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"Mean Girls" in Kindergarten

by Jane Katch

Jane Katch

Jane Katch is a teacher and advisor for the PBS Parents guide to Raising and Understanding Girls. Read more »

Sorry, Jane Katch is no longer taking questions.

One morning last week in my kindergarten class, Elizabeth's mother signaled to me that we needed to talk out of her daughter's earshot. According to Elizabeth, the parent told me, there were two clubs of girls at recess. The girls on the other team were mean, so the girls on Elizabeth's team were stealing their candy.

Since I began teaching kindergarten in 1978, parents have become much more intimately involved in the social lives of their children. Then, parents tended to leave their kids' social conflicts to the children to figure out. Some increased parental involvement is valuable. True bullying, involving repeated vicious aggression by those with more power than the victim (perhaps because he or she is outnumbered, or much younger and weaker) must be consistently and vigorously addressed by an entire school community. But the words "bully" and "mean" can also be misused to refer to any child who is trying to gain power and influence in annoying ways. I believe it is valuable for children to learn to deal with all kinds of other children, as long as they are being protected from real bullying and are getting support so they can learn how to deal with others effectively. In the long run, we want our children to be resilient and to know they can handle difficult problems. We don't want them to feel they must be protected by us from anything unpleasant--that just makes them feel powerless and vulnerable.
How can parents and teachers support children who feel someone is being mean to them? In my class, we have a three-step process to deal with conflicts. It can be adapted for use at home or in a small group.

Step 1: Listen to both sides of the story.

I tell the children they have to listen without interrupting and explain what happened without calling names. I make it clear that everyone who wants to tell what happened will have a turn.

So at snack time, I asked the children about the clubs. Isabel answered first: "Our club wanted more people, but some people are mean in this class."
I asked her to explain the problem without using words like "mean." I said I didn't think anyone was trying to be mean; they were just trying to have friends and play a good game.

She reframed her complaint. "Well a lot of the people in Samantha's club want to be in our club, but she doesn't want to let them." This more specific complaint allowed us to look at a single problem, which is much more useful than global complaints like "She's always mean."

Samantha disagreed. "I wasn't telling them not to join their club," she said. "We liked the game we were playing, so we stayed and kept playing it." All the girls in Samantha's club agreed. Samantha added her own accusation. "Jasmine, Isabel and Elizabeth were doing tricks on us. Like when we were leaving to get something from somewhere, they always would take what we had."

"What did you have?" I asked.

"Like, sand," she said.

"Were you pretending the sand was something else?" I asked, putting the pieces together.

"Cotton candy," Samantha explained.

Aha, I thought.

Step 2: Collect ideas

The next step is to collect ideas from everyone about how to solve the problem. Our rule is that we try not to criticize anyone's ideas; we just list them. Often, in the course of collecting ideas we gain consensus.

Dylan, who wasn't in the conflict but was listening carefully, made the first suggestion. "They could say, 'Do you want some cotton candy?'"

"They could have a bucket, and we could have a bucket!" Jasmine suggested excitedly.

Step 3: Make a plan

The next step is to decide what to do if this problem comes up again. Everyone involved must agree. If necessary, the game can't continue until this happens.

This time the girls quickly made a plan. "If they give one bucket to us we would fill up sand and give it to them; they would have more cotton candy, too!" All the participants were eager to begin this game at the next recess. It doesn't matter that when recess came, they decided on a game of camping--they are learning skills that they can use in any situation.

Girls need to learn how to express their feelings and opinions clearly, without making global accusations, and to listen to the opinions of others. Then they can see that each conflict has different, valid, points of view. They discover that there are many possible solutions to a problem and that by working together, they can find a compromise that makes everyone feel satisfied.

Have you had any experience with "mean girls" in your child's social world?

Sorry, Jane Katch is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.


Jeffrey writes...

