I have to admit, I don’t love the title of this post and went back and forth on what I should call it. Do I call it bullying? Do I title it, “How to handle when your kid is picked on”? I don’t think that, at this age, kids really understand bullying and would hate to ascribe particular motives to three-year-olds, but I struggled with an alternative title.
Basically, over the last year, we have dealt with some difficulties with Lion and a couple of classmates. Lion has some really good friends at his new daycare and transitioned much better than we thought he would. Now that he’s been there for a year, I can say that we are so grateful that his old daycare closed, because his new one offers so much more and he (and Panda) has thrived. But one thing that surprised me was the struggle he has had with a couple of classmates. I’m not talking about the typical arguments that children have, or a rare incident of biting or being pushed, but instead about a situation where Lion started to feel very uncomfortable at school.
To be honest, at first I didn’t even realize there was an issue because Lion often would complain that he didn’t want to go to school. He struggled a bit with separation anxiety (though those issues seemed to have cleared up significantly) despite having been in daycare since he was two-months old, so I chalked up his behavior to that. Mr. Dolphin seemed to sense that more was at play, though, because Lion became increasingly insistent that he did not want to go to school. Mr. Dolphin finally asked, “Why don’t you want to go to school today?” And Lion responded that two other kids were tackling him, pushing him, and hitting him.
I felt a swirl of emotions and struggled a bit in figuring out what to do because I wanted to address the problem without overreacting, make sure that Lion felt safe, not put blame on anyone, while also using it as a learning experience. We have been raising our kids in the hopes that they will grow up with a servant’s heart and emphasize kindness, and I wanted Lion to be able to view other peoples’ actions with generosity while also knowing that he was allowed to stand up for himself.
I certainly don’t have all the answers, but here are the steps we took:
We talked to his teachers. First, I should say that I might not have taken this step if it seemed like it was an isolated incident or just a typical argument between friends. Because Lion clearly identified two other students and exactly what behavior was happening and when, it seemed like it was more of a pattern of behavior and warranted being brought to the attention of his teachers. I wanted Lion to be clear on what we were doing, so I asked him if he would feel better if I told his teacher. He said yes and, I have to say, his tantrums about school ended almost immediately after we had a conversation with his teacher. I explained to the teachers what Lion relayed to us, while also stating that we understand that kids at this age are still trying to figure out how to handle their emotions and that I wasn’t trying to place any blame or criticize behavior. I wanted them to understand that I simply wanted to work out how we could make Lion feel safe. One of the teachers said that she wasn’t surprised to hear this because some of the other kids play really rough and that it was probably overwhelming for Lion who is pretty shy (but has come out of his shell a bit over the last year). Another teacher promised to keep a closer eye on Lion when the kids were out on the playground, which is where Lion identified this behavior taking place.
We talked to Lion and helped him think through steps. One of the big issues at play wasn’t the behavior of other children but Lion’s reticence at standing up for himself or telling a teacher when these things happened. We explained that he could stand up for himself with words, obviously discouraging any physical response. Because the school encourages the students to say, “No, thank you” when they encounter behavior they don’t like, we did the same thing. We explained that he could walk away and that he could tell a teacher. We continued to talk about this issue over the next several weeks to make sure that he felt secure with his plan in handling these issues.
We read books to Lion. Llama Llama and the Bully Goat was probably the best one that we read because it addresses the issue directly, has characters the kids were already familiar with, and gives the exact advice we had been giving: 1) say no; 2) walk away; and 3) tell someone. It also shows that the “bully” in the story becomes a friend in the end, which I felt was important because we wanted Lion to understand that everyone makes mistakes and that we should practice forgiveness and understanding.
We talked to his teachers again. Inevitably, the issue arose again, this time after Lion moved up a grade along with most of his classmates from the previous class. After a few months in his new class, Lion started having increased tantrums about going to school once again. He told me he didn’t want to go to school because his friends were being mean to him. I talked with one of his teachers, and she pulled Lion over and asked him who was doing these things. Typical for Lion, he became really shy and tried to hide behind me, so she changed her approach and asked name by name for the other kids in the class. He would say, “No, he’s my friend,” or “Sometimes he’s my friend and sometimes he’s not,” or “He hits me and I don’t like it” or “Yesterday, he tackled me even when I said ‘no, thank you.” The teacher asked Lion to promise her that
We continue to stay in touch with his teachers. Every day at pickup, I ask how Lion’s day was and most days I hear, “we had a great day!” I often get to hear about what they did that day. Sometimes, I learn that there was an incident report. Once, the teacher said, “Well, no one pushed or hit Lion today, so that was a good day.”
We continue to talk with Lion. One incident recently with one of his best friends reminded me that we need to continue to have these conversations with Lion. One of his friends bit him and Lion told a teacher. Lion’s friend said that Lion bit him first and when the teacher asked him, Lion just stayed silent. When I talked to Lion about it, he said, “I didn’t bite him! I didn’t use my mouth! I only used my hand and grabbed his shoulder when we were playing tag.” I asked him why he didn’t tell the teacher this and he gave me a totally bewildered look, replying, “Because my friend thought I bit him. He thought I did so that’s what he told the teacher.” I had to explain to him that it’s okay to say that his friend made a mistake and that it’s really important to vocalize his own feelings and version of events. As I mentioned above, he is not always great at telling a teacher when he encounters a problem because he’s really shy, and I know we still have to work with him on getting comfortable talking with trusted adults.
We help Lion evaluate his own behavior. Hey, my kid is 3 and is by no means perfect. There’s no question that sometimes he gets mad and will push or scream. There was an incident where he told one of his friends that she couldn’t play with him and some of his other friends because she was a girl and they were playing superheroes. We try to remind him that he doesn’t like it when his friends/other classmates do or say these things to him. We encourage him to apologize for his own mistakes and to forgive others for theirs.
This is an ongoing process, but I do think that Lion is growing more comfortable asserting himself and talking to teachers. He is also teaching Panda how to handle these issues. A couple of months ago, I overheard a conversation between Lion and Panda where Panda said, “I no like X (one of his classmates). He push me.” Lion responded, “Who pushed you?!” (with a clear protective tone). When Panda repeated the name, Lion said, “Okay, so here’s what we’re going to do . . .” I, of course, was definitely paying attention at this point because I wanted to hear Lion’s plan. “On Monday, when we go back to school, we’re going to go up to X and say, ‘No, thank you, X!’ then we’re going to walk away, okay?” (We did not talk to his teachers about this since I was confident that 1) Panda would scream at the top of his lungs/burst into tears if something like that happened and 2) it seemed like an isolated incident).