"I Won't Be Your Friend If You Don't!" Preventing and Responding to Relational Aggression in Preschool Classrooms
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Four-year-old Ricardo tells Sam, “I want to ride the tricycle.” Sam replies, “I’m riding it now.” Ricardo looks to see whether the teacher is watching, sees that she’s not, and says, “I won’t be your friend anymore.” Sam gives Ricardo the tricycle.
Five-year-old Julia is playing with snap shapes. “Help me make a bracelet,” she says to Tanya. Tanya puts the snap shapes around Julia’s wrists and says, “It’s not a bracelet, it’s handcuffs and you’re in jail.” “I don’t want to be in jail.” “You’re in jail and you have to stay in that chair.”
Another kindergartner, Portia, turns to talk to Julia, but Tanya interrupts: “You can’t talk to Julia. She’s in jail, and when you’re in jail you can’t see your friends. Your family either. Don’t look at her.” Portia glances back, but Tanya says again, “You can’t look at her or talk to her! She’s in jail!”
Popular culture is filled with images of adolescent “mean girls” who control everyone around them through hurtful words, exclusion, and social pressure. Although more widely recognized in late elementary and middle school, attempts to dominate through relational aggression—sometimes called social bullying—begin much earlier. These experiences are now observed in kindergarten, with some young children excluding one another based on clothes, academic ability, and physical skills (Paul 2010). Many teachers of 4-year-olds have heard children say something like “You can’t come to my birthday party” or “I won’t be your friend if you don’t give me that.” Increasingly, researchers are recognizing that such statements represent the roots of relational aggression—“behaviors that are intended to significantly damage another child’s friendships or feelings of inclusion by the peer group” (Crick & Grotpeter 1995, 711)—and that these behaviors begin in preschool. A large body of research points out the harm caused by social bullying in childhood and adolescence, suggesting a pressing need to prevent relational aggression or stop it as soon as it starts.
Helping children understand their social world and develop ways to meet their emotional and social needs is a critical part of early education. Children who successfully pursue these goals are rewarded with friends and socially enriching experiences; children who don’t may resort to aggression. Relational aggression includes ignoring peers, telling peers they can’t play or be part of the group, and setting limits on friendship (e.g., “I won’t be your friend unless you let me be the train conductor”). This behavior not only damages the targets of the aggression but also jeopardizes the social and emotional development of the children who use relational aggression. For example, years of research suggest that children who use relational aggression for a long time experience more adjustment difficulties and are more likely to need assistance from mental health professionals (Young, Boye, & Nelson 2006).
The costs of relational aggression
Consequences of sustained relational aggression in adolescents often appear in the news, with stories of young people driven to acts of violence or even suicide as a result of extended social bullying from their peers. In early childhood, the immediate impact of relational aggression is familiar to teachers who have dried the tears of young children who were told that they couldn’t play with others. A number of authors describe relational aggression as undermining children’s efforts to gain social acceptance and closeness, which threatens children’s social and emotional development. Specifically, research has shown that targets of relational aggression are significantly more likely to be rejected by peers, have poor peer relationships, have significantly fewer prosocial problem-solving skills, and exhibit significantly more problems with depression and anxiety than other children (Murray-Close & Ostrov 2009).
Children who use relational aggression suffer consequences as well. Studies suggest that preschoolers who are relationally aggressive are significantly more likely to be rejected by peers than those who are nonaggressive (Crick, Ostrov, & Werner 2006). Overall, using relational aggression in elementary school is a strong predictor of psychological and social maladjustment throughout life (Crick, Ostrov, & Werner 2006) and is associated with poor academic performance and socialization problems (Preddy & Fite 2012; Risser 2013).
Profiles of relational aggression and adult reactions
Studies of the relationship between gender and relational aggression among young children have different findings, but most show that girls use relational aggression more frequently than boys (Godleski & Ostrov 2010). In studies of preschoolers, the findings are somewhat less clear. Several researchers report either small or no differences in rates of relational aggression between 4- and 5-year-old boys and girls (Murray-Close & Ostrov 2009; Lansford et al. 2012).
