Pre-school playground politics.
December 11, 2013 4:21 AM   Subscribe

My son is being kind of sort of bullied at pre-school and I want to know what--if anything--I can or should do about it.

I should qualify the word "bully," because it's not anything physical, but the situation does qualify that at least a bit. My son is four, in his middle year of preschool. He likes preschool a lot and is happy, but he is pretty shy and quiet, at least compared with the other boys in his class.

A dynamic that's happening recently, today he explained to us sadly, is that one boy in particular at preschool is excluding my son from joining the main clique during playtime. I'll call him Johnny. Johnny tells my son "No! You're not allowed, you can't join us!" So my son tries to join other pairs and groups, but the other kids--not all, but some--will mimic Johnny and exclude him as well. So my first instinct is to tell my son to just play with someone else, but Johnny as the Alpha Kid has kind of poisoned the well.

It just makes me sad that my son gets treated this way, but I can't get mad because Johnny and the others are just kids and aren't aware of any hurt they are doing. Talking with the teacher or any kid's parents seems like overkill...if I do anything I'd feel like a helicopter parent.

I know he should fight his own fights, this a fight? I know I'm probably just overthinking all of this, but if any parents have had this situation, I'd love to hear how you handled it.
posted by zardoz to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Definitely talk to the teacher. This kind of thing is very common and as you say, isn't really malicious in most cases, but it sometimes needs the teacher to just reset the playground dynamic a bit - e.g. make a rule that you can't exclude people from group games.
posted by crocomancer at 4:36 AM on December 11, 2013 [17 favorites]

I'd absolutely urge you to talk to the teacher, because hell, that's what they're THERE for. Hell, I'm wondering why, if this kind of thing is happening, why they haven't done something already.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:37 AM on December 11, 2013 [8 favorites]

If you view it from your kid's perspective, it isn't overkill to mention this to the teacher, on the contrary. The playground is his life (or a big bit of it). It's important.
You also want to have this on record, you know. Teachers are supposed to do something about bullying, and if it is to explain to the group that it's not okay.

Now about "should fight his own fight": re-think that one thoroughly. Any boy, even a shy and quiet one, should be encouraged to find and accept himself as he is, and not to be some other boy. Shyness isn't anything one unlearns. Read up on that.
On top of this, a lot of nastiness can happen to kids who are left to fight their own fight. A lot.

(How we handled this? We did have talks with the teachers, and we kept our tabs on them. As simple as that)
posted by Namlit at 4:38 AM on December 11, 2013 [8 favorites]

Yes, you absolutely need to tell the teacher immediately and the situation needs to be fixed. If they are any good at all, they will rectify it and Johnny will be properly socialised. If they don't fix it, pull him from that daycare and find another child-centred one.

Your son just confided a hurtful, vulnerable thing to you - your son is watching to see if you have his back, or does he deserve to be treated meanly and isn't worthy of protection.
posted by saucysault at 4:39 AM on December 11, 2013 [23 favorites]

And yes, this is very much bullying and I would argue it is much more damaging in both the short- and long-term than physical fighting.
posted by saucysault at 4:40 AM on December 11, 2013 [8 favorites]

I would talk to the teacher - preferably not at pick up or drop off, due to the chaos that tends to abound at those times. I would frame it as "Lil' Zardoz mentioned that Johnny excluded him at play time and the other kids are following Johnny's lead. Have you seen that sort of thing happen? Is it common?" Mostly because kids that age can be unreliable reporters - not that I think Lil' Zardoz is lying but it may be that something happened and he's built it up in his head to the exclusion of everything else. So it may be an ongoing issue but it may be a one off that made a big impact on him.

