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Borrowed Brains: Q&A with Deborah Temkin, Child Trends

By Heather Clawson Oct. 20, 2015

Each month in Borrowed Brains, we interview a leading expert in education, youth development or social justice.

October is National Bullying Prevention Month, which inevitably conjures up images of aggressive high school students straight out of Mean Girls or Glee. Anyone who works with teenagers like that probably pines occasionally for the innocence of early childhood, but a recent report from Child Trends suggests that bullying behaviors might start much earlier than we think.

According to Bullies in the Block Area: The Early Childhood Origins of ‘Mean’ Behavior, the warning signs for bullying can begin to emerge even before the first day of school. This month, Deborah Temkin, one of the report’s co-authors and Program Area Director for Education at Child Trends, talks to us about risk factors, redirection – and the surprising role of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Q: Your report deals primarily with the environmental factors that affect preschool children. It might be 5 or 10 years later when CIS first comes into contact with these kids. So what’s the takeaway for a CIS site coordinator? How can this research help them better understand and more effectively deal with school-aged bullies?

A: Most research on bullying focuses on school-aged youth. Our report looks at what the risk factors in early childhood are that might lead to bullying behaviors. First, I think it’s important to stress, as our report does, that bullying is a behavior that can be changed, not a characteristic of a child. This is why I always recommend moving away from terminology such as “bullies” and “victims” to that of the “child who bullied” or the “child who was bullied.” That said, practitioners working with older youth who are engaging in bullying behavior can use our report to help understand the underlying drivers of the behavior and help address those factors. For instance, parental engagement remains a key protective factor for youth, from early childhood through adolescence. Looking far enough back at a child’s history and recognizing their individual risk can help tailor the support that is needed to help that child change their behavior.


Q: As you surveyed all the existing research on bullying behavior in early childhood, what struck you as most surprising? Was there any particular finding that seemed especially revelatory or unexpected … or even alarming?

A: One of our most unexpected findings was that exposure to television was related to later aggression and bullying, regardless of whether the nature of that content was inherently violent. Screen time for young children is perhaps one of the most debated topics among parents and practitioners alike, but the evidence suggests that it could pose a real risk, at least in terms of risk for bullying. Still, we also know that shows that are specifically designed to promote prosocial skills – shows like Sesame Street or Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—can help elicit those behaviors in young children. Thus, more research is definitely needed to understand the link between television and bullying.


Q: I was struck by some of the research on the early childhood experiences of kids who tend to be the object of bullying, rather than the perpetrators. So many of our CIS kids report being bullied in school; how can the literature help us understand what’s happening to them?

A: Unfortunately, bullying is a fairly common experience for many youth. Although the latest statistics from the US Department of Education indicate some decrease (28% in 2011 to 21.5% in 2013), still over 1 in 5 kids reports experiencing some type of bullying in the last year. There are many factors that place a child at risk for being bullied, some of which we address in our early childhood report. These include factors like an insecure attachment with parents. However, it is critically important for us not to dwell too much on these risk factors – especially those that cannot be changed, such as a child’s race or sexual orientation. Doing so shifts the blame of the behavior from the child who is bullying to the child who is the target of bullying. Instead, we can work to support known protective factors such as building young children’s social and emotional skills and working with parents to build their skills and relationships with their children.


Q: Dan Cardinali often makes the point that childhood poverty has a negative impact on social-emotional development. What does the literature tell us about the connection between SEL and bullying?

A: Children growing up in poverty are certainly at more risk of experiencing some of the adverse childhood experiences that we found to be linked to later bullying involvement such as childhood maltreatment, exposure to domestic violence, and insecure attachment to parents. These children are also less likely to experience quality early childhood educational environments, although the research is more mixed about the relation between such environments and later bullying. We do know, however, from research with older children, that exposure to social and emotional learning programs helps reduce the impact of these risks and decrease aggression and other forms of interpersonal conflict. 


Q: Finally, this study looks at bullying patterns that can begin very, very early. At CIS, we might be coming into contact with these kids yearsafter the pattern was established. Is there ever a point at which it’s just “too late” to help a child change?

A: Absolutely not. Bullying, as with many other so-called “deviant” or “negative” behaviors, is something that can be addressed regardless of the age of the child. To do so, however, we must address why children are engaging in the behavior rather than simply telling them not to do so. As we learned in the 1990s with the “Just Say No to Drugs” approach to substance use prevention, without helping youth build skills and change the culture and climate around the behavior, we actually risk increasing, rather than decreasing the behavior. When we understand what drives the behavior – for instance a cultural norm that rewards youth who bully with popularity or status – we can actually take steps to help redirect and change that behavior. This of course takes a lot more work than simply expelling a child from school or a program, but it’s important to never give up on trying to help and support that child to behave more positively.

To read the full research brief from Child Trends, please click here. And for more resources on bullying prevention and awareness, be sure to check out PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center along with StopBullying.gov.