The responsibility of adults in case of early bullying behaviour in a multicultural kindergarten

For children with a multicultural background, being the subject of bullying or bullying others may depend on environmental factors in the kindergarten – such as a sense of belonging, relationships with peers as well as communication and relationships with adults.

Multicultural children looking at a globe with their teacher. Photo: iStock. Experiencing difficulties with language, communication and social interaction may also result in negative actions aimed at others.

What is early bullying behaviour?

Bullying at kindergartens may be understood as children being subjected to negative incidents from others during play and interaction, where they have a sense of not being a significant person for the community (Lund and Helgeland, 2016). Being subjected to bullying entails recurring intended negative incidents, where the individual who is exposed has difficulty defending him or herself. 

When we are talking about early bullying behaviour, it is not necessarily very obvious that the negative incidents are a reflection of a desire to harm others, but it is nevertheless important to address the problem in order for it not to develop into bullying. There may be various different reasons for children displaying early bullying behaviour or being at risk of being subjected to early bullying behaviour. According to the Framework Plan for Kindergartens, the adults are responsible for ensuring the children experience a sense of inclusion in the kindergarten.

Children with a multicultural background

Children with a different cultural and linguistic origin may experience being excluded from a group somewhat differently from how majority children would experience this. In this context, children with a multicultural background shall be understood to mean that the children, or one or both parents, are of a foreign origin and have a different language and culture.

The children's cultural background may affect how they experience themselves in interactions with others. Being exposed to new cultural impressions at the kindergarten entails an opportunity to develop a new and complex identity. A good sense of self may result in psychological well-being and good social functioning. If, however, it is difficult for the children to understand and process the interactions with children and adults with other cultural norms, values and activities, this may result in frustration and a behavioural pattern that renders interaction with other peers difficult.

Cultural differences may be due to children having initially been socialised into a collectivistic culture based on a set of values where the extended family plays an important role, authority must be respected and interaction to a greater extent is characterised by conformity. A westerly and individualistic culture, on the other hand, is characterised by an emphasis on the individual, attainment of personal goals, possible self-assertion and the path to individual happiness (Hofstede, 2001).

Regardless of whether the cultural differences are large or not, simply the fact of being in a situation where you have moved and everything this entails, may have an impact on how you are doing in the kindergarten. It is important to take into account the reason for the move, such as war, for example.

Possible adaptation strategies for multicultural children 

Acculturation may be described as the adaptation process taking place when people from different cultures meet (Fandrem, 2011). The result of the process will affect the social, emotional, cultural, linguistic and psychological functioning, which in turn will constitute the basis for the children's participation in the kindergarten.

A successful acculturation process will in part depend on the facilitation taking place in the kindergarten and may contribute to the children experiencing a sense of inclusion with subsequent development and learning. An acculturation process that is characterised by stress, on the other hand, such as feeling like an outsider, or not understanding what is going on the kindergarten, may become a burden.

Four possible acculturation strategies indicate how the adaptation process may be developed in a form of interaction between the children and the environment. The parents of the children are taken into account in the model, as they via their interaction will influence the children based on which acculturation strategy they have chosen and facilitate. Who the children become involved with in the kindergarten, may be an expression of what acculturation strategy the kindergarten promote, and what type of facilitation will be required in order to ensure integration and inclusion of the children among the other children.

1. Integration in the kindergarten may prevent early bullying behaviour

The ideal strategy will be integration (Berry, 1997). This is a strategy where the children adopt to a new culture in the kindergarten, at the same time as they retain their original identity and culture. The children with a multicultural background has a sense of being seen at the kindergarten and learn how to understand and participate in events and interactions between the children and the adults. Thus, integrating the children into the kindergarten is considered essential to prevent any difficulties with social interaction that may in turn result in early bullying behaviour, or the children being subjected to bullying.

2. An emphasis on Norwegian culture may result in a feeling of being an outsider

If a kindergarten places emphasis on learning only about the Norwegian culture, children will have few opportunities to retain their culture of origin, and this may be termed an assimilation strategy (Berry, 1997). In such cases, the kindergarten provides few opportunities for development and little support for the children to allow participation on their own terms, as the playing takes place only with Norwegian children on Norwegian terms.

Thus, assimilation may force children with a multicultural background into games that they have no basis for understanding or participating in, and the interaction with others may become negative. This may also result in the children withdrawing and feeling not included in the group.

3. Antagonism may render inclusion difficult for children with a multicultural background

If the mother does not have an opportunity to work or is prevented from access to new cultural impressions, the language and new social customs will be less familiar for the children. It is assumed that the mother relates only to her culture of origin, resulting in a segregation strategy. In such cases, the children may to a greater extent experience a sense of antagonism between the culture of origin and the new culture.

