October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and I wanted to talk about early elementary and Kindergarten bullying. In 2016 our then 4 year old son started Transitional Kindergarten. There was a child in his class who would kick and punch other kids, spit on them, call them “loser” and “stupid” and “dumb” – all of which was new vocabulary for our four year old.
Initially it was targeted toward groups of children or many in the class. Fast forward a month or two and it was heavily targeted at our son. It was a terrible experience for him and it felt like no one did anything to help him (despite constant asking for help from the teacher). This meant that every day I dropped my son off to be in an environment that I wasn’t truly sure was safe for him- either physically or emotionally. It was awful.
There was one painful escalated incident that really broke the camel’s back so to speak. I started to feel like I was on a mission against a 5-year old. I became kind of a crazy person. But two years later I have some perspective and I want to share it in case it helps anyone.
Before I get any further I want to address something important. Public school is for everyone. It took me some time after the incident to come to grips with this. Children are not asked to leave public school because they have issues, even ones that directly and adversely affect other children. That can (and does) happen in private school but not public.
In fact, children with any type of developmental challenge will almost be forced to go to public school as it’s the only way to get public services for a child (at least here in California). Sure, there are some who can afford to pay for it…but primarily we’re going to find that most children with any level of delays, challenges, mental illness, physical limitations or otherwise will be in public school under (or soon to be under) an IEP (it may have different names in other states).
An IEP is just short for an individualized eduction program – or a document and plan to provide additional services to children who need them. Many incoming Kinders who need an IEP do not yet have one in place, and it takes time to get one.
There are lots of resources out there for parents of older kids. But I think the landscape of issues and drivers is different for older kids. I personally found struggle finding much bullying advice and experience with very young children.
So at the risk of getting political (which I almost never do) I’m going to blab a bit because I think the vast majority of my followers have kids just a tad younger than mine and I’m asked about this often by those who know about it.
When my son was 4, turning 5, and in TK, he experienced bullying. Now here’s the thing. I do not believe 2,3,4 and 5 year old kids are actually bullies. They really aren’t. They are kids who have an issue. Maybe they have undiagnosed ADHD. Or a sensory issue. Or a processing issue. Or they are being physically mistreated at home. Or fill in the blank really there are lots of options. Whatever it is, the child who is “bullying” at the toddler/kinder age needs as much help as the child on the receiving end. Yes, sometimes kids experiment with the power of their words or bodies, and that can be normal, but it doesn’t tend to be highly targeted and prolonged.
Now here’s the other thing. No matter what drives the behavior of the aggressor, if the bottom line/end experience of a child looks and feels like bullying…then the emotional affect is the same. It doesn’t matter that Billy Bob just got diagnosed with ADHD and his parents are working aggressively with psychologists and the school to develop a plan…there is another child here who’s mental state (confidence, love of school and learning, feeling safe at school, etc) is at risk while that’s underway and that can take months, or longer to see results. If you are Billy Bob’s parents it’s essential you understand this.
So how do we handle this? Not that anyone asked…but parents of children with an issue that’s affecting other kids in class need to be taking the lead to break down the barriers of stigma, and sharing their experiences with parents in their child’s class. Kids have issues, all kinds of them and it’s OKAY. But a parent of a bullied child cannot have patience or empathy for the child who’s hurting their child if we don’t know about what’s going on.
”Sometimes it’s harder for Billy Bob to control his hands or his voice” and “when that happens you can remind him [insert advice from parents/counselors/teachers] and you can let the teacher know you need help protecting your body” – we can work together to help children- but only if we know to do it and we know how to do it. That requires sharing information.
In the absence of information, I am left to assume that a parent of an aggressive child is doing nothing.
Now I don’t have end all be all solutions for either side of the table. But having gone through it with my son – I do want to give some thought starters to both sides.
For those whose child is the aggressor:
I haven’t sat on this side of the table so take this with a grain of salt. I respect your privacy, I do. But you need to know that if you choose total privacy then we on the receiving end will be operating as if you are in denial and doing nothing at all. When the fragile mental state of our child is at risk we don’t have margins to give the benefit of the doubt. Parents who don’t know there are driving forces for your child’s behavior only observe the behavior and affect which looks and feels like bullying.
As already stated I really urge families to work to break down stigmas and divides and not try and keep childhood mental illness a big old secret. It’s ok if your kid is struggling with something. Say to the parent of the child your kid is targeting that your child has an issue, you’re aware of it, you’re taking steps to improve it, etc. You don’t have to spill all the beans but do take it a step further and devise a plan with the teacher for the children affected. Apologies won’t cut it. Ignoring the issue will send parents into literal wars against you for bullying and will work to block you mainstreaming your child. It’s counterproductive. I promise.
Try to identify triggers and patterns. Maybe you and family members can try and volunteer when possible in the classroom during timeframes where it seems to a bigger issue.
Call a meeting to get an eval by the school. Denying or delaying diagnosis will not change the outcome – in fact it can make it harder for everybody. Hire an advocate to help you fight for school resources. Sometimes this can be a huge arduous challenge. You are the number one biggest supporter and you can do it.
For the parents of children experiencing bullying: I’ve been there and I understand. I hope that you get to work proactively with the other parents and teacher to resolve the issue. Try really hard. Maybe 1 one 1 playdates outside of school heavily supervised by both parents could help? Maybe steering your child to proactively play with different children could help. I hope you can resolve it together but I know that doesn’t always happen, so here’s my advice.
1. Contact your teacher first, ask to develop a plan (for example, maybe the class is frequently split into groups and the children can be separated more, or maybe there can be a special signal to the teacher by your child that he needs help).
2. Write all the details your child tells you down, keep a log, and try to identify patterns (does it happen at lunch? School yard? Classroom? Are there other kids around?) Teach your child to report it to the teacher EVERY time and also to you after school.
3. If you cannot get anywhere with the teacher contact the Principal. Maybe the teacher lacks resources, maybe she sucks, maybe a million things but you have the right to elevate the issue. Before you do this, research your school or district policy on bullying. Learn the lingo used. And use it intelligently in this conversation. Know your child’s rights. Make contact in writing as much as possible. Think paper trail.
4. Hire an Advocate. No matter where you live I feel confident that your child has the right to be physically and emotionally safe at school. If you cannot accomplish this, bring in the professionals.
I don’t have a plethora of Prevention ideas for this age group- I don’t think we can prevent the underlying issues that drive bullying for the little ones but we can certainly come together as a community and work to help those children more proactively, support paying for services like classroom aids and shadows, and working together as families within a school to help.
I hope some of this was helpful. My laptop crashed and I’m working on my phone today so please bear with formatting, spelling, etc. I’ll clean it up ASAP.