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Brycia James Kiewlak, ©istockphoto.com/1MoreCreative
A new Child Trends report identifies factors in early childhood that may be linked to later bullying. And it offers suggestions on buffers that may head off child-to-child aggression.

Warding off bullying starts early.

Parents should pay attention to their own treatment of others, provide supportive environments and control television exposure for very young children to prevent their children from becoming bullies, according to a new Child Trends report that identifies factors in early childhood that may be linked to later bullying.

"Bullies in the Block Area: The Early Childhood Origins of 'Mean' Behavior" examines preschool years to find factors that lead to bullying and prevention strategies. The report is the result of a review of research on bullying and work by a panel of national experts in child development and media.

They found parents play a big role in how aggressive kids might be, especially in early childhood, said Deborah Temkin, director of education research for Child Trends and one of the report's authors.

How aggressive a child is toward peers reflects, among other things, how he or she sees parents treating children, each other and other people, including those in service roles, she said. "Kids are watching. A lot of times, parents don't think about thanking a bus driver when they're getting off a bus or thanking a waitress. Thinking about others" influences children's future behavior.

While most research on bullying addresses what happens when kids get to grade school and beyond, Temkin said earlier focus might better prevent aggression. "There are a lot of things in place to stop the behavior, but it's really hard to do — to change patterns of behavior — once they've started," she said. "By bringing it back to early childhood, we can perhaps address some of the factors before they start."

One key point experts emphasize is the need to focus on behavior and not on labeling kids as bullies or victims. Kyle Snow, senior scholar and director of the Center for Applied Research at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, said, "Many parents become sensitive to 'my child is being bullied or acting like a bully.' It's being projected as a personality characteristic, rather than as behaviors, which are more easily modified."

It becomes "How can I change my child?" instead of "How can I keep my child from acting aggressively when she's frustrated?" Snow said.

And kids don't divide neatly into victim and aggressor, he noted. In a bullying situation, at least one child is aggressive toward a target. There may be bystanders and secondary supporters to the bullying. But roles are fluid. A child who is bullied may bully someone else, he said.

Normal development vs. aggression

Little kids can be aggressive in lots of ways. Eddie wants a toy and takes it away from Fran. Alyson and Jenifer are building a tower with blocks, but won't let Ash play. Thomas chimes in with "We don't like you."

Such behavior by young children may be unkind, but it's not all — or even mostly — bullying, said Temkin and Snow, who are both developmental psychologists.

"Young children are tremendously variable in how they behave and develop compared to each other and over time," said Snow. The challenge, he noted, is figuring out what's normal and what could become problematic.

Bullying is an act of aggression, whether physical, social, relational or a combination. It tends to be repeated and there's usually a power differential. With older kids, Snow said, it's easier to spot the power dynamics, level of intent and regularity of a behavior. "One part of the challenge is not to over-interpret behaviors that in early childhood are sort of typical."

"I think that aggression in little kids can result in bullying if they feel a sense of satisfaction and power from it," said Dr. Kate Roberts, a Boston-area psychologist who was not involved in the report. "All little kids want control; it's a developmental stage. If they dominate others with success, they're more likely to do it and that can lead to more and more bullying."

Intention is key, said Roberts.

That kind of behavior needs to be curtailed, she said. For preschool kids, "it has to be black and white. The only way they can grasp the concept is "No!"

When small children seem withdrawn, sad, unwilling to take risks or are disengaged, adults should wonder why. "It's not typical in a preschooler," said Roberts. "By the time you get to teenage years, there are all sorts of reasons to withdraw." But in kids, "it's often a sign of either a neurodevelopmental problem like autism or of being traumatized," sometimes by a parent or a sibling.

In the early years, children figure out how to relate to each other and are just recognizing differences: There are boys and girls. Some kids are bossy, while others aren't. Some like physical play, others don't. From an early age, kids try to "process all these dynamics and learn how to live within that space. The conversation about early childhood is about skill building and giving kids tools," Snow said.

The risk factors

The report identifies several risk factors for developing bullying behaviors:

• Parental characteristics, like having unrealistic developmental expectations of a child, violence or hostility at home or too little maternal empathy. The researchers said there's not enough data to determine the role of paternal empathy.

• Early childhood maltreatment, which the report said can change a child's brain and create emotional and social deficits. "Children who have experienced maltreatment (more common with kids ages 0 to 5) may also be more likely to interpret innocuous situations as hostile and respond accordingly." The potential results include emotional and mental health issues, poor academic performance, substance abuse, relationship problems and criminality, among others.

• TV exposure. Researchers noted a link between early TV viewing and later bullying, even with nonviolent content. But the report said shows like "Sesame Street" that talk about "cooperation, nurturing and verbalizing feelings" actually make it more likely that kids will exhibit those skills.

The report called out "peers, neighborhood characteristics, socioeconomic factors and bias," as also potentially contributing to whether a child becomes aggressive.

Building healthy environments

Home, school and childcare providers can all help children develop the skills they need to be social creatures later on, Temkin said.

Snow said experiences can be structured to create positive behavioral support. Children need harmony, rather than chaos — one reason routines are vital for children. That way, kids learn how they're expected to behave. Chaos increases likelihood of aggressiveness, whether it's actually bullying or not.

Adults can support a child's traits. A child who is shy can be encouraged to interact without being overwhelmed, he said, while a child who is vocal can be encouraged to express thoughts without being domineering.

The report said positive parent-child interactions, from having dinner together to reading and playing together, seem to mediate risks.

A number of programs and resources were singled out for helping parents figure out appropriate media use, create supportive classroom environments or help children forge bonds by improving social and emotional skills.

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