Hi Jane,

Thanks for your useful suggestions. Our daughter has generally had a happy social world. This year, she has developed a strong friendship with another girl in her class. They're both six. They seem to careen back and forth between great expressions of devotion to each other and fights that upset our daughter a lot. I'm around to see them play together after school, and I see my daughter act much more fiercely than she has with her other friends. Both of them seem to exhibit "mean girl" behavior. Then they're the best of friends.

I know this isn't entirely unusual, but her teachers did single out this aspect of our daughter's school experience in a conference. When I'm nearby, when should I let them work it out themselves and when should I intervene?

Jane? writes...

That's a great question, Jeffrey. You are right that this is very common with six-year-old girls. I think that often they're trying to figure out how to have influence with their friends and they are trying different methods to see what is most effective--it's like trying on dress-up clothes to see how different roles feel.
I think it can be useful to keep an ear out for what's happening between your daughter and her friend but at the same time, give them time to work it out themselves before you intervene. If it seems like one child consistently has the upper hand you might try asking the less powerful child if the solution they have come up with is okay with her. If it's not, then help them find a solution that works for both of them before they continue the game. The less powerful child will be learning to stand up for what she wants while the stronger child is learning that she has to listen to her friend's opinions. They will both see that talking about solutions helps the game go even better!

Sateesh Donti writes...

This is a very nice advise and taught me (I am 39 with two children)a lot! I always struggled to settle fights and sometimes end up using my authority to compromise the warring parties.

thank you very much for such a nice advise

Jane? writes...

I believe that sometimes it is necessary to use our adult authority to stop the fighting, especially when safety is an issue. On the other hand, when we are able to take the time to help children find the solutions to their own conflicts, we are giving them the tools to solve problems when we're not around to help them. So both kinds of intervention are important!

Amy writes...

I was constantly the brunt of the mean girls in school. I stood 5'8" by the time I was in 7th grade and developed much earlier than the rest and girls can be so cruel during hard years like that. I still deal with self-esteem issues that stem back from that time. The one thing I had the hardest time with was how all the girls would laugh and be a part of it when one would be standing there crying. The valuable lesson I learned from it was to build up the underdog and be supportive of the ones being picked at by others. I tried to befriend those that were in the background or teased the most. Even as an adult I tend to be supportive of the children that you can see are unsure of themselves and try to build their self-esteem so they don't deal with the torture I did.

Jane? writes...

I agree with you!--one of the most important things we can do is to help the bystanders become strong enough to stand up for themselves and for others. They often want to stand up--they just don't know how to do it effectively.
When there's a conflict in my class, I encourage several children to say what they think should happen next. That way they get practice standing up for what they believe in a conflict that doesn't involve them directly. They can hear that there are lots of ways they can stand up for themselves and they can choose what feels right in a particular situation. They also discover that lots of other kids have been in the same boat and lots of them feel the same way.
This is also good for the children who could become bullies. They hear that the other children don't like that kind of behavior and eventually, as the other children become strong enough to stand up to them, they find that it isn't effective.

Lois writes...

We have been dealing with this with our 7 year old daughter for 2+ years now. She attends a small school and has had the same girls in her classes since Kindergarten (she's in 2nd grade this year).
She has one friend whom she considers her "best friend" but is also the one she seems to fight with the most. It is either love or hate with the two of them. Mostly, it comes down to both of them wanting to be in control... in control of the game they play, the people they play with, etc. It has been very challenging to coach her through these up/down times.
They are learning, now, to take turns choosing what to do and who to play with. We have also, hopefully, gotten them both to realize that it's okay to play with other children... that this does not mean they are not friends with each other.
It's been a long time coming, but they are working through it. The challenge is for us parents to COACH our kids, without stepping in to fix the problem every time. What I found my first impulse to do was to be the "mother bear" and want to protect my baby. But, by doing as you suggest and listening to both sides, I realized that they were both having control issues. Then I was able to coach my daughter on how to handle things better.

Jane? writes...

