Teaching young children isn't that much different from parenting them. In addition to giving lessons and evaluating skills, preschool and kindergarten teachers spend their days drying tears, bandaging boo-boos, wiping up spills, and urging them to eat, rest, sit down, listen, and not to eat the play dough. Oh, yes, and refereeing the arguments. Allllllll the arguments. But one thing I've noticed as a teacher is that the same strategies we use to resolve conflicts in the classroom can also be used at home when we get into a fight with a spouse, friend, in-law, or other grownup.
That book from the '80s about learning all about life from kindergarten was absolutely spot-on. Early childhood educators are tasked not only with teaching the ABCs, but also instilling and encouraging the social and emotional skills children will use long after they stop taking afternoon naps and playing with blocks. When we're in the midst of a standoff with anyone, be it a loved one or the driver who just smacked into our fender, it's easy to forget those lessons we learned about negotiating.
Whether you're 5 or 35, everyone can use a little refresher course in basic conflict resolution. These are some of the tried-and-true techniques pre-K and kindergarten teachers use to defuse arguments and help students work out their differences. They'll work for you, too — after all, you're a big kid now.
Restate The Problem
We often tell kids to "use their words" to express their feelings, but they can't do that unless they know which words to use. "When my students come to me with a disagreement, I always repeat what the situation is: 'Paige is upset because she wants the baby doll that Allie is playing with,' " says Lisa, a preschool teacher. That's good advice for grownups, too, especially if your arguments tend to start with one issue and wander off in five different directions. When that happens, bring it back to the main problem and summarize the situation: "Hold it — we're getting off-topic. You were saying that you wanted to lease a new car, but I think we need to pay off our credit cards first."
Take A Time-Out
Self-regulation is another skill that doesn't come naturally to many kids, so teachers have to reinforce it. A typical elementary-school classroom has posters on the walls reminding kids how to calm themselves down; in a preschool, it's common to see a "cozy corner" with cushions and stuffed toys where children can go to mellow out when they're on the verge of a meltdown. When I see that students are becoming too upset and frustrated to negotiate with each other, I step in and tell them, "Let's take a breather." I might send one child to the cozy corner and the other to a different learning center to play with something else. After a few minutes, they're ready to be pals again.
That's a smart strategy for adults, too, explained the experts at Boston Evening Therapy Associates. When your anger threatens to get the better of you, tell the other person that you need to take a break, they wrote on their site. Agree on a time to come back (30 minutes is a good guideline), then go for a walk, pound a pillow, reorganize your sock drawer, or whatever you need to do. If that isn't enough, then put the argument on hold till the next day, when you can both think clearly.
Think About The Other Person's Feelings
Teachers teach a lot more than just ABCs and addition, particularly when they're dealing with preschoolers and kindergartners. Learning social skills is a crucial part of early childhood education, and empathy is one of those skills that adults often forget to use in the midst of a disagreement. Try using this strategy from teacher Lisa M.: "I ask the kids to look at each other and think about how the other person is feeling, then ask them, 'If you felt that way, what would make you feel better?' "
Whether you're accusing someone of being selfish, irresponsible, lazy, or a big old meanie poopyhead, the effect is the same: The other person either becomes angry and defensive, or hurt and withdrawn, and the situation escalates. "We have a rule in our classroom about name-calling," says kindergarten teacher Rosa. "I tell them, 'You can be angry, but it's not okay to hurt someone with your words.' "
Insults and blaming are damaging and counterproductive to adults as much as they are to 5-year-olds, and they can do harm that lasts long after an argument is over. "There is much research that indicates that verbal abuse in intimate relationships can also lead to depression, anxiety and decreased marital satisfaction," licensed marriage and family therapist Daniel Jay Sonkin, Ph.D., told MentalHealth.net. Instead, he advised, rephrase your discussion in terms of your own emotions: "I was upset and worried when you didn't call to tell me you were going to be late."
Work On A Solution Together
When my students come running to me with a "he did/she did/he's being mean/she won't let me" problem, I try not to step in right away unless it's a situation that obviously needs a teacher's help (like hitting). Instead, I restate the problem and encourage the children to work it out themselves: "So both of you want more of the long rectangle blocks, but there's only one left on the shelf. What do you think you could do?" Even when we're long past childhood, we can learn from this technique. When you can't seem to stop arguing, call for a break and say, "This bickering isn't getting us anywhere. Let's figure this out together." This will help take the focus off trying to win the argument and turn it into a team effort focused on finding a resolution.
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