Physical and relational bullying can happen among children as young 3 years old, but a relatively short intervention program can lead to significant reductions in some of these behaviors, research shows.
The intervention, called the Early Childhood Friendship Project (ECFP), lasts eight weeks and uses puppets, stories, and activities appropriate for preschoolers that can easily be folded into existing curriculums.
“Our goal is to eventually give this program away to all those qualified to implement it,” says Jamie Ostrov, associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo.
The current study, published in the journal School Psychology Review, is an extension of earlier research that demonstrated how the program reduced different types of aggression and peer victimization broadly at the classroom level.
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“We needed to show that the program worked to change the individual child’s behavior. We also expanded the study at the request of teachers, adding two weeks that addressed additional social skills and emphasized sharing, helping, and including other children.”
“All bullying is aggression, but not all aggression is bullying.”
While the previous research focused on general aggressive behavior, the follow up closely examines bullying behavior, Ostrov says. “All bullying is aggression, but not all aggression is bullying.”
“Bullying’s starting point is aggressive behavior. But what makes bullying a subset of aggressive behavior is a power imbalance, where for example one child is older, physically bigger, or more popular than their victim. That’s followed by either repetition of the unwanted and intentional behavior or a fear the behavior will repeat itself.”
The study developed a new measure that helps assess bullying behavior in an age group where it wasn’t previously thought to exist. It also expanded on its predecessor by examining different types of bullying, including relational bullying.
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“This is a form of social exclusion that uses the threat of the removal of the relationship as a means of harm,” says Ostrov. “It occurs when a child might say to another, ‘You can’t play with us’ or ‘you’re not my friend anymore.'”
Researchers designed the program to be part of a preschool class’s circle time. It’s a 10-minute puppet show that emphasizes a different theme each of the eight weeks. The puppet presents a developmental problem the children are likely to encounter and asks their help to solve the problem.
Interventionists are also in the classroom about three hours a week, reinforcing and praising positive behaviors. The children, meantime, are also looking for these behaviors and reporting when they see others doing good things. The program concludes with a graduation.
“We’re seeing a significant effect for relational bullying that’s quite notable—and it doesn’t require a lot of time.” says Ostrov. “You can go into these classrooms and with minimal interaction with the kids see relatively big returns on your investment.”
Other researchers from University at Buffalo and Rochester Institute of Technology contributed to the study.
Source: University at Buffalo