We Can Solve This!
By Sarah Wright, Head Teacher
“Teachers open the door. You enter by yourself.”
Even 4-year-olds can resolve their own conflicts with the support of a skilled teacher or parent. A memorable case in point occurred at Bing when a play date turned sour and the children devised a creative solution, putting a fresh twist on the notion of “acting out.”
The altercation arose in the park one morning before school. Two girls, ages 4 and 5, couldn’t agree on a game to play together, and their play date ended abruptly as one of them walked away. The younger girl felt rejected. When she entered the classroom a few hours later, she was anxious to describe the incident to a trusted teacher. The teacher listened respectfully, then called a meeting of both parties to discuss what had happened. Each child presented her side of the story, as well as the feelings involved. The teacher recapped the problem aloud, validated each girl’s feelings, and urged them to use this new information and insight to come up with a mutually acceptable solution. She mediated as the children discussed and rejected a number of different solutions. Finally, the 4-year-old exclaimed, “I know—we can write a play!”
The teacher wasn’t sure how that would solve the problem, but she went along with it, jotting down a script dictated by the child. Once the play—titled “The Girl That No One Wanted to Play With”—was written, the young author specifically invited her companion from that morning to take part in the performance. With the teacher facilitating and serving as narrator, they and several others enacted the play before a group of interested peers.
• • •
The Girl That No One Wanted to Play With
NARRATOR: Once upon a time, three queens were playing in the castle. Then a dragon came. The dragon put the castle on a cloud. The queens were blowing [being blown across the sky] with the castle.
LONELY GIRL: Can I play?
QUEEN 1: No, because we are blowing on a cloud way, way up to the moon.
NARRATOR: Lonely Girl felt sad, and she felt angry, and she felt like she had a little owie in her heart. Then the fairies came and solved the problem.
FAIRY 1: Why don’t you find something else to do and ignore it? That means try to forget about it.
LONELY GIRL: Thank you, I don’t like that idea. That doesn’t make me feel better.
FAIRY 2: Maybe you should say “no” to the queens next time they ask to play with you.
FAIRY 1: I don’t think that will work, because they might do it back to you and keep doing it.
FAIRY 2: I learned something important. Do to others what you will want them to do to you. I know—let’s invite Lonely Girl to play with us.
NARRATOR: Then the queens wanted to play too, and the fairies said yes. So everyone went off to play together. Then the fairies started to like the girl that no one wanted to play with, so they gave her a flower.
LONELY GIRL: I am feeling happy now.
• • •
When the performance was over, the two girls who had argued that morning went off to play in the sand area—together. In everyone’s eyes, the problem was solved.
Clearly, this imaginative exercise offered much more than just a chance to perform. It defined the problem in a format that both girls could accept. It also gave the children a safe context in which to express a possible solution. Perhaps most important, it allowed the girls to experience each other’s roles in the conflict. Interestingly, the one who took the part of the problem-solving mediator, Fairy 2, was the 4-year-old who had felt rejected in that morning. The role reversal gave her a chance to feel in control, while her playmate, who chose the part of Lonely Girl, experienced how it felt to be excluded.
As teachers and parents seeking to develop socially adjusted human beings, our own role is to develop strategies that encourage children to communicate positively and effectively. The Bing environment is set up to promote social experiences, and the conflicts that inevitably arise offer rich opportunities for children to become adept at social problem-solving. The curriculum encourages children to discuss alternative solutions, show empathy toward others and build coping skills to work through frustrating interpersonal conflicts.
Our ability, as teachers and parents, to verbalize in a positive manner supports our children as they think through—and talk through—social problems. For this reason, all social problem-solving at Bing involves teacher input via verbal modeling. Teachers give children the opportunity and time to discuss the issue, propose ideas that will help them work through the problem, listen to and consider each other’s point of view, and carry out agreed-upon solutions.
To explore social problems verbally, children must build a vocabulary that enables them to participate effectively in such discussions. First-time visitors to the Bing classrooms may, in fact, be struck by the amount of verbalization between children and teachers. To a casual observer, the mode of communication may appear to be a general “chit-chat,” but to the sensitive ear it is a focused dialogue that engages both parties in the thinking process.
In verbally modeling appropriate problem-solving for children, teachers and parents have four crucial components to consider. The central role of the adult is to create overall awareness, clarifying conflict situations among children by (1) using specific vocabulary, (2) developing children’s empathy, (3) timing actions strategically, and (4) listening to and validating feelings.
Like/don’t like…and/or…now/later…same/different…first/next…maybe/maybe not…is/isn’t. Many young children are just beginning to understand some of these verbal distinctions and may have little experience using them as tools in social problem-solving. Adults can help by reinforcing specifics: “Would you like Adam to help you, or can you do it by yourself?” “Did you tell her she could use the truck later, after you’re done?” “Would you like to paint a picture with Anna now?”
“It sounds like he has the same idea as you. How can you work together to put the blocks away?” “Jeffrey has a different idea. Let’s try it next.” “Is Ben driving and navigating?” “Maybe there could be two daddies living in the house.”
In order to empathize with others, children need to recognize, think about and discuss their own feelings. Initially, they may need help in labeling their feelings. Adults can assist with clarifying observations: “It looks like you are mad right now.” “I get frustrated, too, when that happens.” “Sometimes I cry when I am sad.” “When you scream like that, I know you are angry.” “I smile when I feel happy.”
Talking about a feeling in the heat of the moment helps children to become aware of their emotions, but too much information can make a child more frustrated. Clearly labeling the behavior, then redirecting the focus, helps children develop self-regulating skills. “I get frustrated, too, when I can’t fit the small Lego pieces together—how can I help you?” “Sometimes I cry when I am sad—how can I help you feel better?” “When you scream like that, I know you are angry. Next time you feel like this, you can tell me you are angry, rather than scream.”
Listening patiently and respectfully, without needless interruption, is a challenge for many adults, but every child in a social conflict needs and deserves to be heard. Afterward, strategic questioning can validate and clarify children’s needs and feelings, as well as hint at solutions. “Why do you think she hit you?” “How do you feel when she hits you?” “How does that make you feel?” “How do you think that makes him/her feel?” “How would you feel if that happened to you?” “Are you okay?” “Can you ask her if she is okay?” “What happened when you both pulled the doll?” “What do you think will happen if you stack the blocks any higher?” “What happened last time the blocks fell down?”
Helping children recognize and verbalize feelings, empathize with peers and understand the consequences of their actions is at the heart of the Bing philosophy.