Also talk to Lil' Zardoz about how it makes him feel and what he can do with those feelings - I mean, at four it seems reasonable for him to approach a teacher if he's feeling bad and see if the teacher can't help facilitate something. As in "Lil' Zardoz, if you're feeling sad at school you can always talk to Teacher Whoever and they'll help you."
posted by macfly at 4:43 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Don't worry about helicopter parenting at this age. This age calls for it, and then bit by bit you hand over more responsibility to your kid so when he goes out into the world he doesn't have you helicoptering then.
posted by headnsouth at 4:58 AM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

Thanks everyone for your answers. Your consensus on this makes me feel a lot better about talking to the teacher. We do tell our son to tell the teacher if he has a problem, but he said something to the effect that she was really busy and didn't notice the bullying and couldn't really determine how serious it was. Much like macfly said, it could be a matter of him blowing it out of proportion, but it's been a pattern of behavior, and seems to center specifically on Johnny.

Next week, as it happens, Johnny is going to be absent from school, so it'll be interesting to see if it gets better. Anyway, we'll definitely talk to the teacher.
posted by zardoz at 5:06 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Well, (big caveat), I don't have kids. But I'd talk to the teacher for sure, if I were you.

Poor little dude is only 4; he's too little to learn to 'fight his own fights' just yet. A very similar thing was happening to my nephew (who has just turned 5), and my sister was reluctant to step in for the exact same reasons you are. But in the end she did, and the teacher was glad to know, and managed to calm things down.

I hope it works out and your little man is treated better in the future!
posted by Salamander at 5:08 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

You need to talk to the teacher. You need to do this NOW - today. Not tomorrow, or when your son returns to school. Today. The longer the well stays poisoned, the more "normal" and difficult to change the behavior all round it will become, and the more your son will feel isolated and that no-one has his back.
posted by Wordshore at 5:15 AM on December 11, 2013 [7 favorites]

I know he should fight his own fights, this a fight?

FWIW, I was also quiet and shy, bullied similarly, and I was 15 or 16 before I figured out how to fight back successfully. The interim was not fun. I'd take this very seriously.

I can't get mad because Johnny and the others are just kids and aren't aware of any hurt they are doing.

Fine, don't get mad. Just get it corrected.
posted by jon1270 at 5:47 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think kids can "fight their own fights" if they're old enough to have metacognitive skills about social relationships and if they're coming from a place of self-confidence and support. Little kids need all that "you can't say you can't play" stuff - and in fact when you talk to the teacher, maybe you could name check the curriculum. The teacher may not have strategies for responding, and you don't want her singling out your kid as a tattle-tail or complainer, both for your kid's sake and because this situation is a structural problem - it's not about your kid being a problem playmate.

Looking back, a huge aspect of experiencing bullying for me was experiencing it daily starting very young (just a little older than your son) and having no support from my family or other adults. This meant that when I came to situations where many kids really can fight their own battles, I already thought of myself as someone who did not deserve to be included and who could not count on being helped by anyone, so I pretty much bought into "I am a useless weirdo who will never have friends and should never complain about anything because there's nothing I can do about it". Intervening now (even if it doesn't solve the problem completely! your son just needs to know that others will help him and that being excluded isn't about him) will help your son in many, many ways over the long haul.
posted by Frowner at 5:51 AM on December 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

It's always Johnny...

At four, I would not expect my child to take on this challenge, but neither would I expect him to endure it. I would talk to the teacher or maybe the program director and phrase it as how can they help with this issue. Like someone said upthread, this should be a simple dynamic reset with a rule about not excluding anyone from group games. Perhaps they could do it while Johnny is out and when he gets back simply tell him if he tries to exclude anyone that, "Oh no, last week while you were out, we all agreed to the concept that all the children are included in all the games."
posted by JohnnyGunn at 5:58 AM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Chances are if this is an ongoing thing, the teacher already knows. (Speaking as a former preschool teacher.) This doesn't mean you shouldn't talk to them, but rather that you might get to hear in response how the teacher is working on this in ways that your son might not have picked up on. The teacher may be talking to Johnny's parents already or may have tried to speak to Johnny directly or any number of things your son might not have observed. In any case, it can only help to talk to the teacher - either you're letting them know about something they absolutely need to be aware of, or you're becoming part of a larger conversation about the dynamics of the classroom and Johnny's ongoing control issues.

