A few weeks ago, I wrote my first post about conflict resolution and some of the problems that have been coming up with the kids at school. It’s taken me much longer to write a follow up than I had originally anticipated and it turned out I had a lot more to say on the subject than I had realized, so I’ve decided to break it up into at least three parts.
This installment will be on what I’ve been doing to try to teach the kids conflict resolution skills – and any feedback or advice would be much appreciated.
I’ve felt like I’ve been struggling a lot when it comes to this area, like I don’t really have a solid strategy for how to approach it and it can be overwhelming. Even writing this, I felt all over the place, not really focused and that’s how I feel when I’m trying to help the kids sometimes. I have this goal of helping them learn to resolve conflicts peacefully but for the most part, I just feel ineffective and kind of helpless, like I’m just flailing around.
I’m sure that’s not always the case but I did feel sort of stuck. Lately, however, I realized that maybe it’s because I’ve been approaching it the wrong way.
After a lot of back and forth and different attempts to help the kids solve their problems peacefully rather than resorting to hitting or appealing to an authority figure, I finally realized that maybe I just need to boil it down to one simple concept and go from there. And that concept is: Treat others the way you want to be treated.
It seems so simple and in theory, it is. But how often do these kids see examples of this from the adults in their lives? Probably never.
There are times when I see the kids fighting and I think, not unsympathetically, well, what did you expect? You hit him in the face and stole his toy, did you really think he wasn’t going to do anything about it? You hit him, he got angry, he hit you back. It doesn’t make it right but it’s not exactly a surprise.
Yet they keep on doing it. I’m not saying it’s their fault because, really, I’m sure they have never been taught anything about conflict resolution in their lives. They hear “don’t hit” all the time, but that doesn’t mean they stop hitting. Even though they admit they don’t like when someone hits them, they will keep on doing it to other people and then cry when that person does it back to them.
My guess would be the following, based on what I know of most of the kids’ family situations:
1. They are abused at home or witness some kind of violence (and just to be clear, I include spanking when I use the word abuse).
2. Their parents work long hours and travel for business so they aren’t around a lot and either feel guilty and give in to everything their child wants, or don’t have enough time to actually raise their children and teach them things like getting along with others or any kind of negotiation.
So you can’t blame the kids. They’re four, they see something they want and they take it. And when they’re frustrated, their immediate reaction is to lash out and hit the person who offends them. (Which actually makes perfect sense if their parents do spank them, because that’s exactly what they experience at home .)
And so I’m starting to think that, until they get this idea that you should treat other people the way you want to be treated and an understanding of how this kind of behavior makes you and other people feel, they won’t be able to fully get to peaceful conflict resolution.
One thing the other teachers and I have tried to get the kids to do is talk to each other before running to us to get involved. Even after trying to get the “treat others the way you wanted to be treated” point across, I’ll ask them if they can tell each other, “That made me feel bad” or “I am angry.” And usually they will do it, but then…the same scene plays out, usually with the same kids, a few minutes later.
So I’m not entirely sure what to do. I don’t know if this just something that will take time and that they will learn and that I can keep working on with them, or if there is a better approach I could be taking.
There is one thing I do have control over and that is myself. I’ve always tried to be fair and sincere with the kids and treat them with empathy and respect. But lately, I’ve been making sure to check myself more frequently, especially in situations where I might get frustrated or I’m trying to teach a lesson and some of the kids are just not having it. Those are moments of conflict for us, and I’ve been especially careful to check in with myself about how I’m handling it.
For one thing, I ask if I’m holding to the “treat others the way you want to be treated” thing. Because it is very easy to slide into the authority figure role and exert your power to end the conflict and move on with the class.
But, if it was me who was sitting in a class I was forced to be in and was expected to participate in a lesson I couldn’t care less about, I wouldn’t want to be bullied or forced into it. I wouldn’t want someone ordering me around. At the very least, I would want some acknowledgment that I was being heard, that my annoyance and frustration weren’t being completely dismissed.
When one of the kids is blatantly bored and acting out, I do talk to them and ask how they’re feeling, and am sympathetic if they’re bored or tired or annoyed. Then I usually try to work out some kind of compromise or switch up the lesson a bit so they’re actually getting something out of the class. (This usually involves breaking out my laptop and watching Animal Planet videos on youtube, which is way more interesting for everyone, and gets the kids more excited about science than any of our book work possibly can.)
And I talk to the kids about how I’m feeling. If I’m happy with them or we’ve had a really good class, I’ll make a big deal out of that, but I’m also honest when I’m angry or frustrated. I try to be careful and make sure it doesn’t sound like I’m blaming them or attacking them, but I’ll say, “Guys, I feel a little angry/frustrated/sad right now, and I’m not really sure what to do.” And I’ll ask how they’re feeling, and they’ll usually say they’re angry or sad and we talk about it. It doesn’t always mean class goes any better, but at least we’re talking about our feelings and it’s not just me getting upset and making my needs the priority.
None of this is to say that I manage this perfectly all the time or that I don’t lose my patience and get annoyed and do things I regret. And there are definitely times when I find myself exerting my authority because it’s easier, and like I said, I try to catch myself before doing that but I definitely mess up. I’m honest with the kids and apologize when I do, but it still happens sometimes.
I genuinely want them to enjoy class and to feel that they’re in a comfortable, stimulating environment. I want them to know that their feelings are valid and important, and that they can express themselves freely. I’m hoping that by setting an example of treating other people well and talking about our feelings, they’ll start practicing that with each other.
Because this is important. If all a child is taught about conflict is that it’s bad, or that you solve it through bullying or violence or running to an authority figure, then what is going to happen as they get older? That’s exactly how they are going to deal with problems, and that is what leads to violence on so many levels.
When people are taught from the time that they’re born that violence is necessary and good, it’s no wonder that they grow up believing in and supporting horrifically violent institutions such as the state, and why they will allow and commit violence in their personal lives.
If, on the other hand, they are shown empathy and learn to show it to others, and understand mutual respect and negotiation, they’ll be less likely to turn to violence.
But that’s a subject for another post, so stay tuned for part III of conflict resolution.