Which Kindergarteners are at Risk of Being Bullied and/or Becoming Bullies, and What Can Educators and Parents Do About It?

This article is co-authored by Paul Morgan.

What is bullying?

Bullying occurs when children experience unwanted and aggressive behavior from more powerful peers repeatedly over time. Bullying is considered a type of school violence (Arseneault, 2018; Yang et al., 2018).

Types of Bullying Definition Hypothetical Example of Bullying Potential Outcomes
Icon of Verbal Bullying
The child is frequently teased, made fun of, or called names by other children Kelly loudly exclaims, “Did ‘Fat Angela’ really think she could pull off that shirt?” as she passes Angela in the lunchroom. When Angela looks upset, Kelly rolls her eyes and says, “Can’t you take a joke?” Angela develops low self-esteem and a poor body image, which puts her at risk for eating disorders and self-harm.
Icon of Social Bullying
The child is frequently purposefully excluded from playing with other children Jaxson is unfriended and blocked on social media by his friends Asher and Jesse. Asher tells Jaxson, “We’re not allowed to be friends with you anymore because Jesse says you’re too annoying.” Jaxson is so distraught over losing his friends that his grades start slipping because he can’t focus in class.
Icon of Reputational Bullying
Other children frequently tell lies or untrue stories about the child Damian tells his whole class that he heard Wyatt wets the bed. Other children start calling him a “baby” when they pass him at school. Wyatt is hurt by this rumor, so he retaliates against Damian by posting a bad photo of Damian on Snapchat.
Icon of Physical Bullying
The child is frequently pushed, shoved, slapped, hit, or kicked One day at school, Brittney yanks Monique to the ground by her hair when she walks past her in the hallway. Monique becomes socially withdrawn, depressed, and nervous to go to school.
Definition of Bullying highlighted

The risks of bullying victimization

Victims of bullies may struggle during school (Schoeler et al., 2018; Sigurdson et al., 2015). In the examples above, Angela, Jaxson, Wyatt, and Monique experience different types of bullying that each have social, emotional, cognitive, behavioral, academic, and physical consequences.

Children who are frequently bullied are at risk for later mental health challenges, substance abuse, and even unemployment as adults (Arseneault, 2018; Takizawa et al., 2014; Wolke et al., 2013). The consequences of bullying are as impactful on these later risks as being placed in foster care or experiencing neglect or abuse (Zarate-Garza et al., 2017).

Our research: Which children typically experience bullying?

Because bullying can impact health and wellbeing, it is important to prevent bullying early in elementary school. As researchers, we were curious about which students were most likely to be bullied and/or to become bullies. We analyzed data from more than 10,000 children who are likely to graduate from high school in 2023, and who responded to surveys administered in grades 3-5 (Morgan et al., 2022; 2023). We asked:

  • Who are the typical bullies? Who are the typical victims? We wanted to learn more about bullies and victims in early elementary school, which is a critical period for bullying screening and prevention (Kljakovic & Hunt, 2016; Yeager et al., 2015). It is important to target interventions and supports to the right children. But sometimes the boundaries are blurry, because being victimized also increases children’s risks for becoming bullies themselves (Walters, 2021). In the example above, Wyatt is hurt by the rumor Damian started, and he retaliates by engaging in cyber bullying. Children who are both bullies and victims are especially at risk of experiencing adverse outcomes (Lereya et al., 2015; Wolke et al., 2013). Understanding which victimized children are most likely to later become bullies is important to these screening and prevention efforts in elementary school.
  • What kind(s) of bullying do children experience? Similarly, distinguishing between verbal, social, reputational, and physical types of bullying may help schools and parents more directly address the different psychological needs of children experiencing bullying in various forms. (Casper & Card, 2016)
  • Before sharing the results, an important note: There is nothing specific to ANY demographic group (e.g., based on race, gender, or language) that deterministically increases or decreases a child’s likelihood of being victimized or becoming a bully. Rather, these likelihoods are influenced by external circumstances that can differentially affect children from different demographic groups, such as the experience of systemic racism or gender- or language-based discrimination.

What did we find? The table below summarizes the distinguishing characteristics of victims, non-victims, bullies, and non-bullies.

