One of my earliest memories is of tackling a boy in diapers and holding him immobile while he cried.
It happened in my family’s rose garden, an act that went unpunished because no one else saw it, or if they did see they thought it was all in good fun. But I knew what I was doing. I was physically powerful and I was subduing a smaller, weaker boy. I straddled his chest and watched him cry.
I learned something vital on that day about brute force. The image of that moment crosses my mind at least once a month, accompanied by a sharp flash of shame – I guess it’s a manifestation of what we call conscience. Every time I am gentle with others, it’s at least in part an apology to that boy in diapers.
We always have children in our Pre-3 class who hit. We have children who will take. We have children who will push, pull, scratch, and even bite. And we have children who will be “victims”. Often they will be the same kids. (For the sake of this article, the word "hit" will refer to the entire spectrum of behavior.)
That’s how it is in our rose garden preschool. I know that doesn’t take anything away from the anger a parent feels when her child is the one being hit. I know that doesn’t take anything away from the stinging embarrassment she feels when her child is the one with the clenched fist. But hitting is a fact of preschool life and everyone is playing a important role in a two-way learning process.
I often think of 2-year-olds as mad scientists rushing around the labratory of life pushing buttons to see what happens. They push the “button” of smiling at a stranger: the stranger smiles back. They push the button of helping a friend: the friend says, “Thank you.” They push the button of hitting another kid: the kid cries.
Quite plainly, our job as teachers and parents is to make the hitter feel badly about causing someone else cry. We don’t want them to feel badly about making us angry. We don’t want them to feel badly about wanting that last blue block. We don’t want them to feel badly about some higher power that will smite them. We want them to feel badly about hurting or scaring another person. We want to teach empathy. If we can teach that, we have done the most important job we will ever do.
Teacher Tom’s 8-Step Plan for Learning Through Conflict (2-year-old version)
1) Stay calm.
2) Use your superior physical strength to stop the hitting/pushing. Get your body between the children and hold both them in place. Say something like, "Hitting hurts people. I can't let you hurt your friends." Try to stick with statements of fact. Commands like, "No hitting!" are fine, but not ideal because they send the message, You shouldn't hit because an authority figure says so. We want them to develop self-control. If a child is clearly hurt (blood, visible marks, uncontrollable crying) get another adult (the child's parent if possible) to attend to that child. If you are the parent of the child who has hit someone, it's best to turn things over to another adult.
3) Normally, no one is very hurt and normally there is a clear offender. Keep both parties proximate, even if that requires using "physical force". (I've found that a gentle arm around the waist usually works, but will firmly hold an arm if a child is trying to get away) I know that sometimes it's impossible to keep both parties present, but you should at least try to trot the offender through the following steps, if only to re-enforce that one of the consequences of their behavior is the "inquiry".
4) Describe what you know to be true (e.g., "Susie is crying," "I saw you take that from him," "You hurt her.").
5) Draw the connection between cause and effect (e.g., "Susie is crying because you hit her," "Johnny is mad because you took that from him," "She screamed because you hurt her.")
6) Now is the most difficult part for most adults: stop talking and wait. Let the children fill up that dead air. It sometimes takes awhile, especially for boys, to find words. It's during this time that children will often spontaneously "apologize" by returning the taken item or attempting to hug their crying friend. This is a genuine 2-year-old apology. If it happens, you're done, but it’s rare so don't count on it. Take this time to read their facial and body language -- it's usually very easy with 2-year-olds. If the "victim" is ready to move on, let 'em roam. This child has learned an important lesson: life is not fair, but there is often justice. (Remember, there are times we teach from facts and times we teach from intention.) Sometimes the offender is moved to tears -- another version of a genuine 2-year-old apology.
7) Respond to whatever the offender says (even if they are trying to change the subject) by repeating what you know to be true and by drawing the connection between cause and effect. If the child clearly isn't paying attention, command that attention by asking clear yes-or-no questions (e.g., "Do you like to be hit?" "Are you going to hit your friends?" "Are you going to take things from your friends?"). Two-year-olds tend to be pretty honest. If they say they will not hit their friends then consider it a lesson learned even if it only "takes" for a few minutes. If they say "Yes" they will hit their friends (and I've had many children admit to this), then tell them, "Then I'll have to hold you." After a few minutes ask the question again and repeat until you finally get a "no".
8) For me, that's the end of it, but there are many who don't consider the process complete without a formal apology. I won't go into why I'm not a fan of the artificial adult-sponsored "I'm sorry." An apology that is offered merely out of social convention, rather than out of genuine remorse, just doesn't sit well with me. Besides, I've watched too many conflicts between children get diverted into a conflict between parent and child as the former insists on the word "sorry" and the child refuses. But if you want your child to say, "I'm sorry," I won't judge you.
This is the process that has evolved for me. Adapt it to your own personality, beliefs and experiences, but try to keep the goal of teaching empathy in mind.
Naturally, empathy is not taught in a single moment. It’s a long, often painful process and we’re mostly just there to help it along. But still, there are moments of epiphany, like mine in the rose garden with the be-diapered boy. And you’ll never know when you’re in the middle of one.