By Christine Snyder, M.A., and Chris Amirault, Ph.D., coauthors of Finding Your Way Through Conflict: A Guide for Early Childhood Educators
“Exhausted.” “Isolated.” “Enough already!” “Wrung out.” “Just done.”
For everyone we ask, it’s been a lousy several months. The world around us is getting more and more challenging, and our reactions to that world are more volatile and brittle. And after weeks or months of remote work and program suspensions, returning to our socially intense workplaces demands significant adjustments.
Not only are our emotions amped up. If you’re like us, you’re frantically making all kinds of logistical adjustments, implementing new sets of processes to keep people safe and healthy. We’re used to being pretty good at our jobs, but as those jobs change in the midst of an anxious global pandemic, it’s easy to feel incompetent!
It’s a tough time to return to a shared work environment. And when conflict erupts . . . well, no one is likely to be very good at that.
In our book, Finding Your Way Through Conflict, we detail an approach to conflict engagement and resolution that’s grounded in the insight that conflict is a normal, human part of our work. When things are going relatively smoothly, these moments can be opportunities for growth and relationship building. And when things are falling apart? They are still opportunities—if you approach them mindfully.
Four Essential Attitudes
The Attitude of Nonjudgmental Reflection
Reflection without judgment is an essential practice if you want to find your way through conflict. For many people, the most challenging nonjudgmental reflection isn’t refraining from knee-jerk criticism of others. It’s refraining from knee-jerk criticism of themselves! In this pandemic, you’re liable to come up short in your own eyes, so give yourself some grace.
The Attitude of Humble Curiosity
As our curiosity leads us down a new path through a conflict, our deeply held assumptions are often overturned and our strong initial conclusions questioned. When we become arrogant, convinced of the accuracy of our position, it’s important to pry loose that arrogance with humility. And if there were ever a time when your cognitive blind spots reveal themselves, it’s 2020! So engage in conflict more effectively by taking a deep breath and courageously admitting your errors.
The Attitude of Self-Effacing Humor
How many times has this happened in the last few months? You lay awake in bed, replaying that mess you created by bumbling around in this or that situation. It doesn’t really seem like it would be fun or funny to look at! But if we cut ourselves some slack and realize that our bumbling is what makes us human, we gain a bit of cheerful yet mindful distance from those missteps.
The Attitude of Accepting Imperfection
Finally, in this imperfect world, we strongly urge you to adopt the attitude that practice makes imperfect. Practice gives us more and more opportunities to learn that our goal should be a more thoughtful engagement with the imperfection that is inherent in all conflicts. Embrace it!
Got those attitudes in place? Good. Then perhaps you can do some damage control and prevent a few conflicts before they emerge. Let’s face it: you probably have a pretty good sense of who or what will provoke them for you! Here are a few basic tips.
Set Clear Expectations
Do families and teachers really understand all your new pandemic policies and procedures? Informing them about arrival routines, illness and exclusion policies, required personal health practices, and more is just the first step. Follow up to elicit questions and make sure that folks understand and appreciate the importance of these changes.
Plan Check-Ins and Debriefs
We’re rushing through a lot these days, and too often we fail to provide opportunities to reflect on challenges, the implementation of new policies and procedures, and areas for growth. Regular discussions to identify and resolve challenges and set goals can help minimize the intensity of conflicts.
Rediscover Your Principles, Routines, and Squad
The pandemic unsettles all of us, dislodging us from our core values, self-care routines, and the folks that help us sustain ourselves in our work. Reconnect to these principles, routines, and people, and see what you’ve been missing.
Even with preventative measures in place, conflict will arise. Here are six ideas that can help you shift from your initial reaction to a skillful response.
Ask “Whose Perspective?” and Find the Missing Ones
Chances are that your counterpart’s take is your key omission—but keep an eye out for people at the margins who are not speaking up very loudly. In our profession, those folks are often parents or children.
Admit Intent, but Focus on Impact
You need to own your own story, to be sure, and that means admitting that your intent is part of the conflict. But admitting intent is no substitute for exploring the impact of your actions, no matter how well intended. Balancing both is a good compass for finding your way through a conflict.
Spend Time Learning Within the Conflict
Don’t hurry out. Conflicts are opportunities to learn about yourself, about another person, and about our shared humanity. Yes, it’s rarely pleasant at first, but with time and grace, you’ll find a way through with greater ease.
Apologize—but Don’t Spend Too Much Time on It
Apologizing is usually a way to avoid, not engage, the person we’ve hurt or saddened or frustrated. Repair requires collaboration, so don’t get stuck on the initial pleasantries.
Acknowledge Rupture and Commit to Repairing Broken Trust
Admit reality out loud. State a commitment to repairing the trust that has been broken. Simply doing so will begin that process of repair.
Broken relationships don’t get fixed overnight. Declare that repair will take time, and commit to the patient engagement that it requires.
While our book details the many steps involved in engaging conflict skillfully, given the pandemic we’re in, we want to stress the importance of following up. This step is crucial for maintaining relationships and learning from the process of being in conflict, and when you are jumping from crisis to crisis, it’s easy to overlook! Here are three easy reminders.
It takes a lot of humility and positive intent to face difficulty with grace. Expressing gratitude for someone’s vulnerability and engagement in conflict maintains a tone of mutual respect and cooperation and builds fractured relationships as a result.
Reflect on the Process
Discuss together whether all angles of the problem were considered, if the problem was solved, and if there were any other issues brought up in the discussion that need attention. What can you do better next time?
Communicate Next Steps
Collaborate to build a plan to get the results you both want.
Remember, conflict is natural, normal, and deeply human. Working through conflict is not about being perfect, it’s about being in the moment, working in collaboration to more deeply understand each person’s perspective, consider solutions together, and continually engage in a process of growth and learning. It’s a skill we truly need as we weather this pandemic together!
Christine M. Snyder, M.A., has worked in early childhood education since 1999 as a teacher, center director, author, and trainer/coach. She holds a master’s degree in early childhood education and a bachelor’s degree in child development. She is currently director of the University of Michigan Health System Children’s Center and assistant professor in the college of education at Madonna University in Livonia, Michigan.
Previously, she was an early childhood specialist at the HighScope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where she focused on developing professional learning for teachers and curriculum for preschoolers and infants/toddlers. She facilitates training throughout the United States, internationally, and online, and has published several books, articles, training DVDs, and other classroom resources for teachers. She lives in Michigan.
Chris Amirault, Ph.D., is the school director of Tulsa Educare MacArthur in Oklahoma, and for more than three decades has dedicated himself to high-quality education, teaching courses and facilitating workshops on early childhood education, conflict, assessment and instruction, ethics and professionalism, challenging behavior, family engagement, antibias education, and equity. Prior to his arrival in Tulsa, he lived in Mexico, working as a consultant focusing on organizational culture, change management, and QRIS system design in Oregon, Rhode Island, and California.
For thirteen years prior to that, he served as executive director of the Brown/Fox Point Early Childhood Education Center affiliated with Brown University in Rhode Island. During that time, he also taught early childhood education and development courses for area colleges and universities and served as a mentor and coach for providers throughout the community.
Christine and Chris are coauthors of Finding Your Way Through Conflict: Strategies for Early Childhood Educators.
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