I am waiting for my daughter on the playground, amid the chaos of three o’clock, enormous backpacks hurtling over tiny shoulders, tenni balls are flying through the air and kids are running to their mums, Dads and baby brothers and sisters. Finally the one I am looking for is bounding towards me. Her arms go about my waist and her head plants straight into my chest. I know immediately something is wrong and resist the urge to ask. I wait. Once we are a safe distance from the playground, out of the school, across the road and down the street my 7-year-old daughter begins to share with me an incident in school. How a group of girls, including her best friend, playing a seemingly innocent game in which the rules involve finding something of a certain colour, ended up with her friend, telling the other three girls, after a whisper to, “touch something brown”. Laughing, they ran to touch my Rosie’s face.
Rosie is African American.
Through silent tears as we make our way home, Rosie tells me she knows that I tell her to be “black and proud” . . . …”But I want to be white.”
I emailed her teacher, something I rarely do, and she called me straight away and then went to discuss the matter with the school deputy. She phoned me again to inform me of the school response, which involved a meeting between the girl and the deputy. She mentioned she ‘might’ follow up with a book and some additional discussion about ‘difference’.
“I don’t want to hear about ‘difference’ ,” said Rosie. “Every time they talk about it I am reminded of being different and I don’t want to think about it anymore. I thought we are all different”.
Valuing Difference: The concept of bullying in the early years.
We are all different, but the moment above is not really about “difference” it is about power and the perception that those who are “different” are less because of their difference. It is about bullying. Schools and early childhood programs are critical spaces for children to learn about social relationships, to explore their identity and value the identities of others. It is natural for children to explore their own power and bullying behaviours may be part of this process. It is also essential that adults support them in this exploration.
Australian Institute for Teaching and Leadership (AITSL) defines bullying as Bullying is an ongoing misuse of power in relationships through repeated verbal, physical and/or social behaviour that causes physical and/or psychological harm. This definition is aligned with that in early childhood settings, with educators agreeing that bullying involves an imbalance of power, an intention to diminish or hurt another repetitively, bullying is not fighting, it is the ongoing expression of dominance over another viewed as weaker.
A recent study of 95 early childhood educators showed that many were able to define the characteristics of bullying, yet unsure how to distinguish it from other childhood behaviour. When educators do respond, the focus is typically on addressing the actions of the child or children involved in bullying at the individual level. I think we need to do more and consider the learning communities we want to establish for every student.
As with children in other studies, my daughter did not want to be the focus of a discussion about bullying, she did not want ‘help’ from the teachers. This response makes her the problem and also problematizes the actions of the other children, her friends. The reluctance of children to report bullying is highlighted in recent research. My daughter did not want to “be a snitch” this would only have added to her low feelings of self worth as well as her value in the eyes of her peers. She was exercising her power perhaps not to disclose. Yet understanding what took place on the playground, how she felt about it and the other children’s feelings are essential to address bullying.
The Problem of Bullying
It is important for educators and parents to listen to children share their experiences of being bullied and to talk about bullying. It is here that we can learn to identify bullying and understand its causes in each context as well as prevent children from engaging in bullying behaviors and developing their social selves in a way that respects others.
It is particularly important right now, as many of our children are learning online and we have seen a sharp rise in cyberbullying. The impact of Covid 19 on young people has made the need to consider all forms of bullying even more important.
I argue that as educators and parents, we need to explore these concepts early and throughout schooling. To engage children in social justice education and prepare teachers to understand, identify and respond to bullying as part of their professional development. My recent research included the use of puppetry to expand the play behaviors of a group of 4 year old boys. The boys were described by their teachers as engaging in bullying-like behaviours, with repetitive acts of aggression and exclusion of other children during outside play. A series of puppet workshops opened up the space to learn about the boys’ perception of their actions, to support their understanding about the concept of bullying and provide them with the support they needed to expand their repertoire of play.
Bullying is about exclusion, it is about power. Educators are in a unique position to model caring behaviours and devote time to supporting children to value their own difference and the difference in others. This should include the classroom, when learning online and on the playground. It is here that we can understand and support children in learning how to interact and respect one another, to explore the factors that influence their behaviour and their intentions. While the evidence on the impact of anti-bullying interventions is mixed, some actions by educators have been shown to be beneficial for creating a positive learning environment. These include using pedagogical strategies that help children and young people to collaborate, learn from each other and work independently. In many cases, teachers may need to guide children and young people by creating spaces in which children can ask questions and feel equipped to take responsibility for their own learning.
All of which takes time, time for teachers to spend with students, time for schools to work with families and time for schools to work together in creating spaces that welcome and value all. This asks us to do much more than just respond to bullying after an incident, it requires us to cultivate relationships that are caring, thoughtful and a reflection of the classrooms we wish to build in schools and online.
Olivia Karaolis teaches across the School of Education and Social Work at Sydney University. She completed her research at USYD after working in the United States in the field of Early Childhood Education and Special Education. Her focus has been on creating inclusive communities through the framework of the creative arts.