“The child’s world gets a lot bigger in elementary school as she becomes more sensitive to the opinions of other kids, so fitting in becomes more important. Peer pressure intensifies at adolescence, but second, third, and fourth graders feel it too.” – David Walsh, Ph.D. (2007, p. 152)
As a child enters elementary school, their social world expands many times over. This coincides with a rapid growth in social awareness that takes place around the ages of six to seven. Put together it means that peer pressure and social issues really start to affect children during the early elementary years. As a result, this is also when true bullying behaviors first start to emerge, arising sporadically in the earlier grades and then intensifying as children grow older. By fifth or sixth grade, bullying can sometimes be as bad as that in junior high or high school.
A child’s social growth in elementary school
If you ask young children to describe themselves, they’ll tend to rely more on physical characteristics: their gender, size, hair color, what they can do, or their relation to the family (I’m the oldest; I’m mommy’s daughter, etc.). Yet this shifts sometime towards the end of early childhood, so that children’s use of social comparisons to describe themselves increases dramatically after the age of seven. (Ruble, 1983) By age eight, children have begun to establish a personal identity that distinguishes themselves from others more in psychological terms. (Broughton, 1978) This increased social awareness is a wonderful thing and an important milestone in development, but it also comes at a cost: the more the opinions of others factor into your own personal identity, the more sensitive a child becomes towards outside criticism. This greater social awareness about how they appear in the eyes of others naturally leads to an increase in self-criticism, so that children become more self-critical as they get older. (Harter, 1983)
Types of bullying in elementary school
Bullying in elementary school tends to be more innocent in nature than that which comes as children get older. A child’s physical features are a frequent topic of bullying, particularly if they are overweight (or significantly under-weight). Kids with freckles or red hair (“gingers”) can also be a popular target of their peers.
Clothes or hygiene can also be common topics for bullying in elementary school, as can any physical or cognitive disability (autism, ADHD) that singles a child apart from the group. Children perceived as ugly or less attractive can also face ridicule.
Parents may be surprised to learn that they, too, can be a justification for their child being targeted during the grade school years. We’ve encountered many cases of elementary-aged kids being bullied because a parent is significantly obese, even if the child has a healthy build themselves.
Or they may be taunted if a parent is particularly odd, or if they are adopted or come from a racially mixed family. This guilt by association bullying can be just as hurtful as the direct kind. I’ve spent many afternoons trying to comfort children who are drowning in tears over hurtful comments other kids are saying about their parents.
Group bullying in elementary school
Like most incidents of bullying, the bullying that occurs in elementary school tends to involve groups of kids ganging up against certain children. Even in the early grades, kids are prone to mimicry, so what starts out as one child poking fun at another can quickly spread to others. Even though the other kids may not consciously think of what they’re doing as bullying, (and though they generally don’t engage in it with intentional maliciousness in the same way older kids might), it’s easy for contagion to spread so that the child on the receiving end certainly feels bullied by the group. What starts out as popular girl Jamie making a snide comment about Erin’s pants can easily turn into half the class making comments about Erin’s pants as they mimic what popular girl Jamie thinks.
The escalation in bullying in the later grades of elementary school
Bullying may first begin to really escalate in the later grades of elementary school, and start to resemble the type of bullying that takes place in junior high. “It’s always around fifth grade when students start calling each other names,” observes Mary Aperavich, director of admissions at St. Joseph’s Episcopal School in Florida. (Zaslow, 2010) Judy Walsh, grandmother of 13-year-old bullycide victim Seth Walsh, says that Seth began being teased relentlessly starting around fourth grade. “By sixth grade, kids were starting to get (really) mean,” she reports. “By seventh grade, he was afraid to walk home from school.” (Cloud, 2010, p. 60)
“In fifth grade, I got in a lot of fights. They started because people were saying that I had sex
with this guy, Jonathan. And I was only ten years old in fifth grade. He asked me to and I said no, but these two girls told everybody that I did. So for four years now I’ve gotten bull crap for it. Anyone even mentioned Jonathan, and I got really mad.”
