Do Preschoolers Bully?

mad child via Flickr Daniela Hartmann

“Bullying” is a term usually applied to older children and teenagers, but it can apply to younger ones as well. While preschoolers are known to have their occasional tantrums, for some, it can become a behavioral pattern. Some researchers have assumed that those who do tend to bully or act out are socially neglected. Some have also theorized that such tendencies are a predominantly Western trait. However, a recent study completed by three BYU School of Family Life professors found that children that often acted out aggressively were as much liked by their peers as disliked.

Doctors David Nelson, Sarah Coyne, and Clyde Robinson, recently published a study in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, in which they examined the patterns of behavior of 221 Russian preschoolers. Those that were identified as “controversial” by their teachers and peers did not necessarily do so out of reaction to perceived neglect. They were, in fact, more likely to be the targets of aggressive acts themselves. And they were more like American and Italian children than previously realized.

Why Russia?

“The purpose of the current study,” explained Nelson, “is to assess…[current findings] in Russian preschoolers.  A key question driving such research is whether the behavioral reputation of the controversial child is unique to Western samples.”

Because of Russia’s history with the promotion of values consistent with citizenship in a totalitarian socialist society (such as conformity, group-mindedness, and unquestioning obedience to authority), researchers were interested to see whether or not their findings would be “consistent with the individualism that predominates many Western cultures.”

The Study9284060929_43d17ab218_b

For this study, researchers polled 15 classes. Students and teachers were asked a series of questions regarding sociability and physical/relational aggression among students in their class.

The questions divided children into one of five groups (sociometric statuses).  Depending on how much the child was liked/disliked and how well known the child was in the peer group, each child was categorized as either: popular, rejected, controversial, neglected, or average.

The findings for this study were very similar to those in another study conducted several years ago.  The results were as follows:

  • Popular children: social, cooperative, engage in pleasurable peer interactions
  • Neglected children: withdrawn, unsociable
  • Rejected children: aggressive, disruptive, few appropriate social overtures
  • Controversial children: usually as sociable as popular children; equally or more aggressive than rejected children, particularly with relational aggression

Nelson explains, “In regard to the findings, the Russian preschoolers generally paralleled the findings of earlier studies with [Western] preschoolers.  Of particular interest is the pattern of findings for controversial status children, who are generally perceived as adequately sociable yet highly aggressive, particularly in regard to relational aggression.”

Why it Matters

This study can provide further illumination on a pattern of reaction and behavior that can cause some children to develop into socially marginalized people who might act out more violently, causing more damage. Says David Nelson, primary author of the study: “victimization likely leads to greater withdrawal from social interactions. Accordingly, interventions that involve social skills training may be useful in helping victimized peers to be more demonstrative in social situations and build confidence to engage positively with others and to avoid social isolation.”

Nelson concludes, “Addressing these issues early in the preschool years is particularly important as these are the years of greatest neurological and psychological malleability. This may lead to welcome change and better peer opportunities for all children.”

Pictures courtesy of flickr.


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