That "mother bear" feeling is so natural--we want to protect our children from all hurts--but by stepping back a little, you are helping your child gain confidence in her own abilities to solve her problems. Your coaching gives her the tools she needs to feel safe even when you're not around to help her.
Don't forget to ask her for ideas of what she might do to solve the problem. Kids often come up with ideas we would never think of ourselves, but that work for them.

Milay writes...

Hi Jane,
My daugther is in preschool, and every morning she cries. She calms down after I leave; but I see that she is shy and very dependent of her friends at school. How can I help her to be more independent and more social?

Jane? writes...

First, I'd suggest you talk with her preschool teacher. Ask whether she seems to be happy most of the time once she's said good-by to you. Many children are sad for a few minutes during the separation process but are engaged happily once the parent is out of sight. If the separation is very difficult, ask the teacher to help you make a plan for the separation. Often a preschool teacher has a specific routine that has been successful, such as allowing a certain amount of time for the child to show you what she did yesterday, waving good-by at a particular window, etc. Once you make the plan, explain it to your child in advance and then stick with it!
Next, ask if your child is starting to make friends. Find out if there are specific children your child seems to like and whether the teacher thinks it would be helpful for you to invite this child or children over to your house to play. (One at a time is best.) Knowing that a friend has been to her house, shared her toys, and had a good time playing together can be a good way to cement a beginning friendship.

Lisa writes...

My Daughter had a hard time when she was in kindergarden. Now she is in the third grade and still suffers from feelings of social inadequecy. We keep her in sports and she has plenty of aquaintances especially around us. Unfortunately there seems to be a lack in bonding with any particular friend. I don't push her and I do not know if I should. Should I?

Jane? writes...

Some children prefer to have a group of friends rather than one or two special ones. It's hard for me to tell from a distance whether this is true for your daughter or if she is having trouble with her friendships. I'd suggest you start by talking with her teacher--an experienced teacher has lots of experience observing the social lives of children that age and can often let you know if your child's friendships seem within the norm.
Pushing a child to make friends can often backfire. If the teacher thinks your child needs some support with social skills, find out if there is a counselor at school you might talk with.

Milay writes...

I'm glad you mention about inviting a friend.
My daugther already asked me. I think is a great idea.
Thank you so much for you advice, I really apreciated.
Thanks again and have a wonderful holidays.

Genny writes...

I like all of the things that were suggested in this article, but it seems like lately I have heard of more and more instances of this type of ostracism and cliques with girls - especially in first and second grade. Although I don't want to interfere I feel like it is important for me to teach my daughter about things that are important - like kindness and acceptance of others. I also remember being really annoyed with my mother as a child because of her insistence that I play with girls that I didn't really like because she felt sorry for them and said that I should. How can I avoid both of these pitfalls?

Jane? writes...

Don't forget that one of the most important ways we can teach kindness and acceptance is by example: our children watch our behaviors as much as they listen to our words. Conversations where you listen to your daughter's ideas and even relate them to choices you have made in your life can be important to her, too. These conversations, helping her sort out her own dilemmas, help her figure out what she thinks, and show her that she can turn to you for help when things get difficult.

Lovern writes...

My daughter is also 7 and a 2nd grader like Lois and for 2 years I have been dealing with 2 girls that are either putting my daughter down by being extremely mean to her or being the best friends with her in the next breath. I usually 1st ask 'did you tell the teacher?' and she usually answers 'yes'. Then I ask what if anything did the teacher do about it and she says yes but it's nothing like talking to the girls in question because it keeps happening! I don't want her to be known as a taddle tale but I feel like short of her telling them off or me talking their parents, there's not much I can do.

Jane? writes...

Girls' friendships at this age are often up and down, changing by the day or hour. Encourage your daughter to find friends that make her happy--does she have an affinity for art or karate or drama? Look for an art class or an opportunity to do an activity she loves in a fun, low-key program where she'll have an opportunity to meet other kids who share her interest. Let her know that she doesn't have to be friends with everyone but it's good to find a friend she really can enjoy and who like her, even though they may sometimes have arguments. If a child has one or two good friends, that's often enough to help her through the inevitable ups and downs of childhood social life.