Who is more likely to be frequently bullied? Who is less likely to be frequently bullied? Who is more likely to become a bully? Who is less likely to become a bully?
More likely to be bullied Less likely to be bullied More likely to be bully Less likely to be bully
  • Children who “act out” in class5
  • Children who can self-regulate1,3
  • Children with internalizing behaviors (e.g., depression, isolation)
  • Children who “act out” in class
  • Children with internalizing behaviors (e.g., depression, isolation)
More likely to be bullied Less likely to be bullied More likely to be bully Less likely to be bully
  • Black children, especially Black boys1
  • Hispanic children5
  • Children learning English5
  • Black children
  • Hispanic children
  • Children learning English
More likely to be bullied Less likely to be bullied More likely to be bully Less likely to be bully
  • Boys4
  • Girls1,2,3
  • Boys with disabilities3,4
  • Boys whose parents provided cognitively stimulating activities in the home2
  • Boys
More likely to be bullied Less likely to be bullied More likely to be bully Less likely to be bully
  • Children with unmarried parents1
  • Children whose parents provided cognitively stimulating activities in the home1,2,4
  • Children from higher income families5
  • Children raised by single parents
  • Children whose parents believed parenting was difficult
  • Children whose parents used harsh discipline practices
  • Children from higher income families
More likely to be bullied Less likely to be bullied More likely to be bully Less likely to be bully
  • Children with higher kindergarten achievement1

Note: Subtypes of victimization are indicated by the following superscripted numbers (we could not differentiate subtypes of bullies): 1Reputational bullying; 2Verbal bullying; 3Social bullying; 4Physical bullying; 5All types of bullying.

When untangling some of the risk and protective factors a bit more, we found that Black boys are at greater risk for reputational victimization and for becoming bullies during elementary school. This may occur because of historical and ongoing racism and discrimination in the U.S., in which Black children are involved in reactive aggression and/or victimized by racial acts of violence (Goldbach et al., 2018). Black children were also more often reported by their teachers to display “acting out” behaviors, which is associated with a likelihood to be bullied and to become bullies. However, scholars have repeatedly found that teachers tend to expect Black children to have poorer behavior than other children, even when their behavior is similar (Gilliam et al., 2016; Huang, 2018; Okonofua & Eberhardt, 2015; Tenenbaum & Ruck, 2007).

School IconWhat does this mean for school personnel, like teachers, counselors, and administrators?

Pay close attention to children who are frequently engaging in externalizing problem behaviors by second grade.

  • Consistent with prior research (Boivin et al., 2013; Oncioiu et al., 2020), we found that children who reportedly displayed externalizing problem behaviors in kindergarten to second grade were more likely to be bullies and victims of any type of bullying.
  • Some children’s early experiences led to externalizing problem behaviors that, in turn, increased their chances of being victims or bullies. These other factors included having a single parent, a parent who used harsh disciplinary practices (e.g., spanking, yelling, threatening, making fun of their children), or a parent who thought parenting was difficult.
  • The earlier that schools can help these children to learn coping and self-regulation skills, the less likely these children are to be bullied or to become bullies later in elementary school (Boivin et al., 2013; Kljakovic & Hunt, 2016; Oncioiu et al., 2020).
  • Resources:

Intervene early with both social-emotional and academic supports.

  • School-based interventions are widely available and effective at reducing bullying perpetration and victimization (Gaffney et al., 2021), and they are most effective when implemented before or at the transition to elementary school (Lebrun-Harris et al., 2019; Oncioiu et al., 2020; Walters, 2021).
  • Children experiencing reading difficulties are more likely to self-report feeling angry, sad, and unpopular during elementary school. (Morgan et al., 2012). Schools who identify and support children who start to struggle academically may help to improve the children’s behavior and social functioning, which may help children’s risks for experiencing bullying or victimization (Chong et al., 2014; Morgan et al., 2012; Turunen et al., 2017, 2021).
  • Resources:

Include parents in bullying intervention and prevention efforts.

  • Including parents in bullying intervention and prevention efforts contributes to the success of these efforts (Carney et al., 2015; de Vries et al., 2018; Lereya et al., 2013; Ttofi & Farrington 2011).
  • Parents’ use of harsh discipline (like spanking, yelling, threatening, or making fun of their children) and parents’ self-report that they think parenting is harder than expected were both related to children’s challenging behaviors, which in turn increased children’s likelihood of becoming bullies. This suggests a need for parenting education and support programs that can help parents learn new strategies to address or prevent their child from displaying challenging behaviors (see resources below!).
  • Resources:

Don’t ignore bullying when it happens.

Family IconWhat does this mean for parents?

Talk to your child early and often.

  • If your child suddenly experiences behavioral or academic changes, they may be experiencing bullying. These changes might include:
    • Avoiding activities and areas that do not have adult supervision where bullies might attack (e.g., bathrooms)
    • Getting upset after a phone call, text, or email, or after going online
    • Losing friends
    • Spending more time alone or skipping out on activities they used to enjoy
    • Saying negative things about themselves
  • Make sure your child feels heard and supported if they come to you. If they report being bullied or you’re concerned about bullying, you should offer emotional support and consider seeking professional help (Leff & Feudtner, 2017).
  • Resources:

If you feel “burned out” as a parent or are concerned about your child’s behavior, seek out support.


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Topics: Elementary school Externalizing behaviors Internalizing behaviors Mental health School climate Social-emotional learning Trauma