Vilde, Olaus, Sander and Emma playing with building blocks.
"Everyone can help build a tower except those with a blue t-shirt," Olaus yells.
Sander hangs his head, feeling sad. Excluded once again.
The responsibility of the adults
"The well-being of children in the kindergarten is the responsibility of the adults," Marianne Torve Martinsen states categorically.
She is the head of the pilot The Learning Environment Project – Kindergartens and an Assistant Professor at the Norwegian Centre for Learning Environment and Behavioural Research in Education (the Centre for Learning Environment) at the University of Stavanger.
The owner of the project is the Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training.
"The adults in the kindergarten must be professional. This entails that they must be well acquainted with the children’s social development and how to support it. Children develop through interaction, where playing is an essential element and bullying also may occur. If anything undesirable takes place, such as bullying, the adults must be able to observe this and know what to do," says Martinsen.
Safe and good kindergartens
The objective of The Learning Environment Project – Kindergartens is to facilitate safe and good environments at the kindergartens without any offensive or bullying behaviour.
Four municipalities with a total of nine kindergartens participate in the project. As part of the project, the kindergartens learn about research-based prevention, identification and handling of bullying.
Martinsen emphasises that children in kindergartens should not play except in the presence of adults.
"If the adults have the attitude that the children play just fine by themselves in the room or in the forest, the adults will not catch any early bullying behaviour. This may then turn into a pattern where some children are excluded," she says.
No common understanding
What is bullying? The researchers disagree. There is no clear and common understanding of what constitutes bullying, especially in kindergartens.
"In kindergartens, bullying may be understood as children being exposed to negative incidents from others during play and interaction, where they do not have a sense of being a significant person for the community. This is the definition used by the Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training," Martinsen says.
The definition has been prepared by Professor Ingrid Lund at the Centre for Teaching and Learning at the University of Agder and Senior Researcher and Family Therapist Anne Helgeland at the Department of Child and Adolescent Mental Health (ABUP) at Sørlandet Hospital Health Authority.
Their understanding of bullying in kindergartens is widely recognised.
Important to start early
Lund and Helgeland's research has lifted bullying in kindergartens into the limelight.
"It is important to start early. A lot of research support this. If the kindergarten employees help the children early on, future social and emotional difficulties will be prevented," says Lund.
"When kindergarten personnel discover that a child is being excluded or that someone says something negative about other children, they must help the child become included in the playing and the personnel must address the entire playing environment," says Martinsen.
Little talk of bullying in kindergartens
Researchers disagree and debate whether the term bullying may be used for kindergartens.
Traditionally, experts have been of the opinion that there is no bullying among children in kindergartens. Instead, they have talked about teasing and conflicts.
Researchers who have studied bullying in school, have assumed that children who bully have the objective or intention of harming others or causing discomfort.
"Many researchers and employees in kindergartens think that children in kindergartens are not mature enough to deliberately harm other children," says Martinsen.
According to a more recent understanding of bullying by many researchers, the term bullying may be used even if the intention is not to harm another child or cause discomfort.
Does not bully in order to harm
Pre-schoolers do not bully with the intention to harm other children, according to Martinsen. They want a sense of belonging with some children and may therefore exclude others.
"Belonging to a group is a basic need for people of all ages," says Martinsen.
"How should the adults in kindergartens handle bullying?"
"Our view is that there is no set answer because the actual circumstances will differ. It is important for personnel in kindergartens to have an acknowledging attitude towards children and understand their perspective," Martinsen points out.
"The adults must be clear about what constitutes unacceptable behaviour if bullying should occur," she emphasises.
"If the adults do not react, the early bullying behaviour become legalised. Stopping bullying behaviour requires clear, warm and professional adults. They must make it clear that it is the actions of the child or children that are not acceptable, not the child or children themselves. It is also important for the adults to help establish an inclusive community of children where the children’s participation in the playing constitute a key component."
The Learning Environment Project – Kindergartens started in November 2016 and will be concluded in the autumn 2018. Each of the kindergartens that participate has a working group that is linked to the project together with the management group.
The working groups will participate in a national gathering organised by the Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training where safe and good environments at the kindergartens without any offensive or bullying behaviour is the topic.
Each kindergarten is assigned two counsellors from the Centre for Learning Environment. The kindergartens are visited once or twice every semester with a professional focus, for example in the form of topical days or personnel meetings.
An important part of the project is that the kindergartens work independently on this topic and the Centre for Learning Environment provides guidance that addresses the development areas of the kindergartens.
The Centre for Learning Environment also supervises The Learning Environment Project – Schools. In this project, the centre advices schools in how to prevent, identify and stop bullying. The project is aimed at schools with a high rate of bullying over an extended period of time.
The municipalities with schools in group 3 in The Learning Environment Project – Schools were granted an opportunity to apply to have kindergartens take part in The Learning Environment Project – Kindergartens.
County governors, together with the Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training, then selected which kindergartens to include.
In 2018, The Learning Environment Project – Kindergartens will be extended to include from 18 to 20 kindergartens.
Text: Ida Gudjonsson