Kindergarten children who engage in aggressive or impulsive behaviors, such as arguing or getting angry, are more likely to be bullied as they age, according to a new study led by a Penn State College of Education researcher.
“We’re able to give an empirical answer to specific groups who may be more at risk for being frequently bullied, including for specific types of bullying,” said Paul Morgan, Harry & Marion Eberly Faculty Fellow and professor of education (educational theory and policy). “We’re doing so at an early stage in children’s development, which is important because bullying interventions are thought to be more effective during the elementary and middle school grades.”
In a new paper, “Which Children are Frequently Victimized in U.S. Elementary Schools? Population‑Based Estimates,” Morgan and his co-authors analyzed a population-based cohort of 11,780 U.S. children to identify risk and protective factors by kindergarten predictive of being frequently verbally, socially, reputationally or physically victimized during the upper elementary grades. They also stratified the analyses by biological sex.
According to prior work, bullying takes a hard toll on students’ health and well-being. Victims of bullies are more likely to struggle mentally, academically and physically during school. Children who are frequently victimized may need additional supports including possible mental health referrals. Helping children who are being bullied in elementary school may lessen their risk for continued bullying in middle school.
In their study, the researchers found that kindergarten children displaying externalizing problem behaviors were at consistently higher risk of being frequently victimized during third to fifth grade. Hispanic children and those from higher income families were less likely to experience victimization. Boys were more likely to be physically victimized. Girls were more likely to be verbally, socially or reputationally victimized as well as to experience victimization overall.
According to Morgan, the early risk factors for victimization have been unclear due to the lack of data for population-based and multi-year-longitudinal cohorts of elementary schoolchildren. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has called for empirical studies of the type conducted by Morgan and his team.
“There has been little to no research on young children experiencing bullying and victimization,” said co-author Adrienne Woods, a senior education researcher at SRI International and former postdoctoral scholar in the Penn State College of Education. “It was a gap in the literature. We didn’t even know who these children are who are being bullied and how often they are having these experiences.”
Morgan hypothesized that one of the reasons that children who are aggressive in kindergarten report bullying victimization more in the later grades, could be that the children become more socially isolated. The researchers also found that Black boys are more likely to report being reputationally bullied, that is, having other children telling lies or untrue stories about them. Hispanic children are less likely to report being bullied frequently regardless of gender. Black children may be targeted by bullies more frequently due to racial animus. Hispanic children may experience greater access to family and social support networks that may limit their bullying exposure.
According to Woods, the researchers’ findings generally aligned with prior research on childhood bullying. However, the new study analyzed a much younger and larger sample of children than prior work. Unexpectedly, the researchers found that children whose parents engaged in more cognitively stimulating activities such as playing games or practicing reading, were slightly more likely to report experience being bullied. While their study did not identify causal factors, Morgan said, students who are perceived by their peers as somehow different may be more likely to stand out and so be targeted by bullies.
While it would be hard to make policy recommendations based on one study, Woods said, knowing which kindergarten children are more likely to later be bullied in analyses of a nationally representative sample should help inform early bullying screening and prevention efforts. One such group is children who are acting out in kindergarten classrooms. These children might benefit from evidence-based interventions that help them to adopt more adaptive classroom behaviors.
“We hope the information helps parents and elementary school staff identify and support young children who are especially likely to be bullied as they age,” Morgan said.