Can a 4-year-old be a bully?
Donna Kane, Jewish Community Services school and camp consultant, says bullying behavior can happen in preschool, but she stresses there is a distinction to be made between bullying and developmentally age-appropriate behavior.
“If a child is grabbing a toy from another child, it can look like bullying, but it is normal for a preschool child,” Kane says. “If the kid goes to the same child [repeatedly] and takes away toys with the intention of making that child feel bad, it’s a pattern you could call bullying. Yet, at that age there are so many interventions you can do. The children are really just upset, but they can’t talk about it. You [an adult] can help to resolve the situation.”
With intervention and conflict resolution in mind, Kane and Susan Kurlander, JCS health educator, have developed a new interactive program, Everyone Counts. Based on an award-winning picture book, “One,” by Kathryn Otoshi, the program encourages children to treat each other with respect and to speak out when others are mistreated. The book tells the story of how Red — a character shaped like a circle — bullies Blue, also a circle.
At first, the other colored circles (yellow, green, purple and orange) stand by and let this happen. One day, a number One arrives on the scene. One won’t allow Red to bully him.
As the colors see One standing up for himself, they too begin to assert themselves. They invite Red to be part of their diverse group, and he joins them. The story ends happily as the circles show that Everyone Counts.
Kurlander said she was inspired to create the program after her supervisor, Howard Reznick, brought “One” to their office.
“Howard said, ‘This is an age-appropriate way to deal with bullying,’” recalls Kurlander.
“Bullying manifests really early at 3, 4 or 5 years old. It can be physical and verbal; emotional bullying comes later.”
Verbal bulling, says Kurlander, is when kids say things such as, “If you don’t do something, I won’t be your friend anymore.”
Physical bullying is more obvious. The kids say, “I want what you have or want …” and takes physical action.
One of the major benefits of the program is that it addresses the individual who is bullied and the one who does the bullying, and it also shows that it’s not OK to be a bystander.
“What I like about the program is that it’s very interactive,” says Kane. “Kids learn about inclusion, that everyone has value. I would like to think we’re planting a seed.”
Everyone Counts provides pre-program questions that can be discussed during the reading of the story along with post-program questions and activities. One of the suggested activities encourages students to pick a trusted adult to whom they can reach out if they are being bullied. Included with the teacher’s guide is a certificate congratulating the trusted adult for being selected.
Teachers can use the program’s curriculum on their own or can have Kurlander and Kane present it to the class. Kurlander says when they brought the new program to preschool classes at the JCC, she was amazed by how the 4-year-olds responded.
“The kids were engaged right away,” Kurlander says. “They were so quick to relate their own experiences. In the book, when Blue is bullied, he becomes flat. One little boy said, ‘he melted.’ The visuals [in the storybook] triggered that choice of words. It was incredible.”
Kurlander recalls that when she discussed the courage it takes to stand up to a bully, one little girl compared Blue to the Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz.”
“She said, ‘The lion had courage inside him all along, but he didn’t know it,’” says Kurlander. “We can’t underestimate the understanding of young kids.”
JCC Early Childhood Center teachers Jeri Goodman, Karen Levin and Arlene Leiberman all experienced the power of Everyone Counts, when Kurlander and Kane presented the program to their classes of 4-year-olds last spring.
“I think the program is wonderful,” says Goodman. “I loved the concept and the book. At this age, kids are starting to know better, but they still need guidance. They are starting to navigate the social world.”
Levin used the program with her class and thinks it is “fabulous. We used it [as a launching point] to talk about how we feel being bullied and how we can try to make the bully understand that.”
Levin says that at the beginning of each school year, she talks to her class about differences.
“We teach that even if someone is different on the outside, we are all the same inside,” she says. “We all have feelings, and if someone hurts us, we have to stand up for ourselves. If they see someone making a friend feel bad, [they know] they should stand up for that friend. We have to give kids the tools and the words to use when the bullying is happening. The program just pulled it all together.”
Leiberman, a 27-year veteran of preschool education, says she has referenced the program when witnessing bullying behavior in her classroom.
“I’ll say, ‘You’re acting like Red from the story,’” she says.
“I was raised with the saying, ‘Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.’ But it’s not true,” says Kurlander. “Words can hurt.”
Simone Ellin is JT senior features reporter firstname.lastname@example.org