Reflections On . . . Anti-Bullying Strategies in Early Education

By Pamela Purcell

Updated / Monday, 05 October 2020 11:37

Do you think the Montessori Method

is particularly good at heading off any tendencies for an individual child or group of children to dominate another child? If you think it is, perhaps it is because you feel the Montessori Method offers plenty of opportunities for freedom of movement, social interaction, grace and courtesy exercises, and as a consequence children in our Montessori schools naturally sort out potential conflicts.  You may also believe that the Director’s/Directress’s constant observations will stave off negative encounters and behaviours.

Still, human nature being what it is, I bet most of you have encountered some early behaviours like teasing, trying to side-line a child from a group, or even becoming too physical with a smaller or quieter child. These behaviours can intensify in the garden or playground where there may be more vying for a particular outdoor toy or for access to the outdoor playhouse, sandpit or slide etc. In these situations, it can be slightly more difficult for the staff to observe all of the children at all moments as they tend to move more quickly and vigorously than in the classroom setting.

It can be easier to see the signs of physical bullying, such as pushing, shoving, or grabbing playthings from another child. This also makes it easier to step in to help a child to learn to wait his/her turn without using bullying tactics to get what he or she wants. The quiet teasing or isolating of a child by a group or one other child can be more difficult to pick up on.

We are trained to monitor the children’s interactions, so we usually notice when a child looks unhappy or isolated from his peers. We often find that the child is so secure in his/her relationship with staff that the child will approach one of them to ask to be included and that it can be sorted out.

Yet, even in a well-run Montessori environment, which is designed to be a microcosm of society, children can feel victimised. This is where our constant interaction with parents is crucial; open lines of communication, daily updates on the children’s progress, input from the home, and making it easy for parents to voice concerns if their child shows signs of unhappiness, or being fearful of a particular child, are vitally important. Staff can be primed to look for any problems that the child may be having.

Studies have shown that a high percentage of Irish primary schoolchildren have been bullied, though not as high as in some other countries, and that bullying has had major effects on the wellbeing and on-going educational development of Irish students. This suggests that we really need to be proactive and get in early with social education, both in the classroom and beyond, to ensure that these types of behaviours, which damage the bully and the bullied child, can be modified before they become entrenched. Addressing the Anti-Bullying Forum in May 2012, Professor Mona O’ Moore stressed that anti-bullying strategies proved most effective when introduced at the pre-school level (for an overview of these anti-bullying strategies, see Rigby, 2002).

Maria Montessori herself was aware that even little children can display these types of behaviours, which sometimes manifest inadvertently and through no fault of the child. In her 1936 book, Secret of Childhood, she describes these behaviours as “psychic barriers”.

It is not a case of labelling or blaming a child. We need to acknowledge these behaviours and step in to help using the methods at our fingertips: the Montessori environment and the exercises designed to encourage the children to respect themselves and each other and to work and play together in harmony. The balance of freedom and self-discipline in a Montessori environment helps children to foster self-confidence, but also to cultivate an awareness of the needs of others. And the mixed-age groups within a class encourage the older ones to help the smaller ones. This minimises incidences of aggressive domination.

In all early childhood settings, regardless of the method or approach being used, there is every opportunity for a three-tiered approach to early intervention that would prevent bullying behaviours from developing at a later stage, i.e. in primary or secondary schools. The three key components of this approach are: socialisation for the children, open communication with their parents, and ongoing training for providers/staff in the policies and procedures needed to tackle this issue as early as possible. Too many young people are being hurt, damaged, or even dying because of bullying in our schools. We in the Early Years sector really need to be part of doing something about it.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of the Museum of Childhood Ireland.

Pamela Purcell has had a long career in early childhood education at her own Montessori preschool in Dun Laoghaire, Ireland. She holds an advanced diploma in Montessori Education, a diploma in Professional Journalism, and a diploma in Social Studies. In her administrative role at the Montessori Alliance Pamela has written many articles, reviews, and blogs, which are available on the organisation’s website. She has also been involved in the consultation processes for Síolta, Aistear and The National Years Strategy.