealing with conflicts.
I introduced Mullin on Go Ask Mom earlier this week in my weekly featured mom post. Mullin of Raleigh has spent the last two decades researching and working on bullying prevention. We'll be offering more information from her over the next month. Today, our focus is on the youngest kids.
While young kids might not willfully bully another child, we all know that they can often treat other kids badly. We've seen fights over the same shovel in the sandbox. And I'll never forget when one of my older daughter's friends in preschool would pick and choose who could play together in a group.
Mullin said it's very important for parents to supervise their kids and watch how they get along at playdates and with other children. Parents need to understand how their child is most likely to interact with other children to help them make the right decisions.
"From a very early age, teach your child good friendship skills," she said. "How do you make the initial contact with kids? What does it mean to be a good friend?"
Mullin said it's important for parents to help their children build empathy and understand how another child would feel because of their actions.
"Being able to care for somebody else and take their point of view are learned skills," Mullin said.
Reading books together, watching TV or solving squabbles between siblings are good opportunities to build on those skills with a child, she said. Talk about why a book or TV show character did what they did, for instance. Or help a young child understand why their sibling got upset when they took a toy from them.
In the preschool classrooms, teachers should bring kids together to understand why a behavior was wrong (a tactic that Mullin said isn't the best for older kids. More on that later).
When a child says something mean to another kid, Mullins said, "I would say, 'when you use words like that, sweetie, those aren't friendly words. It's not OK with me to use those words in the classroom.'"
Then, Mullin said, bring the kids together and explain why the child hurt another child's feelings. In her work in preschool classrooms, Mullin recommends a teacher say something like "she's not going to do that anymore and I'm going to make sure she doesn't."
StopBullying.gov also recommends that teachers and parents set clear rules for behavior and monitor children's interactions carefully. The site recommends that young children should be taught to say "I'm sorry" whenever a friend is hurt, even after an accident. And then they should act. They should help rebuild a block tower that was knocked down or find a ball that was thrown out of reach.
"Adults have to step in and do something more for kids," she said.