The preschool years are foundational for children’s social and emotional development—a time when children’s social interactions increase dramatically as they move from parallel to more collaborative play with peers. Not surprisingly, this means more social and communication missteps as children learn how to interact and connect to each other while their social, communication, and emotion-management skills are still in the very early stages of development.

What all of this means is that most of the problems you are seeing between and among preschoolers, particularly those under 4, are often signs of poor impulse control and limited language skills, not indications that children are engaged in bullying. Bullying is a conscious act involving the systematic targeting of a weaker or more vulnerable child. Bullying behavior is purposely mean and hurtful. Young preschool-aged children are doing very little purposely or consciously. Instead, their actions and behavior are often the result of their impulses, emotional reactions, and inability to verbalize their needs and feelings. They may push another child because they don’t have the language skills or impulse control to ask that child politely to move out of the way. They may exclude another child from play to test their growing power and control, or to express their anger and frustration about having to share.

Because this is also age when children are learning how to be in relationship with peers, it is an ideal time to begin teaching the social and emotional skills that they need to form healthy relationships. In other words, it is the optimal time to teach bullying prevention skills.

Here are the skills young children need to prevent their involvement in bullying and to nurture their social and emotional development:

  • Emotion management skills: the ability to identify, manage, and appropriately express strong feelings
    The first step in developing emotion management skills is teaching children that there is a range of feelings. Use Kimochis dolls or feeling charts to begin teaching an emotional vocabulary to children. Once children can understand and recognize strong feelings—such as anger, frustration, and sadness—they can begin learning how to calm and express those feelings appropriately.

Teach your child how to calm herself using a set of simple steps: (1)Put your hand your tummy, (2)Say, “Calm down,-*” to yourself, and (3)Take some deep breaths with your belly.

As children’s verbal skills develop, they can learn how to use words to express their feelings and needs using “I” communication. If children can recognize and understand their own emotions, they can better understand others’. The ability to experience and show empathy is at the heart of bullying prevention and of healthy social connection.

  • Friendship skills
    Friendship is a new concept to preschoolers. Friendship skills include learning how to join a group, take turns, share, and be a good friend through kindness and caring. Because this is an age at which children first start experimenting with exclusive play, it is the time to talk about the importance of allowing others to play and to introduce the idea that excluding others is hurtful. Try to be as specific as possible. Instead of assuming that a 3-year-old knows what “being kind” or “being a good friend” means, spell it out: “You shared your trucks, and that was very kind” or “You gave your bear to Emma when she was sad. You care about your friend.” This is also a great time to start reading books about friendship to your child.
  • Conflict resolution and problem-solving
    Yes, conflict resolution and problem-solving are sophisticated skills that many adults haven’t yet mastered. And, yes, you can begin teaching these abilities to your preschooler through role-modeling. Start by narrating problem-solving and conflict-resolution when problems arise between your preschooler and his peers. For example, in response to a tug of war over a toy between your 3-year-old and his friend, you might say, “There seems to be a problem here. It seems that you both want to play with the truck. We could take turns playing with the truck, or we could find a new toy that you can both play with, like these blocks. Let’s try playing with the blocks together for a while.” When your child is about 4, you can prompt him to participate in this process with you: “There seems to be a problem here. What is it, and what should we do about it?” or “The problem seems to be A, is that right? We could do X or Y about this problem. Which do you want to try?” As your child becomes more verbal, you can introduce the concept of “compromise” and seek opportunities to use it to resolve everyday conflicts.

Parents Place offers a range of assistance in the form of experienced counselors, psychologists, and occupational therapists to help parents and children assess the differences in behavioral issues and the identify the best way to help.

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