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School bullying is a global phenomenon, with teachers often on the frontline of aggressive behaviour. New research highlights the role of early childhood teachers and the importance of correctly identifying and responding to bullying behaviours.

Can additional training and support help?

New research by Dr Lesley-Anne Ey, from UniSA and Professor Marilyn Campbell of QUT was recently published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence. It examines whether early childhood teachers’ understanding of bullying behaviours are similar or different to teachers of primary and secondary school students.

Former teacher, Dr Ey said, ‘There is limited research on teachers’ understanding of bullying and even less on teachers’ understanding of this behaviour in children under eight years old.

‘Existing research suggests students who experience bullying before the age of eight years are vulnerable to the same negative outcomes as those who experience it later in childhood, but bullying prevention programs in Australia don’t enter the school curriculum until Grade 4.

‘Early childhood teachers are not being trained and supported to identify bullying and non-bullying behaviours,’ said Dr Ey.

This is despite that fact that children are rapidly developing in this age period and it’s usually teachers to whom they turn to solve their problems.

Ninety-five Australian early childhood teachers recently participated in a survey assessing their understanding of bullying and fighting, and the differences between the two behaviours.

Dr Ey said the results showed that although teachers could describe characteristics of bullying, such as the intent to harm, the power differential and repetition, many had difficulty clearly explaining distinguishing differences.

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Knowing what you’re looking at

Professor Marilyn Campbell said, ‘Recognising bullying and non-bullying behaviours is especially difficult in early childhood, because of children’s complex social and emotional developmental processes.

‘The difficulty of correctly identifying bullying behaviours, in early childhood, strengthens the argument for delivering professional training and support in this area to early childhood teachers,’ she said.

Both bullying and fighting are types of aggression but, ‘individuals who are fighting are equally involved and have an equal intent to win, whereas bullying involves an imbalance of power, with the person victimised not being able to stop the perpetrator.’

The problem is that early childhood teachers who misinterpret fighting, a playful joke, or a singular cyber-fight as bullying are likely to deliver an inappropriate response.

Dr Ey said, ‘Correct identification of bullying and non-bullying behaviours is important so children are not mislabelled at an early age. These two behaviours need to be distinguished because the intervention that is used needs to be different.’

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Long term effects of bullying

The 2019 UNESCO report into ending school violence and bullying noted, ‘Children who are bullied are more likely to have poor educational attainment which impacts their opportunity to engage in higher education and limits their employment prospects.’

Dr Ey said, ‘There is a clear need to increase teacher’s knowledge of bullying to support the prevention and intervention of bullying. Results from the study suggest formal training about school bullying should be implemented for early childhood teachers to enable them to have a comprehensive understanding of the characteristics that constitute bullying.

‘Teachers’ ability to recognise and respond to bullying is essential to support children’s wellbeing, especially in preschool and early primary school, where students often look to their teachers for guidance about their behaviour,’ she said.