Dear Polly, Most children in my kindergarten class are afraid of Benjamin. He will aggressively stride up to another child or small group of children, talk in a menacing tone, and demand that they give him whatever he wants. He says insulting things to the child he is picking on. He's acting like a bully. How do I deal with this?
In my experience, the most effective thing to do is to refrain from using labels. View all young children as works in progress. Even though bullying makes us angry, our job is to deal with our own feelings on our time, not in front of children.
Here are some specific strategies:
Try to develop a warm friendship with the child whose behavior you want to change. Try to see his good points and vulnerabilities so you can empathize with and appreciate him.
Draw and create stories with Benjamin to build a good relationship. Play together with blocks, miniature cars, emergency vehicles, animals. Observe him when he plays dress-up. Look for themes. My guess is that they will be about dominance and weakness.
Listen, rather than give your opinion or moral guidance. Accept what this boy says by repeating it back, paraphrasing, or saying things like, "That really does sound scary."
Set limits, of course. A child can't be allowed to intimidate others in your classroom.
Step in calmly and start a discussion about what Benjamin wants or needs when he begins to act this way. Discuss the other child's position, and ways in which the situation might be resolved peaceably. Children need help in learning how to resolve problems without getting physical or tearful. They need help in feeling their feelings, finding words with which to express them, and imagining various ways to solve the immediate problem.
Coordinate closely with the parents. Describe what you see at school and ask if they see this at home. Find out if anyone bullies Benjamin. Often an older sibling does, and, regrettably, sometimes a parent does. His aggressiveness may be his way of reducing stress. Suggest to the parents that they might want to attempt some of the things you are trying.
Expect only small improvements, and only sometimes. Notice and reward them. Move forward slowly until you reach your goal.
As children move into the world beyond their homes, they grow more and more concerned about being liked by other children. One reason that children don't stand up to a child who is bullying them is that they want to be liked, even by him! In addition, they don't believe they can successfully stand up to him. You'll need to strengthen the victim's resolve and ability to stand up for himself.
Children this age have an urgent need to feel competent, confident, and successful-especially in social situations and with regard to physical feats. Though most want to please their teachers and parents, academic success is less meaningful to them than social success.
A child's bullying behavior is reinforced every time he succeeds in bullying someone. Prevent episodes from occurring. In spite of the pressure on teachers today, many find little moments here and there to help children hone their interpersonal skills. Benjamin clearly needs lots of help!