Relational aggression and physical aggression share a number of risk factors, and children who are physically aggressive are more likely to be relationally aggressive (Estrem 2005). Similarly, language has been linked to all forms of aggression: children whose language skills are less developed than their peers’ are more likely to use both physical and relational aggression (Estrem 2005). However, children who use only relational aggression tend to have better oral language skills than those who use only physical aggression (Estrem 2005).
Ironically, children who use relational aggression may be among the most competent children in the classroom. They tend to have well-developed perspective-taking and empathy skills (Ostrov et al. 2013). For example, if a child expects to get what she wants by saying, “I won’t be your friend anymore if you don’t let me play with that toy,” she probably understands how her words will make her peer feel. Further, young children who use relational aggression effectively may be socially powerful. They are often popular with both peers and teachers (Roseth et al. 2007).
Some preschoolers use both prosocial and aggressive strategies to get what they want in social situations, suggesting that young children can have a number of social tools at their disposal (Roseth et al. 2007). The role of the early educator, then, is to help children learn to choose prosocial tools. By treating all children with respect, teachers model prosocial strategies. Careful monitoring (especially during unstructured times, such as snack and mealtimes) allows early educators to teach prosocial strategies directly. When they hear a child say something unkind, teachers can use the opportunity to teach more positive interaction skills. For example, a teacher could say, “You can tell Alonzo that you don’t want to play right now, but you may not say ‘Go away,’ because that’s unkind and hurts his feelings.” Acknowledging children when they use kind words is another effective strategy.
Michael, a 3-year-old in a mixed-age classroom, is throwing blocks at the shelves in the construction center. Jamelia, a very popular and socially competent 4-year-old, walks over and says harshly, “You better quit throwing blocks. If you don’t stop, I’m not going to play with you anymore.” Ms. Farrah, their teacher, is standing close by. She turns to Michael and says, “Michael, you know that we’re not supposed to throw blocks.” She says nothing about Jamelia’s comments or tone.
A number of researchers describe the prosocial functions of relational aggression. Children who are highly socially competent often use relational aggression to reinforce social norms, many of which are endorsed by teachers and other adults (Coyne et al. 2012). As demonstrated in the vignette above, teachers and other adults may, consciously or unconsciously, reinforce relational aggression among young children because they do not realize they are doing so or because it helps preserve the social order.
Preschoolers who were rated by teachers on the Preschool Social Behavior Scale–Teacher (PSBS-T) (Crick, Casas, & Mosher 1997) as highly relationally aggressive had the most positive relationships with their kindergarten teachers and might be more skilled at social manipulation and hiding aggression (Gower et al. 2014). Taken together, the literature suggests that not only does relational aggression occur among young children, but it is often tacitly rewarded by peers and adults.
Preventing relational aggression
Given the risks for children who use relational aggression and their targets, helping children find alternatives to relational aggression as early as possible should be a priority for preschool educators.
Research clearly indicates that teachers’ and children’s responses to aggression predict levels of both relational and physical aggression. For example, in a study of elementary classrooms Kuppens and colleagues (2008) found that when a teacher tolerates relational aggression, children who tend to be aggressive are more likely to act aggressively, both relationally and physically. Kuppens and colleagues refer to the norms of the classroom with respect to aggression in general and postulate that when aggression, either relational or physical, is part of the classroom norm, more children will adopt aggressive behavior.
We suspect that very few, if any, preschool teachers would say that aggression is an acceptable way for children to solve their social problems. And yet research suggests that teachers often unintentionally reward relational aggression. Whether or not teachers condone aggression, directly or indirectly, influences children’s use of aggression. Goldstein and colleagues (2001) found that when children saw that aggression led to a positive outcome for the aggressor, they were more likely to engage in aggression themselves. However, when the consequence of aggression was negative, children were less likely to use aggression to get what they want.
Some adults believe that relational aggression is a natural part of childhood (Hurd & Gettinger 2011). Like physical aggression, relational aggression is a common behavior among young children. But, also like physical aggression, relational aggression doesn’t have to be a part of the early educational environment. “You wouldn’t let them hurt each other physically. Why would you let them hurt each other emotionally?” asks Heather Faison, who teaches 2- and 3-year-olds at Little School in Gainesville, Florida. She continues, “Sometimes, the emotional hurt is a lot worse than the physical.” This is particularly evident when the emotional hurt is frequently directed at one particular child, as can occur if one child is consistently the butt of others’ jokes or is treated by children as the scapegoat when things go wrong in the classroom.
