Children as young as three are bullying their preschool peers and many early childhood teachers have no training or policies to stop it, a University of Wollongong researcher has told a national bullying conference.
Dr Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett and colleagues from Macquarie University surveyed 188 early childhood teachers for their views of bullying, and found 93 per cent believed young children were capable of bullying.
In one of the stories to emerge from the study, a group of four-year-old girls would meet at the beginning of each week to decide which boy they would pick on.
The girls' bullying tactics included mocking their target's drawings and knocking over his building blocks.
"There's been a reluctance to identify bullying from a young age because we don't want to label children," Dr Neilsen-Hewett told the Mercury.
"But the earlier you can intervene, the better the outcome for the child."
The National Centre Against Bullying conference, in Melbourne on Wednesday, focused on strategies to reduce the prevalence and impact of bullying.
Dr Neilsen-Hewett, director of the Early Years Program and senior lecturer in UOW's School of Education, called for anti-bullying to be made a greater focus of university courses for educators.
"Research shows teachers didn't feel particularly confident in how to support children who are victimised," she said.
She pointed to research showing a direct link between schools with anti-bullying policies, and a reduction in bullying.
Teachers in schools with anti-bullying policies were also less likely to ignore bullying and more likely to enlist the help of other adults.
Wednesday's conference heard from Dr Justin Coulson, who argues authoritarian behaviour such as yelling, threatening, withdrawing privileges and hitting is breeding a culture of systemic bullying that will be passed on to future generations.
"Most adults don't see it as bullying, they see it as discipline," he said.
"But discipline means to teach. It does not mean punish, hurt, make afraid or distress. The research has been telling us for decades that approaches like this don't work and that they actually model aggressive behaviours and our children copy that and become bullies."