Young children’s biases are reflected in bullying behaviors

Kids and teachers report that name-calling and bullying in elementary school targets kids based on human differences.

For years those concerned about the healthy development of adolescents could increase their understanding of how violence, bullying and other risk behaviors impact older youth through data provided by the biannual Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – as well as other sources that focus on school climate issues related to bias and bullying. Now, a new report titled Playgrounds and Prejudice: Elementary School Climate in the United States shines a light on the prevalence, dynamics and impacts of biased language and bullying behaviors on younger children.

Released earlier this year by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), the report provides the results of a national sample of 1,065 kids in grades three through six and 1,099 elementary school teachers. The children and adults who responded to the survey report that biased remarks that target kids’ differences and that create an unsafe climate at school are regularly used by students in elementary schools. For example:

  • More than half of elementary school students (51%) say that kids at their school make comments such as “retard” or “spaz” sometimes, often or all the time.
  • Nearly half of students (45%) report that they hear comments like “that’s so gay” or “you’re so gay” from other kids sometimes, often or all the time.
  • Forty-nine percent of teachers say they hear students use the word “gay” in a negative way sometimes, often or very often.
  • Two-thirds (67%) of students attribute the bullying and name calling that they witness at school to students’ appearance or body size.
  • Twenty-six percent hear comments regularly such as “fag” or “lesbo” and 26% also said they hear mean things about people because of their race or ethnic background.
  • Twenty-three percent of the students said that the reason kids get bullied is for being a boy who acts or looks “too much like a girl” or a girl who acts or looks “too much like a boy.”
  • Gender nonconforming students are less likely than other students to feel very safe at school (42% vs. 61%), and are more likely than others to be called names, made fun of or bullied at school (56% vs. 33%).

These findings (along with other studies) provide evidence that children begin to take in messages and learn about human differences at a very early age – messages that are too often grounded in bias, prejudice, stereotypes and rigid gender expectations about what it means to be a boy or a girl. Children learn these lessons about differences through many sources such as books, toys, television shows, movies, clothing, costumes and curriculum materials – and through the language and behaviors modeled by adults and peers in their world. Bias, stereotypes and prejudice often translate into language and behaviors that target groups and can create an unsafe climate of hostility and fear.

For information about ways you can help click here: Help young children learn about differences in healthy ways. Also, visit Don’t confuse bullying with harassment.

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