Friday, October 01, 2010

Without Talking There Are No Solutions

We've had a challenging time in the block area this week. Our "big blocks" have been out and while we have an appropriate number of these blocks for the space we have set aside for building, we don't always have enough for everyone to build everything they want all at the same time. It's been a classic case of limited resources and that inevitably leads to conflict.

I'm not conflict averse, at least when it comes to preschool. I know it upsets some of my parent-teachers, especially when strong emotions are involved or when someone resorts to fierce intimidation or brute force to get his way. Our instinct as adults is to rush in and fix the problem, dispensing justice, righting wrongs and scolding wrong-doing, like a real life version of the superheroes they so often pretend to be. And we ought to leap in when someone is being threatened with physical harm, but for the most part I try to create a space in which the kids can work through their own conflict. 

We know that one of the most important traits of a "successful" person in the world is an ability to get along with others. The only path to learning that is through conflict, and for some kids they spend a lot of time lost in the woods before finally emerging on the other side.

The strategy through conflict is to get the kids talking and listening to one another. This is also true for adults. I've spent the better part of the last two days putting my body in the middle of the conflicts, making informative statements about what I'm seeing, for instance, "Billy and Johnny both want the same block."

Billy will respond, "I'm using that block for my pirate ship and he took it."

"Oh no," I'll say, "That's breaking one of our rules." I'll point dramatically at the rule list on the wall and say, "You and your friends agreed, no swiping or taking stuff." (That is the actual wording of this year's version of the rule.)

Johnny typically will offer something like, "But I need that block for my hideout."

"Oh no," I'll say, "We have a problem, but we all agreed," pointing at the list again, "that we can't solve it by taking or swiping stuff."

That's a sort of standardized opening gambit for us at Woodland Park, but there is no generic way to discuss what comes next. If "taking and swiping" are off the table, as are violent acts like hitting, pushing, guns, and sharp knives, we're left with talking.

Some of our more experienced students have learned to see where this is going and it's clear that the one thing they dislike more than having their pirate ship destroyed is talking about having their pirate ship destroyed. At least that's how I interpret it when the kid in Billy's shoes gives up the block, even when it's clear he currently has the rights to it. And that's one of the most important things we need to learn in order to get along with the other people: pick your battles.

Often the solution comes from a classmate who is not emotionally involved. We welcome this kind of spontaneous outside arbitration. Susie might say, "Maybe they could share the block."

If Billy and Johnny don't respond, I'll repeat the idea, "Susie thinks you could share the block," making it clear that there is a proposal on the table for discussion.

Often I'll need to get the conversation started myself, "Billy is using the block for his pirate ship right now. When he's finished, maybe he'll let Johnny use it," or "Maybe you could both play pirates for awhile, then play hideout later." Whatever I say, I need to remind myself to then shut up and leave ample time for a response. 

It doesn't really matter what I say, I don't think, just so long as I'm not dictating solutions and it leads to some kind of conversation. Without talking, there are no solutions.

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Unknown said...

You are very wise. Love how you run your preschool...and your life : ) Or actually, love how you let the kids run the preschool. Your perspectives always make me think.

Swati said...

I wish I could be as non judgemental, as non interfering, as supportive of kids as you are.

jenny said...

I think that helping children negotiate their social landscape - which lets face it is pretty complicated and confusing at times - and supporting them through conflicts is one of the most important things we can do as teachers. And you do it so well Tom - lucky kids.

Play for Life said...

You are a very wise mane Tom not getting too involved in the problem solving of your children but rather allowing them time to come up with a solution. I had a situation once when a terrible conflict erupted in the drama area when two boys wanted to play the part of "the prince" in an a game and I interjected and suggested they both be princes (silly me) one of the would be princess walked over to me ... formed a fist ... knocked his knuckles on the top of my head and said ..." Helloooo is anybody hoooome? ... There's only ever one prince in a castle you know!!!
That was about ten years ago and I still chuckle about it BUT I have learned to step back and allow the children space to sort through things only stepping in IF necessary to help them come up with their own solutions rather than deciding on them myself! Getting the parent helpers to understand this lesson however will I think always be a challenge.
Donna :) :)

Pamela Wallberg said...

You know, I wonder how accurate this is. 1's and 2's do an incredible job of problem solving together (at times) without talking....but they are attending to each other - if attending could be a form of listening, perhaps it's more accurate to say that without listening there are no solutions?