Mia writes...

My daughter seems to be doing great overall in kindergarten but often complains about being left out and not having any friends in class. For example, she claims she is "never" picked by her other classmates when they have to select a friend for various activities. I know it's a matter of personal choice for each of the students and the teacher cannot make them pick her (nor would I want that), and there is no obvious mistreatment. To me it seems many of the kids in her class have buddied up with someone and she just does not have that connection with anyone specific but rather is a good friend to all. So what do I say to her since this all seems to hurt her feelings since everyday she has another story of exclusion.

Jane? writes...

First, I'd suggest asking the teacher if she sees any problems. Sometimes a child reports the problems or discouraging moments of the day but forgets to tell you all the good things that happened , leaving you with a one-sided report. Sometimes that's because the bad things are remembered at bedtime, when the child is tired. Other times it's because the bad things get your attention when you're busy making dinner!
If the teacher agrees that she's having trouble connecting, ask if there's a particular child that your child might like to invite over to your house to play. This can be a great way to help make that initial connection.

jocelyn writes...

Hi Jane, My daughter is 9 years old and is in 4th grade. She has been attending the same school for 4 years with the same group of children. The problem is that there 2 mean girls that keep hurting my daughter feelings by refusing to play with her at recess. my daugther is very kind and forgiven so she keep insisting in trying to be their friends. as a result, my daughter self esteem is low and is always attracted to mean friends or to become friend with the most popular girls at her class which usually are mean. please help me!. thank you, lourdes

Jane? writes...

Talk with your daughter about special activities inside or outside of school that she might like to get involved with. She's at an age where children can connect with each other over their affinities, whether it's drama, music, or sports. Help her find friends that share her passions and see when these real friendships make her happy. There may always be people around who make her unhappy--her job is to find the ones who make her feel good! You can also encourage her to look for someone who does not yet have a friend. Someone like that is often available and happy to get to know someone new.

Sophia writes...

Lately I have been observing my preschool daughter (almost 5 years old)in social situations and found some interactions to be disturbing. She has no problems making friends and has clearly decided who she wants to be friends with and who she does not. She has started to be unkind to another girl who really wants to be her friend. The little girl follows my daughter around at school in hopes that my daughter will play with her. This just pushes my daugher away. My daugher is very assertive and outgoing and gravitates towards other girls that are the same way. This little girl is more withdrawn, still carrying a blanket and sucking her thumb. My daughter often points this out to her. It's almost as though my daughter picks up on other girls' insecurities and steers the other direction.

I talk to my daughter about being respectful and kind to all other children and we've talked numerous times about treating others how we want to be treated. When asked about being nicer to the other girl my daughter says, "I don't care. I don't want to be her friend." I'm at at a loss. I'm fine with letting her go and figuring things out on her own but don't want to see other girls around her getting hurt. I'm not sure what to do.

Is this just normal preschool/kindergarten girl behavior?

Jane? writes...

First, I'd suggest you ask her preschool teacher if this is happening in preschool and if so, how she handles it and if she has any suggestions for how you might support what she's doing in school. Then, I'd recommend you make it clear to your daughter that she doesn't have to be best friends with a child she doesn't care for but she can't be mean to her. Give her some suggestions for how she can talk with the other girl in a way that won't be mean.
In my school we have a rule, "You can't say you can't play." This makes every child feel that she or he has a right to be included in a game. But we also make it clear that the child can't spoil the game that's being played. For more about this, read "You Can't Say You Can't Play" by Vivian Paley.

Kimberly writes...

I know that you used the phrase "mean girls" on purpose, to point out that it doesn't have to be so, but I think that the use of that term is in direct contrast with Lyn Michel Brown's point on the "Raising Daughters" page about the importance of not labeling girls as "mean" --- and to think about girls anger politically...

Jane? writes...

I agree that it is important not to assume that girls are mean--that's why I put the words in quotation marks. I hope it's clear that the girls in my discussion were not mean, either, and that our conversation showed that when girls (and boys) learn to explain their opinions and listen to each other, often what seemed to be mean was only a misunderstanding that can easily be clarified.

