Saturday, August 27, 2011

Empowering Children to Solve their Own Problems

My last post was about letting children solve their own problems. Even as young as three, I find that children can resolve their own conflicts if you empower them with the right phrases. Preschool children want to get along with their peers, but sometimes they don’t know what to do when problems arise.

For example, when one child bumps into another, the child that was bumped into might start crying and run tell the teacher. The child who did the bumping might not know what an accident is, and he might think that any time he hits someone else, he could get in trouble. He might not know that a simple “I’m sorry,” can solve the problem.

Polite apologizing is a ritual. It only works if the other person acknowledges your apology. I’ve seen a boy bump into a girl and immediately say. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” I watched the long pause that followed. The boy and I were both holding our breaths. Was the girl going to start crying and run to a teacher, or did she have the vocabulary to resolve the situation? “That's OK.” she said, and we breathed a sigh of relief.

Another time a fellow teacher saw a boy hitting a younger smaller girl. The girl started crying, but she made no moves to defend herself, to stop the boy, or to seek help. Luckily the teacher was there to intervene. Later she gave a talk to all of the children. She said, if someone hits you, tell them “Stop! Don’t hit me!” We spend so much time teaching children to be polite to each other, that they might not realize that they have the authority to tell other children “no”. When a child is hurting someone or doing something dangerous, the other children should know that they have the authority to order the child to stop. The other child might listen.

Similarly, I often deal with tattling like this: Drew:“Lilly keeps kicking my chair.” Me: “Did you ask her to stop?” Sometimes that's all it takes. We assume that Lilly knows she is bothering Drew and that she is doing this kicking defiantly. That's often not the case, and Lilly would usually prefer to stop than be tattled on.

Children can solve their own problems, but they need to be encouraged to try, and they need to be taught how. For very young children, teaching them to repeat useful phrases verbatim is a good way to start. Then, the other child knows exactly what they are being told  because they have been taught those same phrases. They know the ritual, and they know what to do or say in response.

Here are some phrases to try:

  • May I play with you?
  • I don’t want to play with you because you play too rough.
  • What you are doing is messing up my game/work. Will you please stop?
  • Don’t throw things at me!
  • That hurts me feelings.
These phrases work for adults, too. Some people weren't properly socialized as children.


James said...

I hate to be, that's a lie. I love being contrary. But I don't like going onto other people's blogs and arguing with them. That's what social media is for - argue where people can see you win!

Anyway, how do you reconcile a worldview where we allow kids to direct their own choices with one in which those same kids might make really terrible choices?

I'm thinking of the article that I shared on Google + recently and that Ryan has linked up for his weekend reading: "The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight" Here's a link:

Long-story-short, these kids go all Lord of the Flies on each other so long as adults barely intervene.

Sometimes kids are bad.

So, I suppose my more general challenge is this:

Do you think that the free and open education you advocate will work for a broad segment of the population regardless of income, race, ethnicity, parental involvement, and all that other complicated stuff?

Elizabeth Grace Millsaps said...


Sometimes kids are bad. I wholeheartedly agree. I've read "The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight" and I think that if you leave children entirely up to their own devices, you'll have a really unfair ugly world- much like if you leave adults to their own devices, much like we have.

I guess the poison is in the dose. Some social teaching is necessary, and I advocate that in the article. Some teacher intervention is too much.

In the world I teach in, which our readers may not know is much more affluent than the world you teach in, kids are over-regulated. They know they will get in trouble for hitting, and they can and would like to resolve this one without teacher intervention. I am sure children's abilities to solve social conflict spans race, ethnicity and socio-economic background. However the foundations of civil courtesy which are also required are not universal in any community.