“He took my crayon!”
“She butted in line.”
“They were teasing me!”
How many precious moments of our days are taken up with complaints like these?
It’s always hard to decide whether to intervene, ignore the complaints, or let children work it out themselves. If we intervene too quickly, we risk enabling our students to depend on us the next time a minor dispute occurs. If we ignore the situation for too long, we risk the possibility that tensions will escalate, and even more children and more learning time will be affected.
Teaching children to work it out themselves is a great way to encourage verbal skills, conflict prevention, problem solving, and social skills. If that’s the route we choose, we have to be willing to invest some time and effort, believing that the payoff will be worth it.Years ago, a colleague and I set up a “Problem Solving Area,” which we later renamed—with more positive phrasing—the “Peace Place.”
We taught the children the framing of an “I-message” (adapted from the strategy developed by Dr. Thomas Gordon in his Parent Effectiveness and Teacher Effectiveness trainings). When in conflict with another person, children should keep their statements focused on themselves. Instead of beginning with “You,” as in “You are mean,” or “You make me so mad,” children should explain how the other person’s behavior affects them.
We taught them the frame: “I feel _____when you _____ because _____. I want you to ______.”
Here’s an example: “I feel angry when you take my crayon because then I can’t finish my coloring. I want you to give it back.”
Children tend to use the word angry as a catchall for their upset feelings. It’s helpful to brainstorm with kids some alternate, more specific, age-appropriate feelings words, such as jealous, afraid, and frustrated.
Modeling is important, so we role-played various scenarios in which the children talked over their conflicts. Here’s a (shortened) example:
I get mad when you take my crayon!
I didn’t take your crayon.
I saw you. I get frustrated when you take my crayon because then I can’t finish my coloring.
I didn’t know it was your crayon.
I get upset when you take my stuff.
I needed a crayon, and you have a whole bunch of them.
I want you to ask me first, please.
Okay. I’m sorry.
The children loved the idea of going to the Peace Place to solve their conflicts by themselves. Often, just the act of walking over together encouraged them to feel independent and responsible, and they’d be giggling and solving their “issue” in a few moments!
We established some important Peace Place guidelines for the children:
- Only minor stuff. Children were told they must tell a grown-up if they are hurt, threatened, made to feel uncomfortable, or asked to keep a secret about a behavior they didn’t like.
- Keep it short. A way to encourage brief encounters at the Peace Place is to set aside assigned times for going, especially right before coveted activities like recess or snack times, so that children will want to return quickly to the group. You can also have them set a timer at the Peace Place.
One of the benefits of using the Peace Place is that after a while, using I-messages and working out minor differences becomes a habit for children, even when they don’t take the time to go to the Peace Place.
And it sets a much more positive, peaceful tone in the classroom when you hear yourself saying, “Great job working that out!” instead of “What’s going on with you two over there?”
Does your class have a procedure for solving minor disputes and conflicts? Would a Peace Place work for you? What other strategies can you develop to help children prevent and solve conflicts and practice cooperation?
Judy Lalli, M.S., is an author and a veteran classroom teacher from Philadelphia. She divides her time between teaching online education courses and conducting and writing bullying prevention workshops in schools. She was a speaker at NAEYC’s national conference in Orlando last year and has presented at many local and regional AEYC conferences.
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I Like Being Me: Poems for Children About Feeling Special, Appreciating Others, and Getting Along by Judy Lalli, M.S. Poems that touch on resolving conflicts are “I’m a Person, Too,” “I Can’t Move It,” “Five Little People,” “We’re Telling the Teacher on You,” and “There Are Only Two Kinds of I’m Sorry.”
Talk and Work It Out by Cheri J. Meiners, M.Ed.