Brandi writes...

Hi Jane..I am having some problems with my 5 yr old and another girl in her class. She and this girl are hot and cold. Literally one day friends the next not. Which i do understand. Here lies the problem. The other little girl tends to be "naughty" and get many time outs at school. My daughter is now starting to follow in her footsteps. I have gotten calls from her teacher telling me she is doing what this little girl is and getting into trouble instead of what she is told. My daughter has never had a problem with this and I am not sure how to proceed with it.Thank you for any advice.

andrea writes...

took years to discover that my reticent daughter had been consistently bullied by the same group of alpha girls since kindergarten things in much better perspective since her asperbergers diagnosis a born victim getting help with siocial skills training, but fear this will be a lifelong pattern both from conditioning and from delays inherent in her condition makes me so sad to see my smart,funny,beautiful,multi talented child so lost in the social universe school didn't do a damned thing the whole time including tell me ..... new school mid year 4th grade..... best thing i ever did she has found a niche and looks forward to going to school social skills still a work in progress

Heather writes...

In Kindergarten, no one would sit with my daughter on her bus. I found out over a week later that she was sitting on the floor.

Now, in second grade, my daughter gets very excited when it is Monday. I assumed it was because she loves school. Instead, I found that it is because that is the only day of the week that she is allowed to play with one of the girls, the same girl who wouldn't let her sit on a bus seat.

I'm having trouble figuring out how to deal with this. My daughters personality is one that she wants everyone to love her. She will do anything to be accepted. We've spoken to her about making choices to have friends that make her feel good and who are kind, etc. Now she has begun to bring an attitude home (similar to what this other girl exhibits) and, though we've set limits to our tolerance and she seems to understand, our house is not one that is enjoyable because of the conflicts. I know that I can't separate her from girls at school. How do I get through to her that her choices right now are not the best ones?

carolyn writes...

I'm worried about my daughter, she went from the sweet girl of last year who was friends with everyone to being exclusive with two children. They don't feel exclusive towards her and have other playdates. She doesn't want to play with anyone else. She is almost four.

When I try to expand her friend group with playdates, she becomes mean to the children, saying she doesn't want to play with them or shooting dirty looks. I am very welcoming to everyone and so this really bothers me. She can be slow to warm up and very sensitive to slights by other children. I have already explained that when she feels sad about being excluded that is how others feel when she excludes them. "But their not my friend." She'll say without remorse. She is stubborn too. She is alienating her peer group wtih this behavior!

Fay writes...

My daughter is in preschool and recently I have noticed that she is facing a lot of rejection by other girls. For eg she will want to sit with someone during circle time and they will move away from her. I have noticed this when I am volunteering in class. She seems to brush it off OK but it is so difficult to stand back and ignore it. I often ask her how things are going in school with the girls in hope of providing her with some support. She does not give me a lot of information.
Do you think that by asking her I am making a bigger deal of this than necessary? I don't want to give her a complex.
She is an outgoing and happy child and is open to bonding with other children so I can not understand why she is not being accepted.
There was one child who said that she did not want to be her friend. I thought that perhaps if she came over then they could bond. They got along very well but the very next day she said she did not want to be her friend today. I felt so sorry for my child because she was so excited to see her after their playdate.
I'm at a loss for solutions .......

Jennifer writes...

I received a call today from a parent that my daughter is one of the mean girls - she is in first grade - and has been "bullying" another girl in her class - I immediately called the school, spoke with the principal and teacher and was told that there was no evidence to support this claim. My daughter prefers to play with boys although she does have a few girl friends - I have heard this other girls name mentioned as in so-and-so is always trying to play with me and I keep telling her no. I told my daughter we do not have to be friends with or like everyone we meet but we need to be polite - the other mother's claims of bullying seem to stem from the fact that my daughter does not want to be friends with her daughter - how do I handle this? My daughter is happy-go-lucky and fiercely independent- I do not want to let these issues get in the way of her having the social life she prefers and expecting her to play with a child at school she clearly has no interest in.

