Young Bullies

School bullying is a global phenomenon with teachers often on the frontline of aggressive behaviour, writes journalist Jessica Willis.

While we don’t know the exact age bullying behaviours may develop, research has shown preschool and early primary-aged children, between four and 10 years old, can display bullying behaviours (Ey and Campbell, 2021).

However, research into the effect of bullying on ‘victims’ within this young age group has not been as thoroughly investigated as it has with older age groups.

What research we do have suggests young children are just as vulnerable to the same negative outcomes as children in upper primary or secondary school.

Victims of bullying are more likely to have poorer educational attainment, impacting their opportunity to engage in higher education as well as, in the long term, limiting employment prospects (Ey and Campbell, 2021; UNESCO, 2019).

It can also have detrimental effects on the victim’s ability to form and maintain interpersonal relationships later in life.

Given this, it is important early childhood education teachers understand bullying, can identify bullying behaviours and implement appropriate prevention and response strategies, not only for their own professional practice but to help educate young children as well.

The research

New research by prominent Australian academics, Dr Lesley-Anne Ey and Professor Marilyn Campbell, sought to investigate if Australian early childhood education teachers could define and identify bullying and non-bullying behaviours, as well as whether their understanding of bullying behaviours are similar or different to primary and secondary school teachers.

The study found participants could identify bullying vs non-bullying behaviours “far more efficiently”, compared to previous research conducted with primary and secondary teachers.

However, while it found participants had a sound level of understanding of bullying, it was not “comprehensive”.

The study overwhelmingly found that additional training and support would help teachers in identifying and correctly responding to bullying behaviours in young children, noting that many preservice teachers report not having covered the topic during their initial teacher education courses.

Dr Ey, who is also a former preschool and primary school teacher, said 95 Australian early childhood education teachers participated in a survey assessing their understanding of bullying and fighting and the differences between the two behaviours.

“The study found 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 between bullying and fighting,” Dr Ey said.

Along with the survey, teachers were given 20 scenarios and asked to identify whether the behaviours depicted traditional bullying behaviours, cyber-bullying behaviours, non-bullying face-to-face behaviours or non-cyberbullying behaviours.

Dr Ey explained 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 old 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 Year Four,” she said.

“Early childhood education teachers are not being trained and supported to identify bullying and non-bullying behaviours.

This is a concern because “children are rapidly developing at this age period and it is usually teachers to whom they turn to solve their problems,” she said.

Bullying vs Fighting

Both bullying and fighting are types of aggression; however, there are key differences between the two.

Bullying comprises three defining characteristics: repetition, intent to harm and a power differential. With bullying, an individual wishes it to stop but is powerless.

Fighting involves two (or more) individuals who are equally involved and have an equal intent to win.

A fight may last for a period of time, for example a few days or a couple of weeks, but is over a singular incident and therefore not repetitive.

Bullying goes beyond a singular incident, the continuous picking onan individual.

Children can be harmed from being involved in either bullying or fighting.

Important but difficult

Professor 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.

Dr Ey said these two behaviours need to be distinguished because the intervention that is used needs to be different.

For example, if children are fighting, teachers should address both participants equally and educate them both on how to solve their problem, issue or differences (Ey and Campbell, 2021).

The response should be constructive to both or all parties.

On the other hand, an appropriate response to bullying behaviour should not further traumatise the victim by involving them in a discussion with the child bullying them (Ey and Campbell, 2021).

Early childhood education teachers who misinterpret fighting, or even a playful joke, as bullying may deliver an inappropriate response.

According to the researchers, a comprehensive understanding of bullying and non-bullying behaviours will mean that:

  • children are not mislabelled at an early age
  • support systems can be established for the victim
  • behavioural supports can be established for the perpetrator
  • children who are fighting can learn how to manage conflict and their relationships.

What next?

Dr Ey said there is a clear need to increase teachers’ 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 education teachers to enable them to have a comprehensive understanding of the characteristics which constitute bullying,” Dr Ey said.

“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.

A comprehensive understanding of bullying and non-bullying behaviours can also make a difference to the professional lives of members.

Bullying is a serious issue and our union supports many members in navigating it within the workplace.

Being able to identify the three characteristics of bullying may help members recognise when this is occurring to themselves or their colleagues, or instead, whether an incident constitutes a ‘fight’.

Members needing advice on bullying or fighting in the workplace should contact their relevant union branch.


Ey, L. and Campbell, M., 2021. Australian Early Childhood Teachers’ Understanding of Bullying. Journal of Interpersonal Violence.

UNESCO, 2019. Behind the numbers: ending school violence and bullying. [online] UNESCO. Available at: