My 5 year old was bullied in kindergarten. If you’re doing a double take at “kindergarten”, you’re not alone. Research on bullying in kindergarten is relatively new, but studies in almost every country have pointed to the same thing; that bullying occurs at approximately the same rate in kindergarten as in other elementary school grades. If this seems shocking, I can tell you there are still a lot of parents and teachers who are unaware of the seriousness of bullying and its effects on children at so young an age.
How can you tell if your child is being bullied? What can you do about it? Here’s what we did.
Ask questions – and keep asking
It is so important for all parents to pay very close attention to what your child is saying, or not saying, when you ask them “How was your day?”
For us it started with stories about one friendship our child developed in his first few weeks of junior kindergarten. At first it all seemed innocent. “How was your day?” we’d ask. “Good,” he’d reply.
“What did you do?” we’d prod, hoping for more information. Eventually, he’d tell us about how his friend made him be the bad guy when they were playing Transformers, or throw wood chips at him even though he’d asked him to stop and then told the other kids not to play with him when he wanted to play a good guy in the game they had invented during that outdoor break. Each time he’d have a new story for us about how this one child would “act mean” toward him and how it always made him feel sad.
Over time, we’d offer up solutions, like talking to his friend about how it made him feel, or saying, “No, thank you” if he didn’t like what he was being asked to do and then let the teacher know. We even mentioned that he should seek out other friendships. Yet, eventually the two boys would find their way back to one another.
There seemed to be an assumption that this was nothing more than a case of boys being boys; that two young boys in junior kindergarten were working out their social awkwardness. And we thought that way as well, to a point.
Boys won’t be boys
With more than half the JK year done, our child was growing increasingly frustrated about school and we started to notice a difference in his own personality. He was much more moody and quick to get angry even at home and with us. We decided to have two conversations, one with the teachers, and the other with the other child’s parents.
The teachers said they had noticed that there were issues between the two friends and were trying to help them through it. The parents also said they were aware of the situation but treated it much more like a ‘boys will be boys’ scenario rather than anything more serious.
I started to second guess everything, including what my own son was telling me. Maybe we were being too sensitive; besides the school year was almost over and soon our child would be in Senior Kindergarten. Surely the school wouldn’t put these two children in the same class again.
My husband and I decided to just keep coaching him through any issues and look forward to the summer.
Watch for positive changes in behaviour, too
During the summer our son attended several camps with lots of other kids his age. For the most part, he was happy as a clam. No stories of any children causing issues, his temperament was positive and he was looking forward to the new school year in senior kindergarten. This gave us some reassurance; we had been worried that his temperament was changing, but he thrived in new environments and assured us he wasn’t becoming a problem child.
Look for small changes to old patterns
The first day of SK came. We had learned that one of our son’s previous teachers would be his teacher again, but we had also learned that he would be in the same class as the child that he had had troubles with.
That first day, we spoke with both the other boy’s father and his former teacher about our concerns that the two were once again in the same class. We were all hopeful that what had happened in JK wouldn’t repeat itself now that the boys were older. Instead, it got worse.
Because most of his old classmates had moved on to other classes, Jack felt increasingly isolated. He only had a couple of old “friends” in his class, and they weren’t being very friendly at all.
The bullying took on various forms. Our son would tell us about the way his friend would ‘act mean’ to him and how it made him feel really sad. He told the teachers. We told the teachers. But it didn’t stop.
The problem can be very hard to spot
The bullying took on various forms; some days he would be called names, other days he’d have an item of clothing hidden or taken away from him in the playground. Most days, he would be invited to play with the other child and another mutual friend but quickly these games would escalate into either an uncomfortable situation for our child, such as a verbal attack (“Look a monster – run away from him!” was a common one) and on the rare occasion even a physical attack.
To the naked eye, these could all be easily dismissed, again, as “boys will be boys.” Our son was getting in a lot of trouble at school, and it was hard to tell if he was the problem, or if this was similar to a hockey referee penalizing the retaliation instead of the aggression.
Above all else, believe in your kid
With only a month and a half into the school year we were desperate to help our child but weren’t sure how. As it turned out, we were saved by the most significant punishment he’d received.
One day the two boys got into an altercation on the playground. Our son bit the other boy, and both were sent to the vice-principal’s office, scolded for their actions and put in the “black book.” Our son’s teacher seemed at her wit’s end, and didn’t understand why the two were ever placed in same class given their difficulties in JK. Her note to us indicated that this was yet another incident that seemed like a personality conflict between the boys.
Biting is a normal behaviour for toddlers, but our child hadn’t done it for a year or more. This was a serious issue, and we demanded answers from him, knowing there were only two possibilities: he was going through a severe behavioural regression, or something had happened to elicit this kind of action.
What came next was astounding. Our son said he was playing with some blocks after eating his lunch when the other boy literally jumped on top of him and wouldn’t get off of him despite my son’s pleas. “I couldn’t breathe mommy. I didn’t know what to do, he was much stronger than me and I couldn’t get him off me, so I bit him.”
I had a number of questions swirling in my head. Where were the teachers? Why didn’t anyone get the other child off of our son? Why was this part not mentioned in the note?
It would have been easy to take what we were told about the incident at face value, punish our son and move on. But we knew this wasn’t his normal behaviour, and there had to be a reason for it. When he accepted that we just needed the truth, he gave it to us, and it gave us the breakthrough we needed to solve the problem.
Don’t stop fighting back
That night, my husband and I pulled our heads together and wrote an email to the principal. We didn’t hold back; we called out the months of bullying our child had endured, we mentioned the number of times we had addressed the issue with his JK teachers and now SK teachers, and we accused the school of allowing bullying to continue despite all our warnings. We advocated for our child and actively spoke out against bullying. We asked that our son be moved to another class.
That morning, we ran into the other boy’s father. Things got a little contentious; he seemed to equally be of the opinion that all of this was just “boys being boys,” and Jack must equally be to blame. It wasn’t until we pointed out that his son had sat on our son and made it hard for him to breathe that a light bulb went off:
“He does that to his sister all the time,” he said with a look of horror.
It was only then that the other boy’s father realized that we had been telling the truth all this time.
You can change things
That same day, the school principal told us she couldn’t move the other boy without his consent, but he could move our son to a new class if we so desired. We said yes immediately.
All day I worried about how my son would take the news. Would he be relieved? Would he miss some of the other friends he had made? I wondered if he’d be scared of the idea of a new teacher, new classmates and even a new room or new routines. His reaction was not at all what I expected and will forever be etched in my memory.
“Will I be in a different class from the other boy?”
“Then yes please!”
The look of relief and gratitude that washed over my son’s face when I told him he no longer had to worry about the bullying and that he would be going to a new class starting next week was nothing short of amazing. My son’s face lit up – he was beaming! It was as though all of the bullying had washed away his light and he was given the chance to shine it once again.
From that day on the little boy I knew came back to me and continues to shine his light. His new teacher is amazed at how confident and great a kid our son is.
The best way to defeat bullying is to confront it
I know that we were very lucky. Not every parent gets to walk away with a happy ending when it comes to bullying. As a loving parent it’s hard to think about our children being bullied or even being a bully for that matter. Don’t give up on them; they deserve all of our love and confidence. They deserve to shine. Happy Pink Shirt Day!
Here’s a great link that helped me understand what was happening.