Dear Polly,
Most children in my kindergarten class are afraid of Benjamin. He will stride aggressively up to another child or small group of children, grin diabolically, lean in on them, 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. Usually it’s the two or three children who are most frightened of him. 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 as important adults in their lives is to deal with our own feelings on our time, not in front of children.
Here are some specific strategies you can attempt in your classroom:
  • 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 appreciate and empathize with him.
  • Draw and create stories with Benjamin to build a good relationship. Play together with blocks, miniature cars, emergency vehicles, animals, people, and monsters. 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 sounds scary.”
  • Set limits, of course. A child can’t be allowed to intimidate others in the 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 and satisfactorily for all concerned. 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 of any child you’re concerned about. In the case of Benjamin, describe what you see at school and ask his parents 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, in order to understand their son better and to soothe him, they might want to try some of the things you are trying.
  • Expect only small improvements, and only sometimes. Notice and reward them. If the change you want to see seems too overwhelming to a child, he won’t be motivated to try. Move forward slowly until you reach your goal.
As children move into the world beyond their homes and get to be 4-, 5-, and 6-years-old, they grow more and more concerned about being liked by other children. One reason that children, especially habitual victims, 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, and they desperately fear being humiliated in front of their peers. You’ll need to strengthen the victim’s resolve and ability to stand up for himself.
Children in this age range, including Benjamin, have an urgent need to be, and 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 is social success. During these years, children are starting to judge themselves not only by what their parents and siblings think of them, but by how they’re seen in the eyes of their peers.
A child´s bullying behavior is reinforced every time he succeeds in bullying someone. Bullying works. Be alert. 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!

Polly Greenberg has been a child/parent/staff development specialist for 40 years. She has worked for the U.S. Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, the War on Poverty, and other national programs.