What is it like to send your child to kindergarten? Imagine sending your very heart in to the world. Vulnerable. Exposed. It is hard to imagine how this tiny person will navigate the school bus, classroom expectations, and the social dynamics of the playground.
For the parent or caregiver, it can be terrifying. Imagine what it is like for the kindergartener?
A friend of mine was gearing up to send her daughter to kindergarten and asked me to have a conversation with her about what she should expect in kindergarten and how to handle situations she might encounter. I asked her daughter things like…
- What do you think kindergarten will be like?
- What will you do if someone doesn’t want to play with you?
- What if you don’t want to play with someone?
- What if someone is mean to you?
That same 5-year-old is nearing the end of her kindergarten school year and her mom and I were reflecting on that conversation. She said, “It is not a question of what will you do if someone is mean to you, but what will you do when someone is mean to you.”
Kids are figuring out their world, testing boundaries, and they don’t have the executive function skills that we have as adults to help us regulate emotions, problem solve, and understand different points of view. In fact, this rational part of the brain isn’t fully developed until age 25 or so. The reality is, your kid will likely be treated unkindly, and as hard as it is to hear, they may be bullied. StopBullying.gov reports that between 1 in 4 and 1 and 3 U.S. students have been bullied in school. Bullying is defined as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.”
For that parent who has just sent their heart out in to the world, the idea of someone mistreating their child can be quite upsetting. If the reality is that someone is going to be mean to or bully your child, what do you do and how do you help your child?
Studies show that parents can help prevent bullying by keeping the lines of communication open and talking to their children about bullying, encouraging them to do what they love, modeling kindness and respect, and encouraging them to get help when they are involved in bullying or know others who need help (StopBullying.gov). After researching the topic, some common themes emerged for dealing with bullying (StopBullying.gov, PsychologyToday.com, Parents.com):
- Talk to your child’s teacher
Many schools have a policy and protocol in place for bullying. Report the incident right away, be specific.
- Talk to your kid/s about their day, every day
Ask open-ended questions so that your child will describe details about their day and not just respond with yes, no, good, or bad. You can ask: Who did you play with at recess? What did you do on the playground? What made you laugh today? What made you mad or sad today?
Use puppets, dolls, action figures or other props to create situations and practice responses. If using props is not your thing, talk to your kid about situations that they have read in books or viewed in movies and how they might respond. Practice using specific words and body language (stand tall, head up, maintain eye contact).
- Re-define Tattling
I have heard tattling defined as telling to get someone in trouble vs. telling to help or protect someone or yourself. According to Signe Whitson L.S.W. in Psychology Today, “It is only by telling an adult that kids can begin to re-balance the power dynamic. When a bully realizes that [they] will not be able to keep a victim isolated, [they] immediately begin to lose power.”
My friend, whose daughter encountered a bully in her kindergarten class, had some additional advice:
- What is true about you?
Ask your child what happened, what was said, and how it made them feel. A bully can make the child feel weak, unsafe, and afraid. A child who hears name-calling and insults from a bully may begin to believe those things are true. When you ask, “what is true about you?” it provides you, the parent, an opportunity to praise your child (I noticed that you did not hit back, you showed kindness even though they were mean to you) and gives the child the opportunity to self-reflect on positive traits they possess (I listen, I am kind, I am a good friend). This process will require guidance and modeling from the parent or caregiver but will pay huge dividends to a self esteem that may be suffering under the weight of bullying.
- Surround your kid with loving and caring adults that you trust
They might not talk to you, but grandma may get an earful. Encourage your child and affirm their decision to tell someone, even if that someone is not you.
While it may be inevitable that your child will be bullied, how it impacts them is not inevitable. Resilience is a protective factor that differentiates children who just survive bullying from those who thrive when faced with adversity. Researchers out of Florida Atlantic University have found that resilience is a significant factor in overcoming bullying. Rather than protect and insulate kids from difficult situations, strengthen their self-confidence, problem-solving skills, autonomy, and sense of purpose in adversity.
Jen Lindbeck has an M.Ed. from Arizona State University and is the Early Learning Resource Coordinator at United Way of Skagit County.