Saturday, September 19, 2009

Life In The Big Leagues: Conflict, Similarities, Differences, And Helping Each Other

Continuing the baseball coach metaphor from yesterday . . .

I think of the 3-year-olds in our 3-5 class as my wide-eyed rookies who’ve just been called up to the “show.” They put in their season in the instructional league (Pre-3’s) last year, and they’re now ready for the bright lights of the big time.

The game is played at a different speed at this level, with more complex rules, and more responsibility.

For starters, the sound level tends to be higher and the play more sophisticated because of the presence of our veterans (4-year-olds). It’s not as if our Pre-3 class is a quite haven, but the older kids have bigger voices, more to say, and rowdier tendencies which can take a little getting used to.

Our schedule is expanded to include a second Circle Time, and once there we do more than just sing songs. We have important things to discuss like rules, compliments, and feelings, so it’s essential to learn about raising hands, staying in our own self-space, and listening to others so we can get this work done.

When they were 2-year-olds, the doors to the hallway and bathroom were kept closed and children were escorted by adults if they needed to go into those areas. This year, those doors remain open and children are expected to take things to their own cubbies, wash their own hands, and take care of themselves on the toilet. When an assist is needed we like to turn to a veteran to show them the way.

Children get to choose when to have their snack – or even if they want a snack at all – in the 3-5 class, unlike last year when we all sat together to eat at the appointed time.

At the beginning of the season, my job as Teacher Tom the coach is to help blend our 3-year-olds with our established core of veterans. I got to know these kids last year. I know their strengths and tendencies and while I’ve developed theories about where they need to go as individuals, ultimately only they can determine that. My coaching concern is how they function as part of our team – our community. This is important because it’s only from living in a community that we learn the most important things young children need to know:

1) How to handle conflict
2) How we are the same
3) How to appreciate differences, and
4) How to help other people

I genuinely love classroom conflict. As a coach, those are the moments I’m looking for. Dealing with conflict is the core of how we learn to live with one another. Of course, there are genuine differences of opinion, but we only call it conflict when it becomes emotional. And that’s where any resolution has to start: by understanding the emotions involved and naming them.

I like to begin the season with strong reminders about emotional signals. We spent time this week looking through photographs of children expressing emotions like happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, silliness, (and pirate) then singing If You're Happy And You Know It, while running through our 5 emotions and one character (“If ye be a pirate and ye know it say, Arr!”). We’ll add emotions as the year goes on (e.g., frustrated, frightened, worried) and I reserve the right to add more characters.

When conflict erupts in the classroom, and as long as it’s not physical, my first response is to start describing the emotions I see on children’s faces. I might say, “Billy looks angry,” or “Sharon looks sad.” This almost always leads Billy, Sharon (or even a bystander) to frame the argument for us. We might learn that Billy is mad because someone knocked down his block tower. We might learn that Sharon is sad because someone took her doll. Whatever the case, we need an understanding of the emotions involved, and a shared agreement that we would like to help our friends not be mad or sad in order to have any hope of reaching a resolution. This is the work of a lifetime, of course, but it’s during the 3-year-old year that some of the basics are most easily taught, and these skills are essential to thriving as a 4-year-old.

Identifying how we are all the same is the foundation upon which empathy is built. We start by noticing external similarities like body parts and clothing. You’ll often hear me remarking on similarities:

“Hey, Finn and Max are both wearing short pants today.”

“Marcus and Ariya both have dark hair.”

“I’m wearing pink shoes today, too!”

As the year progresses, we move on to exploring our emotional and intellectual similarities. We find things we all like (e.g, candy) and dislike (e.g., getting hit). We draw parallels between the emotions in others and the emotions we ourselves feel. For instance, when someone is crying, I might ask another child if she can remember when she was once sad. When someone is shouting in anger, I might comment that I get mad sometimes. Coming to an understanding that we all feel joy and we all feel pain is the essence of the kind of team we’re striving to build. It is through this basic understanding that we come to treat one another as we ourselves wish to be treated.

Our differences are just as important as our similarities. Learning to feel proud of the things that make us special and appreciating the differences in others are high goals indeed. From a coach’s perspective, I know that the strongest teams are the ones that take advantage of the unique talents and interests that each individual brings to the table.

Just as I make a point of remarking on similarities, I do the same with differences, starting with externalities:

“Isak is using blue paint. Charlie is using red paint.”

“Alex wears glasses. Lachlan does not wear glasses.”

“Dennis is a boy. Sarah is a girl.”

As we move into internal differences, such as our likes and dislikes, or areas that tend to create cleavages in the wider world (e.g., skin color) we strive to speak about them without judgment and to place them into the broader context of our similarities whenever possible.

It takes all of us to make a team. We learn more from differences than from similarities. And, of course, the world would be a far duller place if we were all the same.

Helping Others
If we’re not here to help others, I don’t know what any of the rest of it is about.

Certainly, the purpose for communities of any kind is that there are things we can do together that are impossible, or at least very difficult, for us to do alone. As great a player as Ken Griffey has been over his career, he would be nowhere in baseball without the help of his teammates.

As parents, we get in the habit of stepping in to help our children when they struggle with something, but here in the “big leagues,” I’m adamant that parents step back whenever possible and let the children practice helping one another, whether it be going to the bathroom, cutting with scissors, or cleaning up the classroom.

The children can even help one another in handling their emotions. When someone is sad, angry, or frustrated in preschool, it becomes a matter for all of us. We discuss it. We try to find solutions. We express our sympathy. We learn that we are not alone in our pain.

And that, in essence, is the definition of a team: people helping each other.

Our 4-year-olds have already experienced a season of conflict, similarities, differences and helping one another. They are our veterans, our experts. As our 3-year-olds learn the ropes, discover their friends, and find their voices, they’ll have important roles to play in our team’s success in the 2009-2010 season. And when they return next year, it will be their turn to enjoy their role as seasoned veterans.

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