Beverly writes...

My grandaughter is 5 years old and just started kindergarten. She started to go to a different school, but circumstances forced her to change schools. Now she says that there are a couple of girls that are always calling her names and don't want to play with her and that she has no friends. One of the girls was hitting her but we got that problem taken care of. They are telling her your new and we don't want to play with you. Part of the problem is that she is shy, she really has never experienced this before she has been in daycare and in the other school she had friends. Now she is being ugly to them talking to them ugly and she told me that she wants them to feel like she does. What do I do.

Traysa writes...

Hi Jane!
I read this article because my son has been having problems with a particular child in his class. He is only in kindergarten and it started already last year in preschool! He started telling the other boys that my son is mean and they shouldn't be his friend. I asked him if he took a toy away or said anything to provoke him and he said no and I can't imagine him doing anything like that. He is very sweet, and shy and wants to be friends with everybody. Now that they are in kindergarten and in the same class, unfortunatly it has continued. He told him his lips are too big and also teased him because his glue sticks had Hannah Montana on them! I bought them because they were on sale and I figured they were only in kindergarten no one would even notice or care! I feel bad that he is always being picked on by this child and now he doesn't play with many of the boys in his class, mostly the girls. That is fine but I want him to be friends with the boys too. Every time I see this child's mother I have to bite my tongue not to say something to her and I also help out in my son's classroom once a week so I have a hard time not saying something to the child as well. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Traysa writes...

This article interested me because my son who is in kindergarten has been having problems with another little boy in his class. It started last year in preschool when he told the other boys that my son was mean and they shouldn't be friends with him. I asked him if he had done anything to this child to make him say this and he said he hadn't. I can't imagine that he would have because he is not aggressive and always wants to play and be friends with everybody. This year he has teased him because his lips are too big and because he had glue sticks with Hannah Montana on them. I bought them because they were on sale and I figured no one would notice or care, they are only in kindergarten! I guess I was wrong. I am sure there have been more incidents than this that he hasn't told me about. Anyway now he mostly plays with the girls in his class which is not necessarily bad but I want him to be friends with the boys too. The little boy that came to his defense last year in preschool and that he is good friends with is in another section of kindergaten and so they don't have the same lunch or recess to ever play together at school and I want him to have more friends that are boys than just one. Every time I see this boy's mother I have to bite my tongue to not say anything to her and I volunteer in my son's classroom once a week and I have an even harder time not saying anything to the boy himself. Any advice would be appreciated. I just feel so bad for him, kids shouldn't have to deal with this already in kindergarten!

Sarah writes...

We are good friends with another couple whose daughter hurts my daughter at every opportunity. I don't know why. She is very quick to run to her mom with tears in her eyes and my daughter regularly is in trouble. How do I deal with this?

janice writes...

I'm actually pretty upset with the way most parents and now a lot of teachers are handling kids. "grown-ups" seem to be hudled in conversations with backs turned while these young kids(increasingly by the day) aggressively physically and so emotionally HURT other kids feelings ESPECIALLY the few descent-behavior kids left. Mind you, its probably because the kids are so darn TIRED from before-care,after-care, and not to mention the 8:30-3:00 school day starting at AGE 2!!!!!!!!!!!!!!(and some mom's DON'T work...HA-go figure!) BOY was I born in the wrong generation.Somehow this "meaness"has to end and teachers (yes) and parents need to (yes) intervene. And please, enough with allowing 6^year olds to watch Hannah montana and icarly-talk about pushing your kid into adulthood just afterTODDLER age!!!these kids are going to be OUT of control and guess why ??Put THE EFFORT in NOW---TRY IT!!-it will pay off later---you will know your child!Don't let your "child "burn-out" is a long haul(I should know being a doctor myself)especially starting at 2!!?? Good luck to our American society!

Harrishcolin writes...

Thank you for this good post

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