Know the children and the classroom
Because a positive classroom climate is one of the most important elements of preventing relational aggression (Kuppens et al. 2008), an important step toward reducing relational aggression is for teachers to understand the social dynamics and relationships among the children and adults in the classroom. When children spend time with peers, many tend to adopt the behaviors of their peers, falling in line with the group’s dynamics (Gallagher et al. 2007), and aggression can be contagious: one aggressive act makes it more likely that other aggressive acts will follow (Goldstein et al. 2001).
It is important for teachers to consider the role of relational aggression in the classroom: when it occurs and under what circumstances (e.g., during centers or at lunch). Questions that help teachers understand relational aggression include: “Who are the popular children, and who is ignored or rejected by their peers? Which children need to win? Does relational aggression occur when a few children who really like each other don’t want a less skilled peer to enter their play?” When teachers understand the why of relational aggression, they have much more success in addressing it.
Margie Donnely, who teaches kindergarten at PK Yonge Developmental Research School in Gainesville, Florida, describes the importance of learning the classroom dynamics early in the school year. In particular, she takes note of the children who must always be first, often at the expense of their peers: “There are always a few children who will push to be at the front of the line. Often these same children have a strong need to win, even when there’s nothing to win.”
Foster positive relationships with and among children
Strong relationships between teachers and children are critical in fostering children’s positive relationships with classmates. In classrooms where the teacher is warm and sensitive to children’s needs, children engage in more prosocial cooperative play and more positive conversation, and consequently less relational aggression (Rimm-Kaufman et al. 2005). When teachers model respect and affection for everyone in the class, children are more likely to engage in inclusive, positive play. If children’s prosocial strategies prove effective, and particularly if they continue to add prosocial tools to their repertoire, they may rely less on relational and physical aggression.
Communicating these classroom norms to the children’s families also is important so that parents can reinforce prosocial skills at home. When meeting with families, teachers can share information about what social bullying is and why it’s so hurtful, as well as information about the kind of classroom community the teacher wants to create. For example, Margie has a classroom rule that if children want to hand out birthday party invitations at school, every child must receive one. She talks about this policy and why it’s important for developing a respectful classroom community at open house and in family newsletters.
Accentuate the positive
Children who are both physically and relationally aggressive are more likely to interpret other children’s behaviors as hostile (Godleski & Ostrov 2010). When teachers put a positive spin on children’s behavior, they help all children interpret that behavior in prosocial ways and avoid scapegoating, a common form of relational aggression. For example, if a child knocks over another child’s block tower, the teacher who says “Oh, it looks like he wants to play blocks with you” helps the children see the best in each other (Meece & Soderman 2010, 83).
How teachers respond to children’s tattling behaviors is likely to have an effect on how children talk to, and about, each other. Ingram and Bering (2010) found that preschool children who tattle frequently are more likely to be relationally aggressive, and yet teachers’ responses to tattling tend to be positive rather than negative. Encouraging children to resolve their own social issues and helping children find words to respectfully resolve conflicts is one of the most important contributions early educators can make to children’s development. For example, Margie teaches children to try to resolve conflicts before they bring the dispute to her. Step 1 is to say, “Please stop.” Step 2 is to say, “Stop, or else I’ll tell.” Only if this warning is ignored should children involve the teacher.
Margie and Heather both point out that teachers can have tremendous influence over how children respond to their peers. Heather points out that, particularly for younger children, narrating interactions in the moment can help children learn social skills. By narrating children’s behavior to other children, teachers can emphasize positive intentions and coach children’s communication strategies.
Three-year-old Monica reaches to touch her friend Sara’s hair. Sara pulls back, looking angry. Ms. Faison explains, “Monica likes your hair, Sara. Monica, it doesn’t look like Sara wants you to touch her hair. Sara, what you can do is tell Monica that you don’t like her to touch your hair.”
