This week’s Bullying-Free NZ Week and today’s Pink Shirt Day aims to help raise awareness about bullying and its serious consequences, with a particular focus on reducing bullying in New Zealand schools. But what about bullying at day care, nursery or kindergarten? Can pre-schoolers even be described as bullies and is it right to be putting these labels on children so young?

Just over a third of New Zealand children have experienced bullying or been picked on by other children at some stage by the time they were four, according to the University of Auckland’s current longitudinal study Growing Up in New Zealand.

For one in 10 kids, this experience has been a part of life since they were two years old. The study involves nearly 7,000 children born in 2009 and 2010.

Bullying occurs when one child holds power over another child. This can include grabbing, hitting, saying hurtful things and excluding. Although it’s not always the case, bullying generally involves targeting the same child or children repeatedly, with the intention to hurt or scare them.

Dr Sarah Alexander, senior researcher and chief executive of ChildForum says she gets a “mixed reaction” when she talks to early childhood education (ECE) teachers about children bullying.

While many teachers are “very aware” of bullying and the types of situations that can lead to bullying, there are others who, she says, “strongly deny that under-fives can be bullies or be bullied”.

“[They] argue with me about how wrong it is for me to even raise this possibility because bullying is a school issue and that, in early childhood, no child should be labelled.”

But Alexander says it’s still crucial for teachers to confront the issue. “I reply that we need to discuss behaviour and it’s not about labelling, it’s about being aware of bullying and supporting children to learn before such behaviour really sets in.”

ECE experts agree that it’s important to distinguish between labelling a child and their actions.

“Should a young child be called a bully?” asks My ECE, an independent advice website. “No. At a young age behaviour is developing and labelling any child as a bully should not be done. Behaviours that resemble bullying should not be seen to be okay.”

In Invercargill, a group of early childhood educators for the home-based childcare service, Just Four Kids, say pre-schoolers are still getting to grips with what is appropriate behaviour, but that it is important to deal with any negative social conduct.

“Children in this age group are learning social skills and competency,” says Just Four Kids early childhood education director Suzy McNatty.

“During the early years they learn what behaviour is acceptable and what is not. The early years is an important time for us to educate our children that bullying is not okay. We need to teach them empathy, respect, honesty and kindness.”

“It is not bullying but learning social cues and social competencies through problem solving,” says ECE educator Michelle. “I wouldn’t call a child a bully. I would describe a child as having a strong preference for something.”

“It’s appropriate to teach children right from wrong and how to treat others,” says Nicola, while her colleague Gillian adds: “Children are learning social skills and this should be supervised by adults.”

“Bullying is unacceptable in any form,” says Katrina Casey, the Ministry of Education’s deputy secretary for Sector Enablement and Support. “The best way to prevent bullying is to adopt a whole school approach that emphasises student and staff wellbeing and values diversity.”

The early childhood education curriculum Te Whāriki includes a strong focus on social and emotional learning, she says. But the Ministry has also developed a resource book, He Māpuna te Tamaiti: Supporting Social and Emotional Competence in ECE, for kaiako in early learning services on enhancing children’s social and emotional competence and supporting children to engage and learn.

The resource book includes an extensive range of strategies that kaiako can use, she adds, and will be available later this year.

Meanwhile the Ministry’s anti-bullying campaign Oat the Goat is a digital story aimed at tamariki aged four to seven. It focuses on the power of kindness and can be used as a starting point for a conversation about the choice children have when they see someone being bullied.

Back in Southland, Just Four Kids uses positive guidance strategies to overcome negative social behaviour, says McNatty.

“We encourage the child to respond positively while being role modelled acceptable behaviour. If the same values are modelled at home, we see a vast improvement in showing positive social interactions.”

ChildForum has also looked at bullying among teachers within the early childhood education sector. Last year, it released a report that found one-third of ECE teachers and supervisors had been bullied over a 12-month period. The number of bullying incidents reported by teachers had also risen by 25 per cent within three years, since ChildForum’s previous survey.

ECE settings where bullying is taking place among teachers could be harming children, too, by stifling any conversation about bullying-type behaviour among under-fives, says Alexander.

“It can be difficult to be open and honest about bullying within early childhood, when adults themselves may be experiencing bullying or be bullying their workmates or staff.

“Stressful workplace environments can be a climate of fear and difficulty speaking up, and not to mention the negative impact on children of seeing [or] overhearing bullying among adults.”

Alexander says she would like to see the Ministry of Education tackle bullying at the early childhood level, alongside the focus and funding it is already putting into schools. The Ministry is a member of the cross-sector Bullying Prevention Advisory Group (BPAG), which is behind Bullying-Free NZ Week.

“We should be working at where it can start: in early childhood with children when they are young. There should be training and workshops on workplace bullying for ECE leaders and managers. And importantly the Minister of Education and the Ministry of Education in their stewardship of the ECE sector need to be getting involved and address issues of ECE teacher wellbeing.”

In an emailed response Casey says: “Early learning service providers operate independently of the Government and make operational decisions within the legislative parameters that apply.

“Educators are not employed by the Ministry, but we would expect a responsible employer to address any workplace bullying issues appropriately. The Health and Safety at Work 2015 outlines everyone’s key roles and responsibilities.”


It is important to remember children and young people may not ask for help, so knowing what to look for is crucial.

My ECE provides find further advice and information on how to support under-fives who are starting to show behaviour that looks like bullying or children who are affected by it.

Tackling Bullying: A guide for Parents and Whanau provides information for parents, carers and whānau to help them recognise the warning signs of bullying and how to respond.

Resources and guidance aimed at schools, whānau and students is available via Bullying-Free NZ and the Bullying-Free NZ Toolkit (including a parents’ pack, a guide for Boards, and training modules for school staff).


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