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How to spot and stop bullying behaviour in EYFS: Expert advice on anti-bullying

9 min of reading
06 December 2023
How to spot and stop bullying behaviour in EYFS

Bullying can happen at any age. Often incorrectly thought of as an issue experienced exclusively during school, bullying behaviour can even extend into the workplace. But where does it begin? We spoke to Martha Evans, Director of the Anti-Bullying Alliance, to gather more information to spot and stop bullying behaviour at the earliest opportunity in the early years.

You may have heard of Anti-Bullying Week, often marked by wearing odd socks to recognise and celebrate differences. Anti-Bullying Week aims to raise awareness and highlight the lasting damage bullying can have on confidence, self-esteem, and mental health. However, charities and organisations like the Anti-Bullying Alliance work tirelessly year-round to help those being bullied and increase education and resources to promote anti-bullying cultures across nurseries, schools and beyond.

In this article, you will find:

    What is bullying behaviour?

    Nursery is often where children make their first friends outside of their immediate network. There is no rule book on making and keeping friends for toddlers, so trial and error is essential to learning.

    It can be hard to know when the balance tips from friendship conflict to bullying behaviour in EYFS. So, as nursery practitioners, when is intervention necessary and when should we let the children learn independently? A tricky balance to strike.

    Martha identifies these four contributing factors to spotting bullying behaviour:

    Does bullying happen in the early years?

    Studies show that children as young as three can display bullying behaviour and intent. Dr Charlotte Dunster-Page reminds us that toddler intentions can be grossly overestimated, linking to outdated child development theories. For example, we can often wrongly assume a toddler has chosen to behave in an undesirable way in order to manipulate their parents.

    Dr Dunster-Page explains the vast changes in neuroplasticity during infancy (these can contribute to challenging behaviours), and it is important to recognise school-age bullying behaviours may have more intention than what is witnessed in EYFS.

    Even if the cognitive intention is not there, it may be behaviour regularly experienced at home and is worth noticing and recording. Therefore, spotting bullying behaviour in EYFS can be challenging. Are the children aware of their behaviour? Are they copying what they see at home? Are there unidentified SEND Support needs?

    Bullying does happen in EYFS, but it can’t always be chalked down to finding their feet and must be addressed. When addressing any bullying behaviours, it is worthwhile ensuring a trauma-informed approach is taken. Both children and families must be supported effectively, ensuring parental communication is a high priority throughout the process.

    Examples of what EYFS bullying may look like

    Every situation is different and requires individual knowledge of a child’s SEND needs and circumstantial information to be approached with curiosity. There are no black-and-white areas of bullying and not bullying. In saying that, seeing examples of bullying behaviour in EYFS can be useful.

    The Anti-Bullying Alliance have examples on their website, and Martha shared the following scenario:

    Rashid and Ava are arguing over a toy truck. Rashid takes the toy, and Ava snatches it back. This back-and-forth continues.

    Sound familiar? The children are experiencing a relational conflict and are struggling to share the balance of power. This can be worked through with sharing and turn-taking activities, but would not be highlighted as an immediate concern for bullying behaviour from either child.

    However, consider if Rashid is playing with the truck in the sandpit and Ava continually insists on grabbing it from him when he is playing. If he does not protest or attempt to snatch it back, this can be Ava showing force over Rashid with intent in the action. She may be aiming to reduce his enjoyment because she can* and with little resistance. This would be a cause of concern for potential bullying behaviour.

    * An essential reminder that Ava is still a toddler herself. She may be experimenting with balances of power and need role modelling and guidance on how to interact kindly with others. She may experience this behaviour with her own siblings and be mirroring. There is also the potential for underlying communication and interaction needs. Bullying behaviours should be quickly addressed, but understanding the why behind it is essential.

    Thinking point: discuss with your nursery team the difference between relational conflict and bullying behaviour with the following common EYFS play scenarios:

    Promoting an anti-bullying culture in the early years

    There are many layers to successfully promoting an anti-bullying culture across your nursery.

    Firstly, beginning with whole nursery bullying training, statements for parents and anti-bullying policies that will be needed to ensure consistency.

    Once your nursery team all have a secure understanding of why and how your setting will tackle any potential bullying behaviour (and your parents are aware), the EYFS curriculum should mirror this vision.

    For example, if your setting promotes the celebration of diversities and differences, your EYFS British Values aspect of the curriculum should offer activities to allow children to develop knowledge and understanding.

    The curriculum will cover EYFS PSED activities and regular opportunities to develop empathy for others. It is important that your EYFS staff all demonstrate these values and expectations when interacting with children, other team members and parents throughout the nursery setting.

    Increasing visibility and awareness of bullying behaviour through regular online tracking and logging incidents helps to identify those who need support with potential bullying behaviours and those vulnerable to bullying. Building a bigger safeguarding picture through practitioner observations is essential to child protection work. Noticing changes in children’s behaviours and having them accessible online as a nursery team helps to stay vigilant with safeguarding concerns.

    Parent understanding and support for the anti-bullying message your nursery promotes is vital for a successful culture. Discuss with your nursery team to ensure a consistent approach in discussing bullying incidents with parents. Less experienced staff may benefit from a buddy system when tackling these challenging conversations with families.

    Highlighting behaviour with bullying undertones with a parent can be a sensitive topic. Your staff will benefit from knowing the procedures to manage angry and upset parents effectively.

    Anti-bullying top tips for nursery managers

    As early years researchers have shown that bullying behaviour can be displayed by children as young as three. So, early years settings have a responsibility to help the young children they care for understand how to play together and communicate positively. Here are three top tips from Martha in helping children become bullying-aware:

    Have an anti-bullying policy and statement

    Parents will be interested in your bullying and behaviour policies when they walk around your setting. Ensure you set out your expectations in implementing your policy in practice. An anti-bullying statement can simplify your setting’s stance on bullying behaviour, parent expectations, and restorative processes.

    EYFS training and CPD

    Training and CPD help practitioners increase their knowledge and understanding of a topic. When undertaking CPD linked to human behaviour, there are many grey areas. When choosing the right CPD training for your staff, evaluate if the message fits within your setting’s vision.

    For example, if your nursery adopts ​trauma-informed practice, the CPD you organise for your team must support those approaches.

    Choose a lead for anti-bullying

    The Anti-Bullying Alliance recommends that all schools have a designated anti-bullying lead. A named person to develop and run a strategy across settings may be something you consider for your nursery.

    How can Blossom help with creating an anti-bullying culture?

    Using quality nursery management software can help make a vision a practical reality. To correctly implement your anti-bullying culture, your setting will need the following:

    Our award-winning software helps nursery managers increase profitability, improve parent communication and streamline the practitioner observation process. Contact one of our friendly customer service team today for a no-strings demo of our software features.

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