Think “Everyone wins” when choosing games
Games and classroom activities can encourage or discourage aggression. It’s important to make sure that all children have ways to experience success that don’t involve dominating or outdoing their peers. As much as possible, choose games and activities that encourage cooperation (e.g., dancing together) over competition (e.g., musical chairs). For children who seem to have a greater need to exert dominance, providing opportunities to win in socially constructive ways—for example, encouraging them to be leaders by assisting peers—can head off aggressive behaviors (Farmer & Xie 2007).
Vivian Paley’s groundbreaking You Can’t Say You Can’t Play (1992) provides a means for teachers of young children to discuss issues of social justice and fairness with their classes. Paley describes her own efforts to make sure that all children were included in play. The kindergartners she taught were not allowed to say, “You can’t play with us.” While the ideal of not allowing children to exclude one another has merit in preventing relational aggression, several researchers have found that simply having the rule is not enough, and that it may have unintended negative consequences. For example, using pre- and postdata collection, Harrist and Bradley (2003) studied the impact of the “everyone plays” rule in kindergarten classrooms. They found that having the rule encouraged children to report that they liked more of their peers, but the children also reported increased levels of social dissatisfaction, suggesting that always having to play with everyone made playing less fun. Along these lines, Sapon-Shevin and colleagues (1998) found that applying the “everyone plays” rule and discussing social justice were insufficient for encouraging more inclusive play. Direct social skills instruction was necessary in kindergarten.
Margie recommends mixing structured play (in which everyone plays) with child-directed opportunities for social interaction: “Controlling traffic between centers with something (e.g., having children use clothespins with their names on them to indicate a center is full) is one way to allow children to form their own groups without having to say that everyone has to play. A group of three who want to play together will find a space that allows only three without having to verbally say ‘We don’t want you to play with us.’”
Clearly, one of the most important teaching tasks for early educators is helping children learn how to engage positively with peers. Mindess, Chen, and Brenner (2008) point out the need for a carefully planned, comprehensive social-emotional curriculum (developed by the school, or commercially available curricula), ideally implemented schoolwide and communicated to other school staff and parents, to prevent relational and physical aggression.
If relational aggression is already a pattern for a child, strategies intended for the entire class may not be enough. A social problem-solving model—a component of many published curricula—systematically teaches children to think through social situations as problems to be solved through brainstorming solutions, and evaluating what-if scenarios. Explicit instruction about how to handle social situations is helpful. Margie advises, “Just like parents teach children to say ‘thank you’ at appropriate times, there are phrases that are helpful in social situations.” For example, help children learn to share by teaching them to say, “Can I play with you?” Similarly, if a child wishes to play alone she can say, “I want to play by myself, please.” Margie also recommends role-playing during circle time to help children act out positive ways to respond to socially challenging situations.
For social skills instruction to be successful in reducing pervasive relational aggression, it is important for teachers to embed the principles throughout daily activities. Routines such as morning meeting provide rich opportunities to build community and to teach and model respect for others. Using children’s literature, particularly emphasizing the social aspects of stories and how characters solve problems, is another way to build social skills training into the regular fabric of young children’s school experience.
The impact of relational aggression across the lifespan highlights the importance of teaching young children alternatives to all forms of aggression. By being aware of ourselves and our responses to relational aggression, understanding the children we teach, and implementing systematic strategies to encourage community and prosocial problem solving, early educators can help all children learn critical social and emotional skills in order to experience fulfilling relationships.
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Tina Smith-Bonahue, PhD, is an associate professor and coordinator of graduate programs in the School of Special Education, School Psychology, and Early Childhood Studies at the University of Florida, in Gainesville. Her research focuses on early childhood teacher beliefs and professional development. email@example.com
Sondra Smith-Adcock, PhD, is an associate professor of counselor education at the University of Florida. She teaches and supervises in the School Counseling and Mental Health Counseling programs and focuses her research on counseling children and adolescents.
Jennifer Harman Ehrentraut, PhD, is a pediatric psychologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, in Memphis, Tennessee. She has provided developmental and psychological services to young children in a variety of settings and has consulted with several early childhood education programs. firstname.lastname@example.org