You don't need to make a big deal out of this, but if you want the teacher's full attention, ask to speak privately or via phone during the day. Speaking from experience, there is so much going on at pick up and drop off times that it's easy for conversations to get brushed aside. Also, you and the teacher should be the only ones present - it would be awful for Johnny's parent (or even just terribly awkward for another parent) to walk in while you were describing the problem.
posted by sonika at 6:17 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yes, talk to the teacher. I honestly wouldn't bother with the parents. I had my first bullying/exclusion experience in preschool (from a little girl named Priscilla, ugh) and I can still remember my mom confronting her mother about it and her mother being cold, snobby, and exclusionary. In many cases, the child is modeling behavior they've seen at home and so unless the person raising the issue has some power and authority, it's unlikely to go anywhere. I mean, maybe it will, but that was never my experience, as a kid who faced a lot of this through elementary school.

I should note that in every case I found my own friends and it wasn't a major mark on my development, just something that happened. This should be addressed, but I also wouldn't worry too much, yet.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:37 AM on December 11, 2013

Maybe ask the teacher if she's familiar with You Can't Say You Can't Play by Vivian Gussin Paley.
posted by Rash at 8:20 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm the parent of a preschool bully. Our 4.5 year old has been kicked out of *two* schools because of his behavior.

We've been working the schools and the local school district to get him access to resources he needs to get on top of this stuff early. In his case, this includes medication.

If other parents hadn't complained to the schools, we probably wouldn't know the severity of the situation. Because other parents complained, we've been forced to take concrete steps to getting him in a place where he has access to the right tools.

So don't just talk to the teacher for your own kid's sake! Talk to the teacher for the bully's sake as well!
posted by colin_l at 8:42 AM on December 11, 2013 [13 favorites]

So my 4 year old son has an... eccentric fashion taste. He's recently gotten into girls leggings (bright purple, rainbow hearts), and would dress up in high heels and glittery wings at school. And he started to get some push back from the other kids on it (aka. "Purple are girl colors!" "You can't wear that, only girls wear those!", etc). We took a two prong approach, 1) we talked to his teacher, completely understanding that this was somewhat age appropriate, but needed to be corrected, and 2) we talked to him about how some people don't know that things like that are hurtful to say, and how he should respond. He is also shy and fairly quiet, so we talk a lot about speaking up for himself and making sure the other kids know how he feels. It hasn't happened since, or at least he hasn't been upset by it. Either way, I think it was a win.
posted by katers890 at 10:12 AM on December 11, 2013

2) we talked to him about how some people don't know that things like that are hurtful to say, and how he should respond.

I think this is relevant to the OPs issue too, what we talk to our five year old about is that "some people haven't learned X yet". *She* gets that boys can wear anything they want and girls can wear anything they want--anything--but she knows that not all kids know that yet.

With the OP's Johnny, I think I'd say that it takes a while for kids to learn how to play nicely, and share, and be kind to others, and not all kids have learned that yet but that you'll talk to the teacher and the teacher will help Johnny learn.

Also, I'm kind of questioning the supervision at the school. "Everyone can play" was a rule at my kid's preschool. They weren't *allowed* to do shit like that. I get not wanting to be a helicopter parent, I really do, but if they can't supervise and aren't teaching basic human values it might be time to look for another preschool. No kid should be subjected to Lord of the Flies at four. It can eat a person up their whole lives.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 11:53 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

As a former preschool teacher, I would have wanted a parent to tell me if their child was reporting being bullied--I certainly tried to watch for and prevent that, but I know I didn't see everything that happened during the day. I have never heard of a preschool that allowed children to exclude each other--a child might have to wait for a turn or a spot at an activity, but "You can't play with us!" is usually an instant time-out.
posted by epj at 1:07 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I got held back a year for "not being socially developed" because my alpha bully did the same thing to me in kindergarten. I nth "nip this in the bud now." Change schools if you have to, because literally starting out your entire life around other kids your age when EVERYONE HATES YOU takes a long time to get over.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:13 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

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