-A victim of elementary school bullying (Quoted from Garbarino & deLara, 2002)
Sexual bullying in elementary school
While parents are busy pretending that children are sexually innocent, sexuality has always been a part of their child and is a subject that most kids are exposed to and aware about in elementary school, if not much sooner. I’ve heard first graders engage in discussions about their virginity (or perceived lack thereof) on rides to school; third- and fourth-graders discuss topics like who gave who oral sex behind the trailer modules; and research has indicated that playground romances are quite common throughout elementary school, beginning as early as kindergarten. (Broderick, 1970) There are thousands of studies detailing the sexual awareness and experimentation of pre-teen kids which we won’t hash out here, but suffice it to say that kids encounter issues of sexuality long before puberty, no matter how hard their parents cover their eyes and ears while tapping their ruby slippers 3 times to wish it weren’t so.
Sadly, sexual bullying can also occur in elementary school. While sexual bullying is less common in the K-through-6 grades than it is in junior high or high school, it nonetheless takes place. Garbarino & deLara (2002, p. 91) point out that “Kids as early as elementary school use ‘gay’ as a kind of conversational or universal insult, even when it does not specifically have a homosexual reference.” In other cases, however, kids know exactly what it means, and may single out peers to label as “fags” or “queers.” The family of Jon Carmichael reports that he faced gay-taunting for his effeminate behaviors as early as 4th grade. Bullycide victim Montana Lance was only in third grade when he started facing attacks on his sexuality. Other studies have found that even young children are not very accepting of other kids who fail to conform to sex-stereotypes. (Stoddart & Turiel, 1985) Even preschoolers who typically have no knowledge about the mechanics of sex yet are nonetheless quite aware of issues of sexual orientation and attraction. So although it is less common than other types of bullying, many children do face sexually-related bullying in elementary school.
Patterns of bullying set in elementary school
Elementary school can also pave the way for bullying behavior to come. One of the biggest dangers for this age group is that even if the bullying is more innocent and less severe – and may not even resemble bullying in the traditional sense – what happens in elementary school often sets down patterns for bullying behavior in the future.
For example, Garbarino & deLara (2002, pp. 67-68) describe a boy named Sean, a happy, outgoing and good-natured kid who began to have problems early in elementary school. His active personality made school difficult, since he was always talking, fidgeting or walking around in the class, which naturally, drew the admonitions of his teachers.
Before long, “the other children began to make fun of Sean for getting yelled at by the teachers, always in trouble, always in time out. The boys teased him and laughed at him every time the teacher had to correct him. The girls called him ‘baby’ because he couldn’t sit still and didn’t get his work done. Even though his infractions or ‘crimes’ were minor, they set him apart from the rest of the class. Sean began to feel the difference; he began to feel sad and angry. Then Sean began to take out his anger in small ways on his friends. He started to take their papers and hide them or rip them up. On days when he felt really bad, he would hit another boy or push someone on the playground. By age eight, Sean was acting out in ways that caused his teacher to use the label ‘bully’ on her reports to Sean’s parents.”
Eventually Sean was put on medication, which seemed to help him concentrate better in school. But by this time, damage to his social development had already been done. He had already established himself as a target of ridicule, a kid who was different and difficult in the minds of his peers. As his behavior improved, they went on to tease him about other things, such as the clothes he wore. By middle school, Sean was both teased by others and was a full-blown bully himself.
This is the most worrisome outcome of grade school bullying, and why teachers need to be alert to patterns being set while parents should take steps to help shy children make friends and become more adept at socializing with their peers. You’ll always hear child development experts talk about negative patterns, because while one bad experience is unpleasant but usually harmless, negative patterns that develop can continue to hurt the child over the course of their lives and become disastrous. This is especially true when it comes to bullying.