Tips for Teachers
Conflict Resolution Without Consequences
Many teachers may at times get bogged down with the notion that discipline must involve consequences. There is a belief out there that children learn self-control through experiencing the consequences of their misbehavior. I would not entirely disagree with this idea, because at times it is important that children experience some kinds of logical consequences for poor choices that they make. However, I believe that this practice is given way too much influence in many classrooms. I much prefer to encourage teachers to focus on helping children solve problems, resolve conflicts, and make better choices rather than focusing on imposing “the perfect consequence.”
My workshop, “Another Look at Fairness: How to Avoid Over-Reliance on Discipline Techniques,” goes into this approach in great depth, but here I will just give some suggestions that I hope teachers will find helpful. The goal of a high quality preschool experience is the establishment and maintenance of high quality, productive play. This is the primary mechanism through which young children learn. Therefore, if conflicts can be resolved without disrupting play, that is better than sending children off to think about what they have done, or having them leave the area in which they were playing.
Some techniques that allow such resolution include moving into the children’s play and simply adding another element to the play itself, teacher intervention to provide structure or support to enable the children to resume productive play, or teacher intervention that supports the children to resolve the conflict so that play can continue.
If children are playing with the Fisher-Price farm, for example (one of my favorite toys from my own children’s early years!), and one child covets the horse that the other child is playing with, a teacher who hears trouble brewing can quickly walk over and simply add another element to the play to avoid the conflict over the horse by saying, “Wow! Look at that hungry pig over there! No one is giving her anything to eat! Could one of you bring the food trough over to the pig so that she can get some lunch?” Nine times out of ten, the conflict over the horse will be quickly forgotten by adding this additional element into the children’s play!
Teachers can provide structure and support in the sandbox, for example, where perhaps a child got sand dumped on him by another child, through simply creating a boundary between the two children, a true “line in the sand,” as they say, and providing some space. Or perhaps the children were arguing over a vehicle or a bucket, and the teacher can add another vehicle or bucket to the scene to resolve the dispute. The child who threw or dumped the sand doesn’t automatically need to be sent away from the sandbox in order to play productively.
Finally, when a conflict has escalated and a child is quite upset, the children involved can come over to the teacher and the teacher can listen to each child’s version of events, repeat back what the child says, thus validating each child’s position without judging who is right and who is wrong, and then say to the children,“I'll bet that you two can figure out a way that you can both feel okay about this...I'll give you a few minutes to talk about it and then let me know what you figure out.” Or the teacher can stay and help the children figure it out.
All of these strategies are geared toward helping resolve conflicts while avoiding the consequences/punishment trap! Happy Spring to all!
Tips for Parents
Parents also fall prey to the consequences/punishment trap more often than they need to. While at times, allowing children to experience the natural consequences of their poor behavior choices can be useful, it is often possible to avoid focusing on consequences and instead focus on solving the problem.
This can be very useful when siblings are squabbling. Using the same techniques mentioned above for teachers, parents can move in so that they can move back out, create some structure, add another element to the play, or problem solve with the children by listening to each one’s side of the story and repeating it back without judgment, and then letting the children know that the parent is sure the children can figure out a way to fix the situation so that both children can feel okay, and give them a few minutes to do so and then follow up. See the Tips for Teachers for more details on the intervention strategies.
It is important for parents to look for ways to reduce the number of times they are sending their children to their rooms, taking away toys or privileges, or using time outs. While at times some of these techniques may be useful, one wants to use them only occasionally, and not constantly!
Another approach that can be helpful is using positive reinforcement charts to focus on behaviors that are difficult and seem persistent despite a number of parental response attempts. Focusing on when the child exhibits the appropriate behavior and rewarding that can motivate the child to exhibit the appropriate behavior more often. When using a positive reinforcement chart, it is important to frame it in positive terms, so rather than writing down "no hitting your sister," one would write, "gentle hands with sister." That is the behavior you are looking for and want your child to be focused on. Also, sometimes parents tend to threaten their child with losing his/her sticker when the child is not cooperating, for example. This is not a helpful use of a positive reinforcement chart!!! Don’t threaten, "If you don’t stop now you won’t get your sticker!" It’s better to remind a child once at most, "I hope you will get your shoes on so that you can get your sticker for cooperating about getting dressed for school!" Or say nothing at all, and when the child fails, you can comment, “I'm so sorry you chose not to get your shoes on this morning. I'm sure you'll get your shoes on tomorrow so you can get your sticker, because I know you’re looking forward to picking out a movie together!” And it’s best to have rewards that are oriented around time spent with parents, rather than material objects. If a child has been longing for a special toy, it can be appropriate to use that as the reinforcer, but mostly it’s better to reward with what is really important to young children, attention and time spent with parents...going to Barnes and Noble for reading time and hot chocolate, going to the library just you and the one child without the sibling, going to the park just the two of you, etc. And don’t forget to have reasonable expectations. If a child has been hitting her sibling five times a day, it is not reasonable to expect that that will immediately go down to no times a day...so stickers should be available for specific time periods...morning, afternoon, evening, for example.