The cooperation between the kindergarten and the home become an important arena for facilitating inclusion of the children, at the same time as the mother is granted an opportunity to participate and contribute to the understanding of the children's participation in the kindergarten. The mother's own experiences may be difficult to handle for herself and may entail that the children will need secure adults in the kindergarten who will be able to compensate for the mother's difficulties for a period of time. In the event of a lack of such needed support, the stress of the children associated with the relationship at home may display itself in the form of poor social and psychological functioning at the kindergarten. One consequence may be changes in behaviour that will challenge the interactions that the children take part in, either in the form of the children becoming passive and withdrawn, or by the children behaving in a frustrated manner and by acting out.

4. Systematic inclusion work prevents previous marginalisation

Marginalisation is the result when the children are granted neither an opportunity to retain the culture of origin nor an opportunity to interact with the new culture, for example due to racism. Such a situation may result in a high level of stress and subsequent serious social and psychological challenges. Children who have been refugees may have experienced this themselves or through their parents. If so, the kindergarten has the important task of working in a systematic manner with measures to ensure inclusion for both the children and the parents, and must respect and safeguard the culture of origin while also facilitating interaction with new social and cultural impressions.

The significance of the child-adult relationship for multicultural children 

A good relationship between children with a multicultural background and the adults at the kindergarten is an important gateway into understanding and facilitation that will ensure that the children's adaptation become satisfactory in accordance with the inclusion perspective outlined in the Framework Plan for Kindergartens.

However, research shows that the relationships between adults and children with a multicultural background appear to be characterised by a teaching and instructional tone rather than being a dialogue between equals, which is considered more conducive to learning (Palludan, 2012). Children without a multicultural background appear to a greater extent to be able to achieve such dialogues as equals with the adults in the kindergarten. This difference may perhaps be the result of the children's linguistic limitations.

However, such an understanding of the interaction between the adults and children may also be because the interaction of the children with a multicultural background is more conform, and this is then misunderstood by the adults who assume that the children do not understand. It is important that the kindergarten is aware of the misunderstandings that may occur as a consequence of social, linguistic and cultural differences, and that this is used as a basis for providing the children with opportunities to feel like they are part of a group.

Multicultural children need help to establish good friendships

It is not enough simply to be present in the same kindergarten to develop good friendship relations. Children with a multicultural background need help and require facilitation by adults in order to gradually learn how to establish friendship relations on their own. Research shows that children with a multicultural background appear to play more with each other and less with children without the same background (Rubin, 2006). This may be because the children have a common basis for their playing and interaction as they share a value base with an emphasis on harmony, conformity and other perspective.

A common understanding of the rules of the game may possibly provide the children with a sense of security. However, this may also limit the opportunities for new social experiences and adaptation via integration. This approach may be characterised as adaptation based on an emphasis on the culture of origin; i.e. segregation. It is assumed that the playing provides fewer opportunities for developing rich interaction experiences, and may instead cause frustration, a sense of being excluded and loss of opportunities for participation in a group.

Granting children with a multicultural background an opportunity to also establish relationships with peers without a multicultural background, may contribute to better psychological well-being, faster adaptation to the kindergarten and access to successful social experiences (Von Grunigen, Perren, Nagele & Alsaker, 2010). In order to stop the development of a potentially negative adaptation process, it will be important to actively help children with a multicultural background establish friendships within the group of children. Such an approach will also provide greater access to good experiences via the second language and communication.

Good communication opportunities provide access to the group

It is the responsibility of the adults in the kindergarten to ensure that the children have good first-hand linguistic experiences. Children with a multicultural background depend on the adults' ability and willingness to interact in a good manner in order to realise satisfactory linguistic interaction (Vestad, 2013).

The language is also decisive for the quality of the relationships established between children of the same age with and without a multicultural background (Von Grunigen et al. 2010). Children with a multicultural background without sufficient knowledge of the second language may have difficulties acquiring good social experiences because they do not know how to handle invitations to participate and involvement in communication processes with other children. This may result in withdrawal from the group, becoming passive and potentially having a sense of being a less valuable member of the children's group. This will entail a higher risk of the children being subjected to bullying.

Experiencing difficulties with language, communication and social interaction may also result in negative actions aimed at others. If this behaviour becomes a recurring pattern, the children subjected to it may experience early bullying behaviour. The underlying factors, such as limited opportunities for good adaptation and social participation, mastery of language and development of good relationships, may result in a development for the children where they may end up both being subjected to bullying and becoming bullies themselves.

Children with a multicultural background have a greater need for good relations with adults in the kindergarten

Among older boys with an immigrant background, it was found that the driving force behind bullying behaviour to a large extent was the need to belong (Fandrem et al. 2009). This may also play a role in the kindergarten, but more research is needed to determine this. In any event, it will be important in terms of prevention to ensure that multicultural children in the kindergarten have experiences ensuring them a sense of belonging in order for them not to revert to bullying to achieve this when they become older, and the actions become more intentional.

It is important to children with a multicultural background that the adults in the kindergarten see the children's psychological, social and cultural functioning and their need to belong. Children with a multicultural background may appear to have a greater need for qualitative good relationships with adults than pre-schoolers without a multicultural background (Vestad & Fandrem, 2015).


Text: Assistant Professor Lene Vestad



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